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Afghan refugee Jawed Haqmal stands alone in Maidan square in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2022.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Afghan refugees who fled to Ukraine after the Taliban takeover of their home country are terrified that they have once again found themselves in a war zone, with no obvious exit.

“Everything is finished,” said Jawed Haqmal, who worked as a translator for the Canadian military in Afghanistan and has been living in a Kyiv hotel with his family since the end of August. “Just like a war zone, everyone is running to the shelters, streets are full of the army. Just like war, the same as what was going on in front of the airport of Kabul on the last day. The same thing is going on here.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared “a special military operation” against Ukraine on Wednesday. Shortly afterward, Russian forces invaded Ukraine from the east, north and south, sending thousands of people running for safety. Explosions have been heard in Kyiv, Odessa and several other cities.

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Mr. Haqmal said he has heard explosions from his hotel. The sound of warning alarms sends his children running to the bathroom, where they cry and hide with their pregnant mother.

His family of 12 arrived in Ukraine after being evacuated from Afghanistan by Ukrainian special forces, a mission that was carried out following a request from The Globe and Mail to the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Their stay in Ukraine was supposed to be a temporary stop on their way to Canada.

But Mr. Haqmal and his extended family have been forced to remain in Ukraine while they wait for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to approve their application for resettlement. They are not the only Afghans trapped in another war because of Canadian bureaucratic delay.

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Ukrainian servicemen walk past a destroyed armoured vehicle, which they said belongs to the Russian army, outside Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24.MAKSIM LEVIN/Reuters

Sahraa Karimi, an Afghan film director who made a documentary for a program the Canadian embassy in Kabul helped fund, said she and her brother’s family have been approved for resettlement in Canada, but are all still waiting for Canadian visas. She is safe in Italy, but she said her brother, his wife and their four girls are, like Mr. Haqmal’s family, stuck in a Kyiv hotel.

“I feel hopeless,” Ms. Karimi said. She had been awake since 4 a.m. trying to find a solution for her brother’s family. If something happens to them, she said, she will never forgive herself.

“I said ‘don’t be afraid, everything will be okay’ … but I’m not sure everything will be okay, you know?”

Aidan Strickland, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, said IRCC “has been made aware of complex cases of Afghan citizens who are seeking resettlement to Canada, but are currently in Ukraine.”

“IRCC streamlined the application process for applicants from Afghanistan and processed these cases as quickly as possible. While we cannot comment on specific cases, a full admissibility assessment – including security screening – must be completed before a final decision on an application can be made.”

Ms. Strickland said certain cases are complex, and that the screening part of the process can take time.

Fen Osler Hampson, president of the World Refugee and Migration Council and a professor at Carleton University, said in a statement that it is incumbent on the federal government to meet its resettlement obligations to Afghans who have worked for Canada and “have been placed in double jeopardy as a result of this crisis.”

“But at the same time, Canada is also going to have to up its refugee acceptance and resettlement programs to deal with the crisis of Ukrainians who are now fleeing their country to escape Putin’s hammer. It’s time to cut the bureaucratic and political Gordian knot which seems to have tied us in knots for far too long,” he said.

In his hotel lobby in Kyiv, Mr. Haqmal described everyone around him as “really scared.”

“I don’t even know where to run,” he said.

Everything around his hotel is closed, and he can’t find food for his children. “No one stops crying. Kids are crying, my mother is crying, my wife is crying,” he said.

“Believe me, I’m just really heartbroken.”

Global protests were sparked on Thursday to denounce the invasion of Ukraine -- while more than a thousand who tried to do the same in Russia were arrested. This report produced by Jillian Kitchener.


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