Former drivers who spent years shuttling Canadian officials and embassy staff around Afghanistan say they are being ignored by the federal government and that their lives are in danger from Taliban reprisals as the U.S. withdraws its troops from the country.
Abdul Qayum Hemat said that for 13 years he drove Canadian staff to military bases, hotels, embassies, restaurants and made trips to the airport and to the market. He did this until last October when he was let go along with a handful of other drivers. For months, he said, he has been writing to the embassy, urging Ottawa to bring the group of drivers and their families to Canada.
“Everybody feels that Afghanistan won’t be a safe place, especially for the people who supported the NATO forces, the embassies, the United Nations, foreigners … we will be the first target for the Taliban and the other terrorist groups in Afghanistan. We are not safe,” said Mr. Qayum Hemat in a phone interview from Kabul.
He said he thinks about what will happen to his five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son if he’s killed. “It’s very hard when I think about my family, my kids in particular,” he said.
Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, said for security reasons “we do not comment on specific operational matters of our missions abroad.”
“We are currently working to assist some individuals previously or currently employed by the Canadian government in Afghanistan, who wish to come here,” he said.
The U.S. military has left Bagram Airfield, the centre of its operations, increasing the urgency to resettle Afghans. Canada withdrew its armed forces from Afghanistan seven years ago and, with the U.S. withdrawal, has been urged to swiftly resettle interpreters and staff because they now face an increased likelihood of retaliation from the Taliban.
Mr. Cohen said last week that more than 800 Afghan nationals, including family members, were resettled to Canada under two previous policies. Afghans who were not eligible under the policies, he said, may apply to immigrate to Canada through existing provisions under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
A government source told The Globe and Mail last week that Ottawa is quickly working through individual cases to move them through the immigration and refugee system. The Globe is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
The official said 40 Afghans, most of whom were interpreters, while some served in other roles, have indicated that they want to come to Canada, in addition to Afghan staff who work at the Canadian embassy. The official said the government is expecting more.
Mr. Qayum Hemat said there are 10 other drivers in need of Canada’s help and that their work for the embassy spans ten to 15 years. He said they were replaced by a security company. He provided documents to The Globe indicating his employment history. One document is a certificate of recognition for his ten years of service to the Canadian government. Another, dated Sept. 21, 2020, indicates that his services were no longer required after Oct. 21, 2020.
He also shared photos of himself and other drivers and staff, smiling in red and white Canada 150 T-shirts inside the embassy. Another photo is of a large group standing beneath a “Canada 150” birthday banner, holding hockey sticks on an outdoor court.
“If I come there, I will obey the rule of the Canadian government. I know about everything Canadian. I know how to live with them, how to deal with them, because most of the time I was at the embassy, I was with my Canadian friends,” he said.
Another long-time driver, whom The Globe is not identifying because he says he fears retribution, said there are many security concerns he could raise, but that he feels as though he and his family are already dead. He shared a photo of security cameras pointed at angles outside his home, saying his family rotates taking watch all day and night after his brother was killed last year.
Shiragha Sharifi, a third driver who worked for the Canadian embassy for nearly 13 years, said he hopes that Canada will allow him and his family into the country, saying he heard that only current staff will be brought to Canada.
“I am now disappointed and counting minutes for the day that some terrorist groups will kill me and my kids,” he said.
Mr. Sharifi said Canadians should know that the group of drivers drove the head of mission, their staff, department of national defence staff, RCMP and military police, as well as high-ranking delegations visiting Kabul – and provided interpretation.
“We drove nights and days without excuses,” he said.
Opposition critics have been urging the government to act.
Conservative immigration critic Jasraj Singh Hallan said Afghans who served alongside Canadians fear for their lives as Taliban activity increases.
“For two decades, Afghan drivers served our Canadian embassies, military and our RCMP. After years of trusted service, the Liberal government is refusing to allow a pathway to safety for Afghans who served Canada. Trudeau is turning his back on them in their hour of need,” he said.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan has also called on the government to help Afghan employees who worked for the Canadian government.
On Friday, Ms. Kwan wrote an open letter to Mr. Mendicino urging him to put in place a special immigration measure to provide immediate refuge to Afghan interpreters and their families who have been left behind.
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