The children of an Afghan man who once worked as an interpreter for the Canadian military ran up and down the halls of a hotel in Islamabad, waving small Canadian flags. They moved in a herd with other children also stuck living there.
The interpreter’s kids are always saying the word “e-mail.” They don’t know what it means in a literal sense, but they understand that after people get them they leave for Canada.
This hotel is one of several across the Pakistani capital where Afghans approved for resettlement in Canada stay while they complete their applications and wait to hear when they will be offered flights. Some have been living in single rooms for a year or more, watching others leave and wondering why they have been left behind.
They remain in Pakistan despite the fact that they have completed every step necessary to travel to Canada under a special immigration program established for Afghans who worked with Canadian military and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan. The uncertainty has left families confused and depressed.
Sitting on the bed in his hotel room, the former interpreter was surrounded by children. He has five of his own, but many more from other families drifted in and out. He tried shutting the door, but gave up after the children milling around slammed it several times. Because they’re not in school, the kids spend all day running around and fighting, he said. There are no playgrounds outside and nowhere for them to go.
“It’s been 10 months I’ve been waiting here,” the interpreter said. The wait has been particularly hard on his kids. “When other families are going to Canada, they’re looking at them, and they’re hopeless.”
He and his wife were fingerprinted and had their photos taken at Canada’s embassy in Kabul last August, he said, before the Taliban swept through Afghanistan and seized control of the country. The fundamentalist group’s resurgence left him and other Afghans who had previously worked for foreign countries fearful of retaliation from the new regime.
The interpreter’s family fled Afghanistan for Pakistan in February and finished their required medical tests in June.
Most who have completed these steps have come to Canada soon afterward. But the interpreter’s family and others left in limbo have no idea how much longer their waits will be. The interpreter said he faced constant danger while working alongside Canada’s military, and that interpreters’ cases should be prioritized.
The Globe is not naming him, or other Afghan refugees interviewed for this story, because they fear for their family members in Afghanistan.
The Globe spoke with dozens of Afghans in Pakistan who, like the interpreter and his family, are waiting to come to Canada in hotels run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as well as others who haven’t been offered hotel rooms and are living in cramped quarters, surviving on one meal a day.
Although they are all grateful for the accommodation, living in small rooms has been difficult for them. Nearly all of their Pakistani visas have expired, and they are fearful they will be jailed or deported if caught by police.
For that reason, the interpreter said, he and his family rarely go outside. “These kids keep asking me to take us to the park. I said, ‘No, I’m not going to take you because I’m scared.’”
As kids continued to circle around his room, his seven-year-old son, Osman, sat beside him, kicking his legs against the bed. He stared at his father with a mischievous grin on his face.
“He keeps asking when is our e-mail coming, when is our e-mail coming. You know in here, it’s common. ‘E-mail.’ They don’t know what that means. But when someone gets an e-mail, it’s a flight booking, and they’re saying: ‘We got an e-mail! We got an e-mail!’ So, he’s like, ‘When are we going to get the e-mail?’”
When other families receive those sought-after e-mails, the interpreter often helps them carry their bags to the front of the hotel before they head to the airport. Osman goes with him, but, as the little boy watches the others leave, his expression turns to one of dismay.
It has been more than a year since the federal government announced its special resettlement program for Afghans who worked for Canada.
The government also established a humanitarian resettlement program for Afghans vulnerable to Taliban persecution, such as human-rights defenders and LGBTQ people.
Ottawa has promised to bring at least 40,000 Afghans to Canada. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, 26,095 have arrived since August, 2021, most of them under the humanitarian program.
“For Afghans whose cases are complex, processing will take longer as we work to receive information and work through their application,” Sofica Lukianenko, a communications adviser for IRCC, said in a statement.
She said 19 chartered flights with Afghan refugees from Pakistan have arrived since the beginning of the year, and that other Afghans who were in Pakistan have arrived on commercial flights.
“Unfortunately, a crisis of this magnitude means that there will always be more demand for resettlement to Canada than we are able to provide,” she said.
Canadian organizations such as the Veteran’s Transition Network and Aman Lara have brought thousands of Afghans to relative safety in countries such as Pakistan, where they wait to come to Canada.
Tim Laidler, a veteran who has been leading VTN’s efforts to evacuate Afghans who worked for Canada, said leaving refugees in limbo makes a bad situation worse.
