‘I feel abandoned’: Canadians fear for family hiding from Taliban in Afghanistan

For years, Baz Ali’s father has travelled from his home in Pickering to his hometown in Afghanistan. Every few months, he would make the more than 10,000-kilometre trip to run a school that he worked to establish.

Now, the Canadian educator is stranded and in a race against time, his son told the Star, as he awaits word on when a repatriation flight could bring him home to Canada and rescue him from the possible threat to his life posed by the Taliban.

The country is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis as the government fell to a Taliban offensive, triggered by the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan. Afghan civilians who worked alongside the international community are now being targeted and threatened by the Taliban.

Before COVID-19, Ali’s father ran a school on a volunteer basis — one which both boys and girls could attend. He had been planning to soon reopen the school, Ali explained. Despite repeated threats from the Taliban for educating girls, Ali said his father held firm.

“He gathered up some money, opened up the school and taught people for free,” Ali told the Star. “He recognizes the need for education, particularly educating women and girls there.”

As a vocal critic of the Taliban, Ali fears his father may be in danger if he is recognized on the street. The Star has agreed not to name Ali’s father out of concern for his safety.

Ali described his father’s situation as a “race against time” and fears the worst if he is spotted with a Canadian passport. Currently, he is in hiding and waiting for word on when he may be able to travel home.

Ali said he has sent money transfers to his father, but due to long lines and closures at banks he has been unable to claim the money. If that persists, Ali worries his father may soon be without food.

Though his father had previously been staying with family members, he moved to a hotel in Kabul so their family wouldn’t be targeted by Taliban.

The situation in Afghanistan has meant sleepless nights for his son in Canada.

“The uncertainty is the worst,” Ali said. “I just wish there was some more clarity from the Canadian government as to what is going to happen with respect to an evacuation flight.”

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada told the Star that Canada is working “diligently and in close coordination to secure the safe exit of Canadians in Afghanistan.”

The agency said they are in contact with Canadians in Afghanistan through the Emergency Watch and Response Centre and Registration of Canadians Abroad service. Global affairs is also verifying personal information and “communicating next steps,” the spokesperson said.

Global Affairs would not provide additional details on when repatriation flights or other steps could be expected, citing security concerns.

The federal agency also directed Canadians to their website to find travel advice and advisories.

“Canadians should sign up with the Registration of Canadians Abroad service and monitor messages issued through this service,” the spokesperson said.

Stories like Ali’s are common among Canadians with family in Afghanistan. For many, the crisis means an immediate threat to their relatives’ safety and they’ve been scrambling to help family members apply for resettlement in Canada.

Mo, who lives in Flamborough, Ont., described his growing fear for family members who are seeking refuge in Canada. The Star has agreed to withhold Mo’s full name as it could endanger his family in Afghanistan.

The family, which includes Mo’s brother, his brother’s wife and their children, as well as his father and sister-in-law, have been involved with work by the international community in Afghanistan since 2000, he explained. While Mo immigrated to Canada, the others remained to continue their work, which ranged from community development to assisting Afghan security forces.

Mo’s brother worked on government priority programs funded by the Canadian government, he said. This work has made him a target of the Taliban, Mo said, adding his brother received threatening calls before the Afghan government collapsed last weekend. Attempts to obtain passports for the family failed, as government offices closed before they could be secured, Mo said.

His sister-in-law, meanwhile, worked with the National Security Council of Afghanistan.

“She’s a young, great woman,” he said. “She and her family are in hiding right now, especially after the Taliban started door-to-door searches,” Mo said, adding his sister-in-law’s life may be at risk if she is located.

The family hopes to be among the 20,000 refugees the Canadian government promised to resettle amid the unfolding crisis. Mo, however, expressed frustration at a process that he feels has been unclear.

“What I would like to hear, first of all, is for the government to clearly set the process of what’s going on,” he said. “We are not sure how many flights are coming. We are not sure of the process of how these people are being selected for those flights.”

Mo’s brother has applied for an emergency visa by email, but received only an automatic reply saying that the Canadian government would be in touch. At the same time, roads to the airport could prove dangerous, and people could be at risk if they are found to be carrying travel documents.

In an emailed statement, Nancy Caron, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said the agency’s work to bring Afghans to Canada under the special immigration program will remain “ a top priority.

“We continue to work diligently and in close coordination with partners on this commitment. Once an application is approved, applicants will receive information on how to prepare for their resettlement in Canada.”

The IRCC recognizes “the urgency of the situation” and is working quickly to process applicants, Caron said.

“The Government recognizes the significant challenges faced by those in Afghanistan, and will seek to be as flexible as possible in documentation requirements while ensuring that we are able to confirm identity,” she continued. “ The Government of Canada must also abide by the rules established by the host government and we are working collaboratively to address issues (that have) delayed the departure of some individuals. This includes passport requirements set by Afghan authorities.”

At present, evacuation efforts are focused on Canadians and those who helped support Canada in Afghanistan, she said, noting that while they continue to work to secure flights out of Kabul, the situation is rapidly changing and contingent on the situation on the ground.

For Mo’s family, the situation becomes more dangerous by the day. He described viewing graphic videos of the country’s unrest, where Afghans are now being targeted for their support of the government or the international community.

Mo is hoping for urgent, immediate action by the Canadian government to evacuate refugees and communicate clearly how that will happen.

“They are not only family, they are Afghans who helped us,” Mo said.

“As a Canadian I was proud of what my family was doing for Afghanistan and for the investment that the international community was making there. But now I feel abandoned.”

Jenna Moon is a breaking news reporter for the Star and is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @_jennamoon

TORONTO STAR