Every day is now painfully similar for an Afghan mother of four as her family waits anxiously in an unknown country for a response from the Canadian government.
CBC News hides its name as it fears for the safety of relatives still in Afghanistan.
In October, the family received approval under Ottawa’s special immigration program for Afghans helping Canadian operations in Afghanistan. They were hoping they would start their new life in Canada now.
Instead, they languish in limbo. They spent more than a month in Qatar, but were told that the Canadian embassy would not be able to help them complete the process of coming to Canada. It is unclear why.
Now they are in Albania, desperately hoping for help with their cause. The visa office they have to deal with is in Rome.
“It gives you a sense of, ‘What should I do? What can I do? What’s the next step?'” She said. “What will happen to my children’s future?”
Her eldest hopes to become an astronaut, her youngest a scientist. Now they are out of school while waiting.
While Ottawa says it is doing everything it can to deal with Afghan refugees quickly, spokesmen say many – including those who worked for the Canadian government – are stuck in third countries, bound by a network of bureaucracies.
This family’s struggle provides a snapshot of this reality.
The mother is happy that her family is now safe. She is grateful for Ottawa’s help and still hopes they will be in Canada soon. But the indefinite wait, with little information, has taken a toll.
“There have been that kind of good political intentions, but there has been a huge amount of confusion about what exactly is going on,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
“People … feel very frustrated with the Canadian government because they felt there were promises to help them – and they have not succeeded.”
The hope was shattered
When the Taliban began its lightning strikes against Kabul last summer, this mother, who has a master’s degree in international relations, knew that her family would have to flee Afghanistan.
She has long been an advocate for women in sports and civil society, fearing her family would become a target – a concern heightened by her many years of work on the Canadian government’s peacebuilding projects through the embassy in Kabul. She also spent time working for a Canadian NGO.
“Our biggest concern was safety,” she said. “We were afraid that the Taliban would attack our homes because we have been working with NGOs and with foreigners for many years.”
In late July, she received an email from the Canadian Embassy in Islamabad urging her to apply for the newly announced special immigration program for Afghans who were “an integral part of Canada’s efforts” in Afghanistan.
She submitted the required documents to her family within the three-day deadline. She says her children, husband and herself then went to the Canadian embassy in Kabul to submit the biometric information required by the Canadian government.
Weeks later – after Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15 – she and her family received letters from the Canadian government asking the country’s new rulers to allow their safe passage into Kabul’s airport to fly out of the country.
But by then, the airport had become a dangerous hotspot. Thousands of frightened Afghans crowded around its gates every day, desperate to escape.
With their letters in hand, she and her family – her four children ranging in age from 11 to 17 and husband – tried to get into the airport six times, she says, even sleeping outside the gates for two nights.
But in the midst of the crowd and chaos, they were never able to get through.
“It was really difficult for us to cross Taliban checkpoints,” she said. “We would all take each other’s hands so as not to lose each other.
“It was so hard.”
‘We have no events for you’
Stuck in Kabul, a city where they feared for their lives, the family rarely went outside when they asked Canadian officials for help.
On October 2, about six weeks after applying, the family received an email from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) informing them that their application had been approved under the special immigration measures.
CBC News has reviewed the email and the others described in this article.
It said they would need additional travel documents, but offered only vague information on how to proceed, with no help to leave the country.
Finally, in mid-October, the family was evacuated on a Qatar Airways plane along with dozens of others. CBC News withheld details of their escape at the request of those involved.
Hoping that they would soon be on their way to Canada, she contacted Canadian officials several times to tell them that the family had reached Doha, the capital of Qatar. But the initial answers did not provide any guidance on the next steps.
“I keep thinking, ‘What would happen if they ignored us?’,” She said. “If they suddenly did not accept us – what would we do?”
It was only weeks later, she says, that she was told that the Doha Embassy would not be able to help her family get their temporary residence visa required to enter Canada or arrange their onward journey.
That realization came after she learned that the organization that helped facilitate her family’s evacuation was planning to move the group of evacuees to Albania. The country has agreed to house up to 4,000 Afghan refugees.
She appealed again to the Canadian authorities, but in an email response from the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, she was informed: “We have no arrangements for you to be resettled to Canada from Qatar.”
Instead, the email advised her family to travel with the rest of the group to Albania. From there, she was told to contact the IRCC office in Rome.
She had already traded with Canadian officials in Kabul, Ottawa and Abu Dhabi.
“I do not blame the IRCC because they have many cases,” she said. “But a lot of pressure is on our minds. We wake up and go to bed without any plan.”
SE | Afghan refugees eager to start their new life in Canada while awaiting immigration documents:
The Trudeau government called for more
In an email to CBC News, Alexander Cohen, press secretary to Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, said – despite what happened to this family – cases are being processed in Doha. The embassy, he wrote, issues visa documents and helps with further travel to Canada.
Given his allegations, it is unclear why this family – who had already received approval under the special immigration measures program – were told that their case could not be processed in Qatar.
“I feel weak,” the mother said after learning that other cases have been dealt with in Doha but not her family’s. “I feel hopeless and unable to do anything.”
CBC News told Cohen detailed aspects of the family’s case, but he said he could not comment on the details, citing concerns about privacy.
“While we do not normally officially conduct IRCC treatment in Qatar, we have improvised and helped many of the Afghan refugees who ended up there, and ultimately helped them get to Canada,” Cohen wrote.
Cohen added that staffing has been increased at key embassies around the world as the government works to fulfill its promise to welcome 40,000 Afghan refugees.
The government has described the resettlement effort as unprecedented.
Still in one open letter to the Trudeau government published this month, the World Refugee and Migration Council acknowledged the government’s efforts, but called on it to find ways to treat refugees more quickly.
Toronto’s immigration lawyer, Nilofar Ahmadi, who represents Afghan refugees stranded around the world, says the government is struggling to adapt.
Like this family, many of Ahmadi’s clients face difficult bureaucratic obstacles when trying to reach Canada.
“I wish we were well prepared,” she said. “The Canadian government is learning through this crisis right now, unfortunately.”
‘How can we live our normal lives again?’
The family now lives in a rugged apartment complex with other Afghans in northwestern Albania.
Conditions are less hospitable than in Doha. The family is divided into two rooms on two separate floors. There were not enough beds for everyone when they arrived and there is no internet connection in their rooms.
Upon arrival, the mother IRCC updated on the family’s new location. She says she has not yet received a response.
“Everything is new here for us,” she said. “I feel like we’re starting all over again.”
Her children constantly ask her when they will finally be able to call Canada home – as she is constantly worried about their future.
“I always think of my kids because they are not living their normal lives now,” she said.
“How can we live our normal lives again?”