“We’ve already left many of these families, for now 16 months plus, wondering if they will be able to come to Canada. Many have completed their process and are still waiting for unknown reasons, and that stress and anxiety is compounding the traumatic event they had to go through to get out of Afghanistan,” he said.
Brian Macdonald, the executive director of Aman Lara, said he is particularly concerned about the prospect of people who don’t have proper documents being sent back to Afghanistan. “That chills my spine,” he said.
In a guest house not far from the hotel, a three-year-old boy excitedly told his neighbours he was going to Canada. He had mistaken a visiting Globe reporter for someone who could arrange the trip.
In Afghanistan, his father had supervised a group of tailors who worked for the Canadian Armed Forces at the Kandahar Airfield. The family has been in Pakistan for about seven months.
“It’s like living in a prison,” the father said. “When everyone is leaving, my son is crying. He wants to go with them.”
His family members have been fingerprinted and photographed, and have completed their medical checks, he said.
More than once, the father’s siblings have received e-mails about flights, but he has cancelled the bookings because they are too young to travel alone. The rest of the family has yet to be cleared for travel.
He has repeatedly asked IRCC for help and inquired about flights, he said, but the answer is always the same: “We don’t have any update now. Just wait. Your case is in process.”
His little boy ran down the stairs inside the house and toward the door as the group moved to a park nearby. After realizing the family was not going to Canada, he buried his face in his father’s pant leg and cried.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser told reporters last week that there are many reasons Afghans trying to come to Canada might encounter delays, including problems finding space on charter flights, issues processing complex applications and the necessity of working with settlement services in Canada to make sure they’re ready to help the newcomers.
In another Islamabad hotel room provided by the IOM, another former military interpreter, Fida Hussain, opened the door to a room he shares with his wife and five children. They have been waiting in Pakistan for resettlement in Canada for 14 months.
His kids sat on thin mattresses on the floor – the same ones they use for sleeping. Mr. Hussain’s three-year-old daughter laid on her back and rubbed the backs of her legs. “See what my daughter is doing? Massaging her legs because of pain. Fourteen months in one room. It’s too difficult for one family,” Mr. Hussain said. “When can Canada take us out of this misery to start our normal lives?”
Mr. Hussain showed The Globe e-mails from September, 2021, that say he had been selected for immigration to Canada, and that the IOM would arrange his departure. His family has been in the hotel ever since.
In the corner of the room was a whiteboard. He said he has been teaching his kids some English.
His 10-year-old, Roman, rehearsed a well-practised speech: “Hello there IRCC. Please help us. We have waited for our case to get done since 14, September, 2021, in Islamabad. Please provide us flight as soon as possible.”
“It’s really difficult for us,” Mr. Hussain said. “We have stress, anxiety, confusion. All day or night we don’t sleep, just look at the ceiling thinking what will come of our lives? What will happen to my kids’ future?”
Back at the first hotel, the interpreter sat cross-legged on his bed looking intently at a computer.
Since The Globe’s visit earlier in the week, at least two other families had received e-mails saying they would have flights to Canada in December. The interpreter was busy helping his friends fill out the forms necessary to fly. He said he has a friend in Canada who jokes the interpreter has filled out so many forms he could join IRCC.
“It’s a confusing process,” the interpreter said, busy on his laptop and frustrated by the fact that people who appear to meet the same eligibility requirements he does are being treated differently. He is watching Afghan interpreters, NGO staff and others pack up and leave for new lives while he is left filling out their forms in his hotel room.
Two weeks later, the latest families to receive those precious e-mails departed the hotel to board their flights to Canada. It was another hard day for the interpreter’s family. Osman, the seven-year-old, was so distraught he refused to leave their room. “We’re hopeless,” the interpreter said.
Afghanistan: More from The Globe and Mail
Refugees in limbo
Children of former guard at Canadian embassy in Kabul attacked in Pakistan as family waits for help
Afghans who worked on Canadian-funded projects feel abandoned waiting for refuge in Pakistan
Ottawa capped immigration program for Afghans who worked with Canada since its launch
Situation in Afghanistan
Anti-terror law to be tweaked for aid groups to operate in Afghanistan, Sajjan says
Sexual violence against women in Afghanistan on the rise under Taliban
Once the pride of Canada’s Afghanistan mission, Kandahar’s decaying Sarpoza prison throws its legacy into doubt