Tanya, a naturalized Canadian citizen who lives in Ottawa, has been trying to get her entire family to Canada, or the US, for years.
More recently, she has prioritized getting her father — whom she said worked as a subcontractor repairing equipment for the Canadian and American militaries — onto an evacuation flight to escape Taliban retaliation.
Tanya, who asked The World not to use her last name to avoid endangering her family members, said that when her father didn't answer her call on Friday, she panicked.
“I called my brother and said, ‘Is everything OK? Are you guys OK?’ And he said, ‘Yes, we were attacked yesterday.’ And that just shattered me, basically.”
Armed men had come to the house, he told her — and her family members escaped by climbing over a wall and have now gone into hiding.
Tanya sent her family’s documents to the Canadian government three weeks ago, after the government announced that Afghans looking to be evacuated should submit their information via email, but said she is still waiting to hear back.
Unfortunately, that story is all too familiar for Afghans in Canada looking to get their loved ones out of Afghanistan. The Canadian government is now defending itself against criticism that it has been slow to evacuate Canadian citizens and Afghans who worked for the Canadian government.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that if the Taliban continues to restrict access, this will limit the number of Afghans Canada can evacuate.
“We will get some, certainly, but to get many people out, as many as we'd want, is going to be almost impossible in the coming weeks."
“We will get some, certainly, but to get many people out, as many as we'd want, is going to be almost impossible in the coming weeks,” Trudeau said, delivering updates on the Afghan evacuation from the campaign trail after calling a snap parliamentary election that began the same day Taliban troops entered Kabul.
Canada deployed troops in Afghanistan as part of joint NATO forces until 2014. They were supported by thousands of Afghan interpreters and other staff.
Late last week, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Canada would accelerate evacuations. He said the collection of biometric data was being moved to a third country and that Canada would waive requirements like COVID-19 tests and passports to board evacuation flights. The day the Taliban entered Kabul, form emails were still encouraging Afghans to apply for passports.
Mendicino tweeted Monday that Canada had flown more than 1,500 Afghans to safety. Some passengers who ended up on Canadian flights have reportedly been bound for other allied countries. And many Canada evacuees have been unable to reach the airport at all to board flights.
“The situation on the ground is volatile. It’s precarious. We’re staying in constant contact with all the people we’re trying to help,” Mendocino said on a Canadian TV program Sunday.
Officials have said they want to evacuate about 6,000 Afghans with ties to Canada.
A spokesperson for Mendicino’s division, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), Rémi Larivière, said in an email that he could not disclose operational details but wrote: “We recognize the urgency of the situation, and we will continue to work as quickly as possible.”
Larivière noted that Canada is also working to expedite the processing of family sponsorship applications for Afghans. Canada’s family reunification program does not allow Canadians like Tanya to sponsor her adult siblings.
Loose networks of individuals have also mobilized to help bring Afghans who worked with the Canadian military to safety.
Andrew Rusk’s sister-in-law was the first Canadian military woman to be killed in combat in Afghanistan. In July, he co-founded a group called Not Left Behind, which is working with dozens of Canadian veterans.
“I don't doubt for a minute that everybody is trying incredibly hard at this moment to do the right thing. ... But we needed to do the right thing three months ago, four months ago."
“I don't doubt for a minute that everybody is trying incredibly hard at this moment to do the right thing,” Rusk said, responding to recent statements by Canadian politicians. “But we needed to do the right thing three months ago, four months ago.
“Because of our delays, because of the paperwork, because of the bureaucracy, instead of getting people on planes, we've had Afghans that supported us hiding for their lives as they've been hunted by the Taliban,” Rusk said.
Those approved for flights receive messages from the Canadian government to make their way to the airport in Kabul, which, for many, means crossing through Taliban checkpoints and crowds outside the gates.
For some, help will almost certainly come too late, Rusk said.
“Last weekend, I received news from one of the veterans working on this that three cooks that worked with him in Kandahar were killed. A couple of weeks before, we heard that the wife of an interpreter was killed.”
Canada has committed to welcoming 20,000 Afghans, including those being evacuated now. The rest will likely be people who have gotten out of Afghanistan to a third country on their own.
Maureen Silcoff, a past president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, said immigration officials should use flexible options at their disposal, including temporary residence permits, to get as many people on evacuation flights as possible.
She said Canada could also waive some paperwork requirements to expedite the arrival of Afghans from other countries, as the government did during a past effort to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees.
“Hopefully, the situation with Afghan refugee resettlement will take those practices into account and we can see efficient measures put in place to really help people come to Canada and start new lives here,” Silcoff said.
Canada’s private sponsorship program lets groups of Canadians support individual refugees’ resettlement and exceptionally high participation helped Canada eventually admit 39,000 Syrians in just under a year.
Silcoff said she’s encouraged to see lots of public interest in sponsoring Afghan refugees and that she hopes the number of Afghans admitted to Canada will also be expanded.