More below • Ex-soldier Robin Rickards on the Decibel podcast
When armies from the West invaded Afghanistan in 2001, these militaries and their governments vowed to help build a secure, equitable and modern country. But the promises from Canada and its allies never materialized, vanishing like mirages.
Bonds built on the battlefield, however, endured. Canada’s military veterans have always fought to bring to safety the Afghan interpreters they once worked with. For years, the ex-soldiers have been pressing the federal government to revive its immigration program, which brought hundreds of Afghan interpreters and their families to Canada between 2009 and 2012.
In July, as the Taliban’s march back to power in Afghanistan seemed assured, Ottawa announced it would bring back and expand these special immigration measures. Former soldiers reached out to interpreters they once knew, the ones who never made it out under the auspices of the previous program. And they made sure the Afghans’ family members – including parents and siblings – would be better considered this time.
This work is continuing. Many veterans are still deeply critical of what they see as the federal government’s past inaction and the slowness of current bureaucratic processes, which have left too many Afghans behind. But scores of interpreters and their family members have lately landed in Canada and started to build new lives. These are their stories.
Omar and Corporal Justin Bronzan
The microwave beeps. Corporal Justin Bronzan’s table in Frankford, Ont., is set with rice, pita, baked chicken and beef kabob – a meal prepared by his new houseguests.
“It’s for as long as they need,” says Cpl. Bronzan, 34, explaining how he has opened up his house to the Afghan interpreter he worked with abroad. Not just to him, but to his wife and two daughters. “He risked absolutely everything, and he lost everything, for the Canadian Armed Forces.”
Eating at the table, Omar explains how he first forged a lasting connection with Canadian soldiers back in 2010. “Everyday, it was contact with the Taliban, Taliban ambush,” he says. “It was wartime, but we built a good friendship, and called each other brothers.” (The Globe and Mail is not identifying his surname to protect his relatives in Afghanistan from retribution by the Taliban.)
In this house, Omar’s odyssey is already the stuff of legend.
In 2015, the security situation in Afghanistan was worsening. Omar wanted out but there was no active program for Afghan interpreters to come to Canada. So he decided to seek asylum in Europe. For this, he sold his Toyota Corolla to fund his travels through Iran and then Turkey, before he boarded a rickety raft headed for Greece. He says there were more than 60 migrants on that overcrowded dinghy, which broke down in the Aegean Sea. The coast guard pulled the migrants off the craft and sent Omar to hospital because he ingested so much seawater. When he recovered, he pressed onward to Germany. He lingered there for years as an asylum seeker with some work but no status.
But Cpl. Bronzan always kept in touch. At times, he and other Canadian veterans sent him funds that they raised online. In July, Cpl. Bronzan and his crew blew up their vacations and started working round the clock to file Omar’s immigration application and those of the wife and daughters he had left behind in Afghanistan.
Kabul Airport proved impenetrable for the family in August, during the last flurry of military flights out of the country. But Omar did not yield. From Germany, he finagled a way for his family to cross into Pakistan. Cpl. Bronzan used his credit card to buy them a month in an Islamabad hotel, which allowed Canadian officials to vet them in that city.
Omar had to get his own application processed, so he sped down the autobahn, going from Munich to Berlin at 150 kilometres an hour, in a Chevrolet Cruze, which he soon sold off.
In mid-October, Omar stepped onto the tarmac of Toronto’s Pearson International. Cpl. Bronzan greeted him and handed him a tan blazer purchased at a thrift store near CFB Trenton.
At a conference room in the Hampton Inn near the airport, Omar reunited with his wife, whom he had not seen in six years. He embraced his eight-year-old whose face he remembers seeing in his mind’s eye as he nearly drowned. He gazed on the face of his five-year-old, who was not yet born when he left Afghanistan.
Together, they travelled 200 kilometres up a stretch of 401 known as the Highway of Heroes, in commemoration of the members of the Canadian Forces killed in Afghanistan. Then they entered the house of Cpl. Bronzan, whose wife and two daughters have also welcomed the Afghans to live with them as one big extended family.
“I cried a little bit, after six years, to see my young child,” Omar says at the dinner table. “When I landed at the airport, it was like a dream.”
Maryam Sahar and Charlotte Greenall
Maryam Sahar calls Charlotte Greenall “Mom,” to express just how much the former Canadian Forces reservist means to her. The two women first met 12 years ago as Ms. Sahar made a momentous decision to become a teenaged translator for the Canadian military in Afghanistan.
“What we did there is really big and huge,” Ms. Greenhall, now 54, says of the military’s work. “But what Maryam did is 10 times that.”
