As Western embassies began to evacuate staff from Kyiv on Monday ahead of a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine, Jawed Haqmal had a terrifying sense of déjà vu.
Once more, war looms. And once more, Mr. Haqmal – a former Canadian military translator, who escaped the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan by fleeing to Ukraine – is scared that he and his family of 12 will be left behind.
“It’s the same history as in Afghanistan – the embassy closes, then the airport, and then I don’t know where I will take my family,” Mr. Haqmal said, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his hotel room near the centre of Kyiv. He anxiously tore a small blue piece of paper into dozens of tiny shreds as he spoke.
Hours earlier, the U.S., Britain and Australia announced they were ordering home the families of diplomats based in Ukraine because of the possibility of Russian aggression. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that Ottawa was drawing up “contingency plans” to possibly do the same. “The safety of Canadian diplomats and families is, of course, paramount,” Mr. Trudeau said.
For Mr. Haqmal, it all feels unsettlingly familiar. He and his family arrived in Kyiv in August after being evacuated from Kabul by Ukrainian special forces. They were rescued after Canada closed its embassy and cut short its own evacuation of Afghans who had worked with the Canadian military during its 10-year mission in Afghanistan. The special mission was carried out following a request from The Globe and Mail to the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Upon arrival in Kyiv, Mr. Haqmal and his extended family – which may soon grow to 13, as his wife, Waranga, is five months pregnant – were given 15-day visas. The expectation was that they would soon travel on to Canada.
Instead, they have spent the past five months tangled in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada red tape.
Afghans approved for resettlement in Canada hide in fear as they await evacuation
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One hundred and 50 days after their arrival in Kyiv, the Haqmals are still living in a trio of hotel rooms paid for by The Globe while they wait for IRCC to process their case. Like hundreds of other Afghans with links to Canada – who fled to third countries such as Pakistan and Qatar with the expectation they would be swiftly resettled in Canada – they remain stuck without any explanation of why their cases have taken so long or how much longer they will have to wait for a decision.
For months, veterans and volunteers have been trying to get Afghans resettled in Canada. Tim Laidler, president of the board of the Veterans Transition Network, said Mr. Haqmal’s is one of many families who have made it out of Afghanistan only to face an uncertain future.
“It’s excruciating for veterans with the Veterans Transition Network to continue being called on WhatsApp by families they’ve been in contact with who have gotten out of the country to only have them now sit in purgatory for months,” he said.
He said his organization has been calling on Ottawa to work with the U.S. to reopen consular support in Afghanistan so people can finish their paperwork and get travel documents to come to Canada.
Allan Rock, a special adviser to the World Refugee and Migration Council and a former federal justice minister, said it is important to remind the government to treat the issue with urgency.
“There are dense layers of process that have made it impossible for even the most capable officials to deliver the goods,” he said. But he added that, while he and most Canadians support the government’s efforts to resettle refugees, Ottawa is “not meeting expectations.”
He said the council proposes having the Immigration Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister and Public Safety Minister form a cabinet committee to overcome the roadblocks, set transparent objectives and provide public reporting on a weekly basis.
“For privacy reasons and the safety and security of those involved, we are unable to provide specific details on cases,” IRCC spokesperson Nancy Caron said. “That being said, we are aware of the situation Afghans are facing in Ukraine and are doing our utmost to process these cases as quickly as possible. Generally, individuals provide information and documents for assessment to meet Canada’s admissibility requirements, and we work to process these as quickly as we can.”
The Canadian military – which has a 200-soldier training mission in Ukraine – initially provided groceries to the Haqmal family but stopped making deliveries in December. Though the military told The Globe it would continue deliveries through a church group, that help never arrived. Private individuals have contributed to paying for the family’s food and other necessities through donations.
And now the threat of another conflict looms. Confined to their hotel rooms – making only rare trips outside since their visas expired in mid-September – the 33-year-old Mr. Haqmal says he has little to do but scroll on his phone through the increasingly alarming news about the Russian military buildup around Ukraine.
He says he keeps what he reads to himself. He hasn’t yet told his young family that Russia could invade Ukraine and that they could potentially have to flee again. “I’m trying not to let them know the situation could get worse.”
Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski’s office has been involved with Mr. Haqmal’s case for months, first trying to help him reach safety when he was still in Afghanistan.
“The whole office is anxiously following his case and hoping that it resolves quickly irrespective of the threat from Russia, we’re hoping for the best and we have been advocating to IRCC to hopefully try to encourage them to expedite his case,” he said. “That would be quite the unfortunate set of circumstances, if he escaped one war zone only to find himself in another war zone.”
Though Russia says it has no intention of attacking its neighbour, it has amassed more than 100,000 soldiers around the country and is demanding guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the NATO military alliance. U.S. President Joe Biden, who says NATO cannot give Moscow the veto it seeks over Ukraine’s possible membership, has warned that a Russian invasion could be launched at any moment.
On Monday, the U.S. said it was considering moving troops stationed in Western Europe to countries on the eastern edge of the NATO alliance. In a statement from its headquarters in Brussels, NATO said it was putting more forces on standby after recent announcements by Denmark, Spain, France and the Netherlands that they were all sending or planning to send additional forces to eastern allies such as Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states.
Russia warned Monday that it would “respond appropriately” to any new NATO deployments, and 20 Russian warships entered the Baltic Sea for unannounced drills.
“I am just so nervous. I don’t even know what to do if this [war] happens. Where shall I take this bundle of kids and sick women?” said Mr. Haqmal, referring to the five children in his group, as well as his elderly mother and sister-in-law, who are recovering from bouts of tuberculosis.
“What shall I do with my pregnant wife in this situation? I am really under pressure. … I can’t explain how worried I am.”
Mr. Haqmal says he e-mails IRCC about once every two weeks. Each time he gets an automated reply. “Rest assured that we have received your message and that we will respond to your enquiry shortly.”
After the fall of Kabul, Canada promised to resettle 40,000 Afghans, though the government set no timeline for doing so and only about 6,750 have arrived so far.
It has been a dramatic and traumatic nine months for the Haqmals. Last May, the family fled their hometown of Kandahar, in the south of Afghanistan, as the Taliban closed in, and moved 500 kilometres north to Kabul. Mr. Haqmal’s service with the Canadian military mission in Kandahar was well known in the city, and he feared the Taliban would punish him and his family for collaborating with a foreign army.
Three months later, the relative safety of Kabul was shattered when the Taliban entered the city. Mr. Haqmal – despite holding an emergency visa issued to him by IRCC – was among the hundreds of former translators left behind as Canada and its allies ended their evacuation without getting all those who had served the 20-year NATO mission out of the country.
Fate intervened when Ukrainian special forces charged in to escort a bus carrying Mr. Haqmal and his family – as well as long-time Globe and Mail researcher Sharif Sharaf and his family of seven – into Kabul airport. The group was flown to Kyiv on Aug. 28.
Five months later, Mr. Haqmal says his family is battling boredom and depression. His three school-age daughters – nine-year-old Marwa, six-year-old Safa and five-year-old Dunya – haven’t been inside a classroom since the family fled Kandahar.
“The kids, they don’t know what they’re missing. They don’t know they’re missing out on their education,” Mr. Haqmal said. “And we still don’t know when we can give them a normal life.”
With reports from Janice Dickson and Robert Fife in Ottawa
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