So far 28,825 of 40,000 Afghan refugees Canada has committed to settling by the end of this year have arrived
Atiq fled Afghanistan shortly before the Taliban took control of Kabul. He went to Turkey, where he is now living in a basement without any status, working in a bakery and facing the risk of deportation every day.
“I feel like I’m in jail, scared to go out of my one room beyond work. I’m just counting the days until I can come to Canada. I’m getting depressed,” he said with the aid of a translator.
CBC agreed to only use Atiq’s first name to protect his safety. He said if he tried to obtain refugee status in Turkey, he would be caught and deported to Afghanistan.
“A few months ago, the Turkish police took some of my friends and deported them to Iran, from there to Pakistan where they were handed over to the Taliban. None of them ever reached home to their families.”
Monday is Nowruz, the Persian new year. The popular festival celebrated throughout Iran and Central Asia is usually marked by a public holiday, with families gathering to prepare festive dishes and welcome the spring.
The Taliban, however, cancelled the public holiday, saying it does not carry any significance in Islam.
CBC spoke with recent newcomers, and with Afghan nationals hoping to be allowed to come to Canada before the next Nowruz.
As Canada inches closer to its target of resettling 40,000 Afghan refugees before the end of the year, many want the program to be extended.
Atiq and his family members were well-known human and women rights activists. Atiq’s uncle Amanullah Arian said the Taliban has been pestering Atiq’s father for his and his sister’s whereabouts.
“The Taliban has taken Atiq’s father to jail a few times to beat him up,” Arian said.
Atiq’s sister has been married off and is hiding in a village in Afghanistan, as the Taliban wanted to execute her.
“When I last spoke with Atiq’s sister, she was really afraid of her safety. She speaks English and that is an evil language for the Taliban. All her dreams have now fallen apart,” Mariam Arian, Atiq’s aunt, said.
Hope for a Nowruz reunited with family
Atiq’s uncle, aunt and three other sponsors have been trying to bring the 29-year-old to safety in Brampton, Ont., since 2021. They submitted an application to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) on June 23, 2022.
“Our hope is that this will be the last Nowruz that we celebrate without Atiq here. No one should be alone on Nowruz,” Mariam said.
“We were naive to think that it would be less than a year that he will join us.”
The family says IRCC finally responded in February, but it was to threaten to decline the application.
“Because Aman and Mariam as sponsors share an email address. Just like the married couple share a residential address, they share an email address too,” Andrew Koltun, their immigration lawyer, said, noting it was an arbitrary criteria that does not exist as a rule.
Amanullah created another email address, but Koltun said it could take upwards of five years to get Atiq to Canada.
Atiq said he wants to resume studying law in Canada and restart his life.
Koltun said applications are not processed on a “first come, first serve basis,” which can make the wait endless. He said when the invasion started in Ukraine, a large number of resources were shifted away from Afghans to people coming from there.
According to IRCC, 28,825 Afghan refugees have arrived since August 2021. However, in the last year, Canada has approved 603,681 of the 922,386 applications it received from Ukrainian nationals under its special immigration program. At least 184,908 Ukrainian nationals have already arrived with more on their way.
“It’s very frustrating to see Afghan nationals only come to Canada on such sponsorships while the government moves heaven and earth to create special immigration programs for Ukrainians,” Koltun said.
It is unclear if Canada might increase its target of 40,000 Afghan refugees.
“Unfortunately, a crisis of this magnitude means that there will always be more demand for resettlement to Canada than we are able to provide,” IRCC said in an email statement.
‘Taliban shattered my dreams’
Najibulla Sorosh, an Afghan refugee who arrived in Saskatchewan in 2021, said the government should increase the targets to at least save vulnerable women and girls. He said the situation is deplorable in Afghanistan, as it is in Ukraine.
Back in Afghanistan, Sorosh was the co-founder of two well known high schools, where half of the 5,000 students were girls. While a few fled, close to 2,500 of his girl students are still in Afghanistan.
“The situation is very bad in Afghanistan, especially for women and girls. They are not allowed to work or be educated or go to school,” he said. “All the time they’re staying at home.”
Sorosh said his students often message and call him, desperately asking him to get them out of there, but he feels helpless. He said a school term used to begin on the third day of Nowruz in Afghanistan.
“This year, while boys will go to school, girls will again stay home. Their new year used to be always with joy and happiness and celebrations, but now it’s a sad time for the girls,” Sorosh said.
“I feel guilty that I’m in a safe place with a job and future ahead, but my students and teachers are stuck there.”
CBC spoke with three of his students — Roya Wahidy, Saliha Wakili and Shakila Jafari. They are in Kabul and want to come to Saskatchewan to continue their education.
“I had lots of hopes, goals and dreams before the Taliban came and made the terrible changes, something no one would have expected in the 21st century,” Shakila Jafari, who was hoping to finish Grade 12, said.
Jafari said she was very studious and was working hard on honing her skills, especially her English, to earn scholarships for higher education abroad.
“We are not allowed to leave our homes, let alone the country. There’s nothing to do,” she said. “The biggest problem is that the Taliban is no longer issuing us passports. I will keep studying from home meanwhile.”
She wants Canadian universities to provide free online courses.
Though Roy Wahidy has a passport, she is still not allowed to travel without a male family member accompanying her.
Wahidy, who wanted to become a psychologist, asked her school administration if she could study disguised as a boy.
“I feel I’ve lost everything. This is not just my problem, it’s for thousands of girls here. The Taliban shattered my dreams,” Wahidy, who was assisting other girls in improving their language and computer skills, said.
She is still preparing for the TOEFL test to apply to Canadian universities.
Last week, the Taliban closed down the women’s library in Kabul — the only remaining place to seek some educational resources in the city.
Saliha Wakili, who recently graduated, was looking forward to her undergraduate studies, with an eye on becoming a doctor.
“Now, I can’t appear in any educational institution, so I must bury my dreams and ambitions. I’m still trying to study, as no one wants to stay in this country.”
Sorosh’s niece, Ellah Elham, knows the three girls well and wants them to be safe in Canada.
Elham, 15, is attending Grade 10 in Prince Albert, working on her English language and rebuilding her life. She said knowing her friends are struggling without basic human rights is torment. She said one of her best friends, who is barely 19, is getting married to a man in Australia in hopes of escaping.
“I feel guilty that while I’m free and safe here, I can’t help my friends there,” she said.
Elham said Jafari, a former classmate, was “one of the most intelligent girls” she has ever met. She wants the Canadian government to allow the girls to come.
“Like Shakila, so many deserving girls are deprived of a new year there. They’re missing out on Navroz.”