In 2009, then-Chief Warrant Officer Greenall had been assigned to build connections with Afghan women. Ms. Sahar was a student at a Canadian-funded school who could speak five languages, including English. Her skill set and her gender put her in a unique position to help the military speak directly to local women. But there were no other female interpreters in rural Kandahar – probably because this work was dangerous.
“Obviously it had to be top secret,” Ms. Greenall recalls. But even she didn’t appreciated just how vulnerable her new interpreter was. “I didn’t know she was 15. She was presented to me as at the age of 18.”
Despite the precautions, Ms. Sahar was soon in the Taliban’s crosshairs. She fled to Canada. “I came in 2011. All by myself. At the age of 17,” she says.
She says that initial immigration program for Afghan interpreters was too restrictive. “Interpreters who were married, they could bring their wife and kids,” she says. But siblings were not allowed and this was always a sore point for her. Her then-12-year-old brother Omer had been captured and beaten by the Taliban in the months before she fled.
Ms. Sahar invited Ms. Greenall to come to her 2019 citizenship ceremony in Ottawa. The veteran, who left the military in 2014, flew out from her home in B.C.’s Interior.
When the immigration program was revived this summer, it was crafted to include more family members of Afghan interpreters.
Ms. Greenall vowed to do everything she could this summer to put pressure on the government so that Ms. Sahar’s relatives got out of Afghanistan this time.
“I’m phoning, I’m e-mailing ... I’m saying ‘Let’s meet. Why can’t we meet?’ ” Ms. Greenall says. “But the immigration ministry just outright ignored me.”
So she pressed politicians and gave medias interviews, raising as much attention she could. The pressure tactics worked, but Ms. Greenall still struggles with the cases of the interpreters who have not gotten to Canada. “It harms me and hurts me to think that our own military has left people like Maryam, and people like her family, behind.”
Now a 27-year-old living in Ottawa, Ms. Sahar finally has her Afghan family with her. Omer, now 22, is contemplating enlisting in a program that teaches computing skills to Canadian veterans. It’s been expanded to include former interpreters and their families. Another brother, 11-year-old Ibrahim, has started Grade 6. And their 47-year-old Afghan mother is with them too.
Abdul Jamy Kohistany and Corporal Robin Rickards
Abdul Jamy Kohistany – Jamy to friends – recently found himself in charge of an animated group of children who had been out on Thunder Bay’s streets and getting a crash course in Halloween. “I’m pushing them to brush their teeth, like three to four times a day,” he says about his children, nieces and nephews. “Because they’re eating too much candy.”
The Afghan interpreter and his relatives had landed in the Northern Ontario city just a few days earlier.
In the mid-2000s, Mr. Kohistany served as an interpreter in Kandahar, where he alerted the Canadian military about Taliban tricks. He would monitor radio traffic for Pashto speakers discussing deliveries of “squash” or “watermelon” – thinly veiled references to the imminent planting of roadside bombs. In May, 2006, Mr. Kohistany was in a Canadian convoy attacked by fighters shooting rocket propelled grenades. He survived but was powerless to save Captain Nichola Goddard, who died.
He befriended Corporal Robin Rickards at a military outpost in Afghanistan. The two men grew so close that the interpreter would field calls from his friend’s then-fiancée in Canada. When the soldier was in the field, Mr. Kohistany says, “She would call me and ask ‘Where is he? And what’s going on?’ ”
Mr. Rickards went on to work as a union steward at Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant. Mr. Kohistany remained in Afghanistan working in other roles as a military interpreter. But as the tempo of Taliban threats grew, Mr. Kohistany found out that he did not fit the criteria of any country’s immigration programs – even though he was receiving so many Taliban death threats that he had grown afraid to step outside his house.
When Ottawa’s revised interpreter immigration program was announced this summer, Mr. Rickards became a dogged advocate. He blitzed messages to bureaucrats, politicians and journalists, telling them to pay attention to the case of Mr. Kohistany and others.
But when it came down to crunch time for the military flights leaving Kabul Airport, Mr. Rickards had to be blunt in his messages to Mr. Kohistany. “If you want any chance of them getting out,” he said about his friend’s family, “you need to find somebody who knows somebody in that airport because Canada is not going to do anything.”
Mr. Kohistany was in Kabul with his family, including his brothers – also military interpreters – and their wives and children. They were travelling in a group of almost 30 people. One of the siblings did know an American colonel who promised to arrange some transportation into the airport.
But the bus that came for them only had 15 seats. So some life-altering decisions were made on the spot. “The older boys got loaded in because of the fear that the Taliban would press them into service,” Mr. Kohistany said. Some parents could not fit on the bus and did not come.
