A group of Afghans who worked on Canadian-funded projects intended to promote the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan say they are now stuck in neighbouring Pakistan and running out of money for food and rent, more than a year after they thought they would be resettled in Canada.
They fled to Pakistan after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. This week, in a quiet office on a busy street in the city of Rawalpindi, they spoke about how they can’t go home for fear of being targeted for retribution by their home country’s new rulers, and about the increasingly desperate financial situation they face as they wait to hear whether Canada will grant them refuge.
“The neighbours, sometimes they send us food. Sometimes. If they give it to us, we eat. If no, we sleep without a meal,” said Nasima Nasrat, who is now living in Peshawar with her four children and husband. Ms. Nasrat worked on a project funded by the Canadian government that was aimed at supporting women’s economic empowerment.
Her former colleague, Brikhna Ahmad Paiwastoon, is also now in Pakistan and struggling to survive. Recently, Ms. Ahmad Paiwastoon, along with her husband and children, moved in with Ms. Nasrat’s family.
The Globe previously reported on Ms. Nasrat and Ms. Ahmad Paiwastoon, but used pseudonyms because they were still in Afghanistan and being hunted by the Taliban. The regime has threatened the lives of Afghans who worked on human-rights issues, or in the employ of foreign governments.
Now, having escaped immediate danger, the two women say they are desperate for people to know who they are so they can find help.
They came to Rawalpindi for an interview, after communicating with a Globe and Mail reporter over WhatsApp for months. They were joined by other Afghans who had worked on Canadian-funded projects that supported Afghan women’s rights in various ways. These Afghans, like many others, believed they would be swiftly cleared for resettlement in Canada after Ottawa announced special immigration programs for people fleeing Afghanistan last year.
Life in Pakistan is becoming increasingly difficult for Afghan refugees. They can’t work because of their immigration status, their children are not in school, they are rationing their meals and in some cases facing eviction.
Ms. Nasrat said she has not paid rent for three months. Her family will be forced to leave their home if they don’t pay by the end of November, she added, and their landlord has threatened to detain her husband until they come up with the money.
“We can’t stay here and we can’t go to Afghanistan,” she said.
Ms. Ahmad Paiwastoon pointed out that the projects they worked on in Afghanistan dealt with topics that were sensitive in the country even before the change in regime. “Women’s empowerment and gender-based violence and advocacy for women’s rights. It was really risky before the Taliban,” she said.
Ms. Nasrat and her colleagues first contacted Global Affairs Canada last summer. They have since sent many e-mails to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), and still have not heard whether they will be accepted for resettlement.
In July, 2021, the federal government announced a special resettlement program for Afghans who had helped with Canada’s military and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan. The government also established a humanitarian resettlement program for other Afghans vulnerable to Taliban persecution, including women leaders, human-rights defenders and LGBTQ people.
The government promised to bring at least 40,000 Afghans to Canada. IRCC says on its website that 25,220 have arrived since August, 2021. Most – 14,835 – have arrived under the humanitarian program. Another 9,035 people have been resettled through the program for those who worked for Canada. That is the program to which Ms. Nasrat and Ms. Ahmad Paiwastoon are hoping to be accepted.
IRCC was unable to explain why the government has been unable to tell Afghans waiting for immigration decisions whether or not they will be accepted for resettlement. In May, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said that Afghans who applied to Canada would receive a yes or no within weeks.
“We are working as quickly as possible to process applications remotely and digitally with the assistance of staff across the organization through our global network of migration officers,” IRCC spokesperson Nancy Caron said in a statement. “Unfortunately, a crisis of this magnitude means that there will always be more demand for resettlement to Canada than we are able to meet.”
Shafiqullah Azizi was in charge of human resources for Zardozi – Markets for Afghan Artisans, a project funded by Global Affairs Canada that aimed to support entrepreneurship among Afghan women. He has also now fled to Pakistan, and was part of the group in Rawalpindi. He said he first reached out to IRCC for resettlement in July, 2021.
“We’ve eaten all the money we had,” he said, adding that IRCC’s lack of specificity on the criteria for acceptance into its special immigration programs is making people crazy. “We were happy. We thought we were going to Canada. We found out this process is taking too long. How will we survive?”
Mr. Azizi said some senior staff members involved in his project have been resettled in Canada, while others are still waiting for approval. One of his former co-workers, Storai Ferozi, was also present at the interview in Rawalpindi.
“We were working for Canada, working for their missions. Definitely we are part of their family,” Mr. Azizi said.
He noted that Canada has announced that it intends to accept about 500,000 new immigrants per year by 2025. “Why not us?” he wondered. “It would be good for Canada. They already know us.” He said he fears for his and his family members’ lives.
Warda Shazadi Meighen, an immigration lawyer and partner at Landings LLP in Toronto, said Canadians like to think of themselves as compassionate.
“So when there’s this divergence, where we’ve made these commitments and told people, women leaders, ‘We’re going to help you’ – I think in the spirit of those commitments we should be helping them,” she said.
Ms. Meighen said it might be time for federal ministers to take a trip to Pakistan.
“I think it’s really important that there’s political leadership physically present in Pakistan, and that could include ministers of the relevant departments,” she said.