From inside a Polish school near the border with Ukraine that’s been converted to a shelter for refugees, Jawed Haqmal says he can’t believe what his family experienced over the past five days in Kyiv and he’s feeling incredibly relieved to have made it to safety.
“Finally I escaped that country, this is the second war. I hope there will not be a third,” Mr. Haqmal told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday evening after the nearly 20-hour trip. Mr. Haqmal and his family had fled war in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover last summer, only to find themselves fleeing Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Mr. Haqmal worked as an interpreter for the Canadian military in Afghanistan and had been living in a Kyiv hotel with his family since the end of August. His family of 12 were evacuated by Ukrainian special forces, a mission carried out after a request from The Globe to the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Their stay in Ukraine was meant to be temporary but ended up feeling at times indefinite as they waited, and still wait, for resettlement approval from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, or IRCC.
Last week, after Russian forces began invading Ukraine, Mr. Haqmal told The Globe that he heard explosions from his hotel and that the sound of warning alarms sent his children running to the bathroom, where they hid and cried with their pregnant mother.
Tuesday evening, he said his children were playing with other refugee kids, in the school, and their pets. He sent a photo of his 20-month-old son climbing the wall. “They’re so happy. I didn’t see them so happy in the last six months,” he said of his children.
Mr. Haqmal said the long trip to Poland from Kyiv was difficult, but particularly challenging to arrange in the first place. He struggled to find transportation and couldn’t afford the fees drivers were charging. Fortunately, another Afghan family that had been living in Kyiv for years offered to lend Mr. Haqmal’s family money to ride on their bus to the border. Mr. Haqmal said he gave them his mother and wife’s gold rings as a guarantee that he will pay them back, and joined them and other Ukrainian passengers on the bus.
Mr. Haqmal said everywhere they turned, people helping refugees get to Poland were trying to take advantage of their plight by demanding more money along the way.
When their bus arrived in Lviv, he said, the driver told the passengers that he would drop them off, but they paid him more money to complete the trip to Poland. When they reached the border, he said, border guards would not let his family through, citing their expired documents, and saying Polish guards would prevent them from entering. Mr. Haqmal said his family paid the guards, they were waived through, and the Polish guards on the other side said “no problem” when he showed them their expired documents. He also said people told him they had been waiting in line for days, but his group had paid to get through.
He said the trip was also prolonged by many Ukrainian checkpoints, with officers stopping vehicles and closely checking everything before allowing them to continue.
“I just remember the last five or six days and it’s so surprising for me how worse it was. … I didn’t sleep for more than 10 hours in five days, not only me but no one in the family. Just looking to the windows into they sky wondering what will happen next.”
“The past five days, I will just tell you in simple words … it was just hell.”
Mr. Haqmal said in Kyiv there were explosions, the city was under a curfew, roads were blocked and full of soldiers.
“I saw a lot of problems in my country, I was confronted with Taliban ambushes, suicide attacks, lots of problems, but I was never scared. This was the only time in my life that I was scared because I was just hopeless. It was very difficult days, I hope it will not repeat in my life again.”
Mr. Haqmal said he is feeling like he did six months ago when he escaped Afghanistan, full of hope and thinking of his future. Though he lost that hope waiting to hear from IRCC, he said he is feeling positive about the future once again.
“I feel that now again a new life has started. I will have a new life in the future and my kids will be educated, they will have a way to get to school. I feel really hopeful.”
Mr. Haqmal said he’s planning to move his family to Germany because he does not believe Canadian officials in Poland will help him. He said he discussed his case with Canadian officials he met near the border, and they told him they could not help and that he would need to find a Canadian embassy. He said he will go to Germany and raise his case there.
“In both wars Canadians, unfortunately, officials, did nothing for me. They just left me in both wars both times when I really needed them.
“Canadian officials, they really broke my heart.”
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