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Afghan girls attend a class in an underground school, in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 30, 2022. For most teenage girls in Afghanistan, it’s been a year since they set foot in a classroom. With no sign the ruling Taliban will allow them back to school, some girls and parents are trying to find ways to keep education from stalling for a generation of young women.Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press

Mellissa Fung is a Canadian journalist based in London.

“Hi dear Mellissa, is there any update?”

Those words, or some variation on them, have lit up my phone countless times over the past year, from people all over Afghanistan asking for help. And without fail, each one feels like a gut punch, because more often than not, the answer has been no.

The sender of this particular message is Aqila Tawakoli. She was the principal of the Sayed ul-Shuhada girls’ school in the Kabul neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, home to a large community of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority. But on Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban retook the country and closed all schools to girls over the age of 12. Her message to me on that particular day was desperate: “The Taliban are here. There is no safe place. Gunfire is everywhere. Please help us.”

I’d known Aqila for five years at that point, and I had just left Kabul a few weeks before. I had interviewed her about a bombing attack at her school that had taken place in May, 2021. It was one of the worst assaults recorded in the capital, killing more than 80 of the school’s students.

During those frantic first days and weeks of the Taliban’s return to Kabul, I made hundreds of calls, to people I knew and to people I didn’t. I wasn’t alone; journalists, aid workers and former military members the world over were similarly desperate to do what we could to evacuate those at risk. It seemed surreal that this work was left to us, but we found ourselves desperately trying to organize convoys and flights, and madly filling out spreadsheets for manifests.

At various points over the next few months, I had Aqila’s family and several others booked on flights – to Athens, to Tirana in Albania, even to Sulaymaniyah in Iraq. None of them materialized, in the end. I managed to talk to someone in the Prime Minister’s Office, who told me that sponsorship would be the best option for someone like Aqila, since she did not qualify for the special immigration program reserved for Afghans who worked with Canadians, and applying for a referral from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees would take years.

So I found sponsors, thanks to my dear friend Brennan Leffler, a freelance journalist who pulled together a group of generous people in Toronto. They filled out mountains of forms and sent them to the special e-mail address at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for Afghan resettlement.

And then they waited … and waited.

“Mellissa, have you heard anything from Canada?”

Over the next four-plus months, Brennan called the number listed on the IRCC’s website dozens of times, and each time, he got a different answer. Eventually, he realized those precious applications hadn’t even been opened, because if they had been, they would have been searchable in the government’s database.

I enlisted the help of Journalists for Human Rights, who were advocating for more than 500 Afghan journalists and their families. Finally, in late November, after more than three months of hiding out and living in fear, Aqila and her family were able to get Pakistani visas; after a booked flight to Islamabad was cancelled at the last minute, a security company hired by JHR drove them through the Khyber Pass to the Torkham border crossing in a harrowing journey. As a final act of torment, the Taliban beat her husband before they would let the family through.

At last, they were out of Afghanistan. But getting from Pakistan to Canada would prove to be just as difficult.

“Mellissa, why don’t we have a G number?”

That elusive G number, assigned by IRCC to all prospective applicants, meant that their file was being processed. Aqila’s family didn’t have one, and without it, they were going nowhere. We quickly realized having a group of private sponsors was not enough, as was the case when thousands of Syrians came to Canada. We needed a super sponsor: a group that has a standing agreement with the government to bring in refugees.

Thankfully, the Afghan Women’s Organization came to our rescue. They gave us six spots, enough to bring Aqila’s family and one of her former students to Canada. More forms were filled out. Money was deposited into a trust that would see them through their first year once they arrived.

But the wait since then has been interminable. Aqila and her family have spent the past nine months moving through a series of hotels and guesthouses in Pakistan, taking English lessons, and renewing their Pakistani visas – all at a huge financial cost to JHR and others. I visited the family in Islamabad in late March to try to reassure them that things were moving forward, but they were demoralized and worried that they’d be deported back to Afghanistan.

Finally, the G numbers came at the end of March, on the last day of my visit. It felt like a hallelujah moment. Biometrics and health exams followed. All they needed was an airplane ticket, and finally, in late June, they were told a flight to Canada had been arranged for the following week. Brennan scrambled to find an apartment and put down a month’s rent. But just as quickly, the charter flight was cancelled by the Canadian government. No reason was given.

“Mellissa, is there any news?”

Over the past year, I’ve come to realize that Canada’s refugee system is a labyrinth, bound by red tape and littered with roadblocks that make it very difficult for Canadians to navigate, much less the desperate and deserving Afghans seeking to be resettled. If someone like Aqila isn’t considered a priority – an at-risk Afghan woman who is part of the persecuted Hazara minority and whose school was bombed – then who is?

The Taliban have been in power for a year. Girls have lost the right to education. Women have lost the freedom to work and travel. Meanwhile, the door to Canada is closing: The 40,000 spaces the government pledged for Afghan refugees have almost all been claimed. There are no more G numbers left to give.

Aqila is one of the lucky ones. She will get to Canada, where she hopes to go back to teaching math. But it has been an exasperating and frustrating journey for all of us: a year of sleepless nights, rage-filled days, and deep despair about the future and the countless others who still live in Afghanistan in peril.

I know they’re there, too, because messages from inside Afghanistan keep coming, from those who haven’t gotten out. “We are in a bad situation. Please. Can you help?”

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