Jawed Haqmal could easily be mistaken for someone much more fortunate than he is.
He lives in a large, stately home in a quaint village in northern Germany. On a recent day, his girls tore through the house, giggling and chasing after one another and playing happily with a neighbour’s child. His son, two-year-old Mohammad, was always climbing something. Mr. Haqmal spent the warm spring day with his kids, planting kisses on Mohammad’s round cheeks.
But his reality is much different than it appears. The house does not belong to him, and he doesn’t know how long he can stay. The reason the kids are always playing is that they’re not in school.
Mr. Haqmal is an Afghan national who used to work as a translator for the Canadian military in Afghanistan. When the Taliban took over that country in August, he and 11 members of his extended family (it will soon be 12, because he and his wife are expecting a baby girl) fled together, fearing retaliation for his co-operation with a foreign country.
Now, they are relying on the goodwill of others while they try to learn how to access German government services.
Mr. Haqmal would not be pacing around a strange home in a remote village if things had gone according to plan eight months ago. When the family left Afghanistan, they expected a quick resettlement in Canada, where the federal government had promised them and thousands of other Afghans refuge.
But the federal immigration bureaucracy has since refused to clear the Haqmals for arrival, and won’t publicly say why. Unable to fly to North America, the family spent months in a Ukrainian hotel – only to be forced to flee yet again, this time to avoid being caught up in the Russian invasion.
Although more than 10,000 Afghan refugees have come to Canada since the Taliban takeover, many other Afghans with ties to Canada have found themselves in situations like Mr. Haqmal’s: Promised safe haven, they have instead been left behind in Afghanistan, or in third countries, while their immigration applications are processed.
Now, with the world’s focus on Ukraine, Afghan refugees and others fleeing persecution face competition for support and empathy.
“Living in such a nice house temporarily is not good for me,” Mr. Haqmal said. “It’s comfortable, but it doesn’t have any future.”
It has been almost a year since the Haqmals left their home in Kandahar. As the Taliban made gains across Afghanistan, Canadian MP Marcus Powlowski’s office helped the family get to Kabul, the country’s capital. Months later, the Taliban entered the city. Mr. Haqmal knew it was time to flee.
He had vivid memories of Afghanistan’s previous period of Taliban rule, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. One particularly traumatic incident stands out in his recollection. He was helping his father, a mechanic, with some work. The Taliban came, and he ran, but the men ran after him and cut off his hair. Mr. Haqmal didn’t want his children to grow up with that kind of fear.
He started working with the Canadian military in 2009, and later served in several Canadian efforts to rebuild the Afghan countryside. During this time, he developed close relationships with troops, and photographs show that he was sometimes trusted to carry an assault weapon – a privilege rarely extended to translators. His involvement with the force ended in 2011, when Canada concluded its military mission in Afghanistan.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the federal immigration department, gave its approval for the Haqmals to travel to Canada in August, 2021, but Kabul was in chaos and the family couldn’t make it to the city’s airport.
At the same time, The Globe and Mail was trying to make evacuation arrangements for the families of two Afghans who had worked as translators and researchers for the newspaper. With the Canadian government unable to help, The Globe made a request to the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was not yet embroiled in war with Russia.
Mr. Zelensky’s staff relayed that he had agreed to assign some of Ukraine’s soldiers to the task of getting the translators and their relatives out of Afghanistan. When one of the translators couldn’t leave immediately, the other translator asked The Globe if Mr. Haqmal’s family could go instead. The Globe asked the Ukrainian special forces, who agreed.
Mr. Haqmal and his family were taken to Kyiv, where they expected their stay to be brief. The Globe paid for their hotel stay in the city.
“When I came to Ukraine, I said, ‘Now I’m totally okay. Everything is finally finished. All the problems are finished and soon the kids will start school.’ Those were the hopes I remember,” Mr. Haqmal said.
The family didn’t have immigration documents, which made them fearful of leaving their rooms. The Canadian Armed Forces initially provided them with groceries, but eventually stopped the deliveries. The Haqmals have received no further assistance from the military.
They waited for word from Ottawa about when they would be able to travel to Canada, and Mr. Haqmal met with IRCC in the fall. But there were no answers for months.
Shortly before the war in Ukraine began, Mr. Haqmal said, he reached out to IRCC for help – but there was no easy way for him to meet with a government official. The Canadian embassy had moved to Lviv, in western Ukraine. Mr. Haqmal said the embassy told him it could not interview him remotely.
And then, at the end of February, Russia invaded, plunging the family into another armed conflict. Mr. Haqmal said his young children ran to the washroom, terrified of the sounds of explosions and sirens.
Desperate to escape the Russian invasion, Mr. Haqmal used his wife’s gold wedding ring as collateral to borrow money from an Afghan shopkeeper he’d met in Kyiv. With the loan, he bought bus tickets to Poland for his entire family.
Initially, Ukrainian border guards prevented the Haqmals from leaving the country because the family was undocumented. After some negotiation, they were allowed to enter Poland.
Mr. Haqmal was relieved to have made it to safety, but he felt that his family was being treated differently than fleeing Ukrainians. At a train station in Poland, he said, he was denied the same free travel being offered to other refugees. “They said, ‘You’re not Ukrainian and you have to pay for the tickets,’” he recalled. “I did not have any money and I told them: ‘Your government says that it is free for everyone who is coming from the war in Ukraine.’ But they were not accepting. They said, ‘No, we are not allowing you.’”
