Mellissa Fung is a Canadian journalist.
My entry into the strange fellowship of people working to extract human beings from a war-torn country began when the messages started coming in on the morning of Aug. 15, as the Taliban entered Kabul.
“They are at the gates.” “They are in our mosque.” “What if they take my daughter?”
Desperation and fear filled the spaces between words from people I have worked with over many years of reporting in Afghanistan.
The Friday before, federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino had announced “special immigration measures” to welcome 20,000 Afghan refugees to Canada. I knew I had to apply on my Afghan colleagues’ behalf. But the program, it turned out, was only for Afghans who had provided assistance to Canada during our involvement there: military translators, embassy and support staff, people who worked with Canadian organizations. My list of desperate evacuees is made up of women educators, human rights defenders, activists, former government officials – many among them ethnic Hazaras, the most persecuted minority in Afghanistan. These are women who have spent the past two decades fighting for their rights, and are now being targeted by the Taliban.
But that alone is not enough to make them eligible for the federal government’s plan. Instead, they have to find a way to leave Afghanistan on their own, and then apply for refugee status in a third country before coming to Canada – a process that can take years. I was advised to seek out sponsorship for them, which, thanks to a wonderful network of friends, was the easy part. Now, we have to wait and pray. The applications are in the hands of Citizenship and Immigration Canada – but we just learned on Monday that the e-mails containing those applications have not even been opened yet.
I’ve learned that others have their own lists, and there are many stories coming out now – about applications approved, visas issued, and families reunited. But for most Afghans, escape from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is still a mere dream, one that dies a little every day. Canada has doubled the number of Afghans it will accept, but the process has moved at a glacial pace, when speed and decisiveness are critical. Those of us working to bring people to safety have made countless phone calls, sent dozens of e-mails, and spent sleepless nights waiting for answers from Ottawa, all while trying to stave off feelings of hopelessness. One friend, who is a former member of the Canadian military, has dozens on his list: interpreters and their families, in hiding all over Afghanistan. He doesn’t mince words: “I can get them out tomorrow – if Ottawa will approve their visas.”
Based on others I’ve spoken to, it should be said that Canada is doing better than others. A well-connected friend of mine in Washington, D.C., has been seeking action for a list of her own – including female judges who have sentenced Taliban fighters to prison, and are now being targeted by those same retribution-minded men. But they remain in hiding, still waiting for a rescue that remains difficult for everyone involved.
I was lucky enough to have been connected to Rachel Pulfer, the indomitable director of Journalists for Human Rights in Canada. She and her team added my list to theirs, which consists of more than 400 at-risk Afghans – mostly journalists – who are in grave danger. The logistics of getting documentation, putting names on flight manifests, arranging secure convoys, not to mention lobbying decision-makers and raising the huge sums of money required – it is all unnatural and Herculean work.
Fortunately, more than 100 journalists and their families have been able to leave Afghanistan for Canada as a result of these kinds of efforts. Yet for most of us, the past two months have been a soul-crushing cycle of hope followed by despair, possibility followed by disappointment, all in an endless loop as we watch the brutal Taliban return to power and the messages from Afghans grow more anxious by the day.
“Have you heard anything from Canada? What if they do not accept me?” That message came from a woman on my list whose family already fled once, when she was a teenager in the mid-1990s, the first time the Taliban came to power. She returned nearly a decade-and-a-half ago, and has spent that time working hard to improve girls’ access to education, receiving death threats as a result. “I never thought I would have to leave again,” she told me. “But we will start over. I have done it before.”
Another woman on my list is experiencing life under Taliban rule for the first time. I last saw her in July, when I was in Kabul on assignment. At that point, there was still a bit of hope that all would not be lost. She told me then: “If the Taliban come here, my life will be over.” And now, the Taliban have declared that girls older than 12 may not return to school, let alone go back to university, where she was a top student.
I exchange messages with these women constantly. I try to keep their spirits up, even though I feel like I am failing them and all the women left behind. I am filled with guilt when I feel that my country has turned away from this urgent humanitarian crisis. We cannot, and must not.
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