The extended family flew to Qatar, and spent six weeks in Germany. In Canada, Mr. Kohistany was met at Thunder Bay Airport with a hug by Mr. Rickards – his old friend and new neighbour.
Abdul Hakim Azizi, Tyson Martin and Will Thompson
Abdul Hakim Azizi went fishing in Quebec this fall. He didn’t catch any bass or trout. But he didn’t mind. “It was a good experiment for me,” the 32-year-old says.
He ended up in the Canadian wilderness because he made some lasting friendships in Afghanistan.
In 2010, Tyson Martin, then a Commander in the Canadian Forces, hired Mr. Azizi as an interpreter. He found that the young man could keep his composure under fire, where others failed or fled. “He was doing pretty much the job of three interpreters,” says Mr. Martin.
Their mission at the time was to gather intelligence by speaking to ordinary Afghans. But the Taliban’s continuing presence in rural Kandahar made such conversations fraught. The locals who encountered Canadian soldiers often had “a look of absolute terror on their face,” Mr. Martin recalls. “They knew the next day the Taliban will probably show up and have a little chat with them.”
This July, Mr. Martin thought of his former interpreter and dropped him a line. “I saw things were heating up there and asked whether it was okay,” he says. He was surprised to find out his old interpreter was fearing for his safety and needed an out. “I didn’t know about Canada’s resettlement package,” Mr. Azizi says.
Several soldiers put pressure on the government to consider his application. In late August, Mr. Azizi and his wife were caught in the crush of people circling the gates of Kabul Airport. She felt like fainting in the heat and Taliban guards struck at him with batons. But Mr. Azizi negotiated his way through the gates and onto a military plane.
A new job awaited him in Canada. “Hakim took care of my buddy,” says William Thompson, an Afghan vet and close friend of Mr. Martin. He is also a co-founder of RVezy, a startup recreational-vehicle-rental service in Ottawa. Once Mr. Azizi showed him that he had the skills, Mr. Thompson gave him a job in customer service.
Not long after, the company held its corporate retreat at a lake near Mont Tremblant. There, Mr. Azizi even tried canoeing for the first time. “It’s certainly different,” he says.
Samandar Khan and Tim Laidler
Samandar Khan’s 18 relatives – nine children and nine adults – got out of their mandatory quarantine in late September. He picked them up at the Hampton Inn near the Toronto airport to bring them sightseeing.
With parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews in tow, he needed to rent a minivan and several Ubers. He didn’t care about the cost. “I tried 10 years to bring them here. I’m not worried about saving money now,” the 34-year-old says. “I brought them to Canada’s Wonderland. I brought them to Niagara Falls. I showed them downtown.”
Weeks earlier, these same relatives were seeing the aftermath of violence right outside their Kandahar doorstep. “They were hiding in the basement when the Taliban took over,” Mr. Khan says. “They were coming out and seeing there were the dead bodies of the Afghan army, the police and the Taliban.”
Mr. Khan, a refugee interpreter himself, has been living in Vancouver for a decade. He had always feared his past work for the Canadian Forces would bring reprisals upon his family, but he could never get them out. “If you’re sponsoring your family in a regular immigration process, it’s going to take you years and years.”
Prior to coming to Canada in 2010, he had spent months translating for Canadian soldiers training the Afghan National Army on how to fire NATO-issue rifles. It was in that role that he met Tim Laidler – now known as a veteran who always goes to bat for the Afghan interpreters who worked with Canadians.
“Tim was with us at the beginning. He was the one who brought this issue to Canada,” says Mr. Khan, who came to Canada under the initial interpreters’ program.
While Mr. Laidler has always been a crucial link in pressing the government to do more for military interpreters, he says too many of them who filed applications this summer to come to Canada remain stranded. “The vast majority haven’t heard back from immigration,” he says. He adds that, at the federal level, “there’s a lack of accountability and leadership. We don’t know who’s in charge.”
Mr. Khan’s family members plotted a course out of Afghanistan by land. Once they arrived in Pakistan, their applications were vetted by Canadian officials.
Not everyone, however, arrived there. “My family had to leave Kandahar in the middle of the night. One kid is still missing,” says Mr. Khan.
His family is struggling to reunite with a seven-year-old niece, who is now living with relatives in Afghanistan. “She’s there. Thank God she’s good. Nothing happened to her,” he says. “But we need to find her a way out.”
Remembrance Day: More from The Globe and Mail
On The Globe and Mail’s news podcast, retired Corporal Robin Rickards (who you met earlier in this story) explains how he is helping one of his old Afghan interpreters, Abdul Jamy Kohistany, to settle in Thunder Bay, Ont., with his family, and why veterans are still working to bring others to Canada. Subscribe for more episodes.
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