Not for the last time, he was rescued by a stranger’s generosity. A volunteer spotted the family and offered to help. She took them to a school where they could sleep, and her friends picked them up in a car the next day. They drove to Berlin and stayed in a hotel for several nights before going to a refugee camp in the city. Refugees who register at these facilities are given meals, shelter and other social supports.
But Mr. Haqmal said he was unable to register, because so many others were trying to do the same. Thousands of refugees fleeing Ukraine were arriving all at once.
In Berlin, he added, the family struggled to find diapers and milk. In this, too, he believes Ukrainians were treated more humanely than he was.
A spokesperson for the office for refugee affairs in Berlin said the state had granted social assistance to everyone fleeing the war in Ukraine, regardless of their countries of origin. He would not comment specifically on Mr. Haqmal’s case.
While in Berlin, Mr. Haqmal said, he was interviewed by an IRCC officer at the local Canadian embassy, who told him there was a security issue with his case. U.S. officials had told Canadian authorities that, while vetting Mr. Haqmal for a job, they had discovered he had received a suspicious phone call years ago.
Mr. Haqmal confirmed that he had applied for a position as a U.S. military translator years after he finished working for the Canadian government. Asked about the phone call, he said he was running a shop that sold car parts at the time and had many clients he didn’t know very well.
Aidan Strickland, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, said she couldn’t provide details on individual refugee cases for privacy reasons.
She said IRCC is aware of Afghan citizens who are seeking resettlement in Canada, but who are currently in third countries. The government, she added, is doing its best to process these cases quickly, but can’t make final decisions until it finishes full admissibility assessments, including security screenings.
After about 10 days in Berlin, Mr. Haqmal spoke to a camp official who said there was no more room for refugees in the city. The family was sent to a camp in Bramsche, about 400 kilometres to the west.
The Bramsche refugee camp, which is officially known as Landesaufnahmebehorde Niedersachsen, or LAB NI, is located in the German state of Lower Saxony. It’s cordoned off by a green fence, and monitored closely by security guards. On a recent day, dozens of refugees from a handful of countries walked a path from a nearby train station to the centre’s gates.
Mr. Haqmal’s family was given a private room at the camp, because they arrived with children, his pregnant wife and his elderly mother. But the room was filthy, Mr. Haqmal said, and he was told to clean it. He said he had difficulty getting things to eat, and that one of his little girls, terribly hungry, pulled food from a trash bin and ate it.
Andrea Beck, a press officer for the Lower Saxon Authority for the Admission of Persons in Need of Protection, said the state’s government has been “particularly committed in the support of Afghan citizens looking for refuge and support in Germany.”
“After the outbreak of the war, many Ukrainian refugees arrived in Bramsche at extremely short notice. Within a very short period of time accommodation and further support was organized and established,” she said.
Everyone at the camp is provided with three meals a day and enough to drink, she added, and residents are generally responsible for cleaning their private rooms themselves.
The Haqmals chose to leave LAB NI before registering, because, Mr. Haqmal said, they didn’t want to be there during Ramadan, and because he was concerned about his pregnant wife’s health. This decision has left their immigration status in Germany and their eligibility for public services uncertain.
After registering, the family would be able to seek asylum in Germany and go through the country’s regular procedure for such cases. Ms. Beck said asylum seekers are generally required to live in state refugee camps for the duration of the process.
Ukrainian nationals, she added, are not obliged to live in camps, because they have special status under the European Union’s Temporary Protection Directive, which the bloc activated in March. Ms. Beck said Ukrainians can live in Germany for up to three years and don’t have to seek asylum. Many Ukrainians have family members with personal ties to Germany, she noted.
Wiebke Judith, a legal policy adviser on German and European asylum law at PRO ASYL, said the contrast between how Europe has approached the Ukrainian refugee crisis and how it has handled other refugee crises is “very stark.”
Asked whether Ukrainian refugees are being treated differently than those of other nationalities, Ms. Judith acknowledged that a lot of help is being directed toward Ukrainians. “I can see how a family from Afghanistan kind of falls through that. We see a lot of ad hoc and spontaneous support, which is great, but I can imagine that this is very much geared towards Ukrainians,” she said.
“We’re very happy that finally, in the situation of refugees from Ukraine, Europe is united. The borders are basically open. It’s clear everyone sees Ukrainians need protection. We’re very happy about that. But unfortunately, this kind of turn in policy is really only applied at the border and with regard to Ukraine.”
“There are still all of the other borders where people are freezing.”
Mr. Haqmal’s family left the camp with the help of a volunteer they met in Berlin. The volunteer connected them with a church, which put them up in their current home, where they have now lived for about two weeks. They plan to remain there while they sort out their next steps.
The Haqmals are comfortable, but not relaxed. “We don’t know what will happen to us,” Mr. Haqmal said. “We don’t know even tomorrow what will happen, what the government will do. It’s a very difficult situation.”
On a recent evening, as the family prepared to break their daily Ramadan fast, Mr. Haqmal’s thoughts turned to his children, who were busy bouncing on a trampoline in the house’s backyard with their German neighbor.
“They don’t care about religion, they don’t care about language and they don’t care about skin colour. They’re just playing together, and they feel like they’re friends years and years. They feel like they are from one family,” he said.
Though he intends to register with the German government, he still hopes he will eventually be able to start his new life in Canada.
“You know, my daughters had some new clothes from Afghanistan,” he said. “Whenever I was telling them to wear their new clothes in Ukraine, they were saying, ‘No, dad. We will wear it in Canada. We will not use it now.”
Video and podcast: Jawed Haqmal’s long wait in Germany
Escape from Afghanistan: More from The Globe and Mail
Jawed’s continuing story
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