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Terrified of the Taliban, families of Canada's Afghan advisers plead for help

OTTAWA — The threats started with phone calls in 2011 to her home in Kandahar. The mother of six had no idea her Canadian brother was working so close by, just 10 or 15 kilometres away, until the Taliban told her.
Canadian soldiers stand beside a canal near the village of Charbagh on the outskirts of Kandahar in this Oct. 3, 2009 photo. Canadians who served in Afghanistan say many of their Afghan family members don't qualify to come to Canada, even though their lives are at risk. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Graveland

OTTAWA — The threats started with phone calls in 2011 to her home in Kandahar.

The mother of six had no idea her Canadian brother was working so close by, just 10 or 15 kilometres away, until the Taliban told her.

"Your brother is working for foreigners and your life is at risk because your brother works with foreigners," she recalls the insurgents telling her in that first frightening phone call.

Her 25-year-old brother, who was given the code name "Sam" by the Canadian military, was in Afghanistan in secret to help Canadian troops navigate the unfamiliar cultural landscape and give advice to the commanders on the ground.

The Canadian Press has agreed not to use Sam's real name or reveal his sister's identity because of the threat she still faces from the Taliban.

The phone calls continued every four or five days for years. Sometimes the woman's husband, a police officer, would pick up the phone.

Then one day in 2013, her husband was shot dead outside of the family's home on his way to work. She believes he was targeted by the Taliban because of her brother's work with the Canadian military.

Even after the killing, the phone calls continued. Then threatening letters began to arrive at the house. 

"All the years we spent in Afghanistan was in fear," she said in Pashto through an interpreter. 

Fearing that her sons would suffer the same fate as their father, she fled to Turkey in 2018 with several of her children. They now face deportation back to Afghanistan.

"If we are sent back to Afghanistan, of course they will kill us. There are so many threats waiting for us yet," she said. 

Though the Canadian government recently created a program specifically to bring the families of people like Sam to safety, his sister doesn't qualify because she fled too early — before the Taliban took over the country.

"I feel that the responsibility is on me because it happened because of me, you know, because of my involvement," said Sam, who lives in Ottawa.

The Canadian government recruited some 45 Canadian citizens with Afghan heritage like Sam to serve as language and cultural advisers during the mission in Afghanistan. They were granted top-secret security clearance and risked their lives to serve alongside soldiers.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021, Sam immediately contacted the Canadian military and the federal government to bring his family to safety, assuming the families of Canadians who served would be at the top of the list.

Though members of the military advocated on his behalf, his family did not qualify for resettlement through the special programs created after the takeover. He says he was met with silence from the government. 

Last year, four language and cultural advisers filed a human rights complaint against the government.

They argued the Immigration Department discriminated against them by relaxing entry requirements for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion but not for Afghan families of Canadian citizens who served in the conflict.

The government reached a voluntary settlement with two of the advisers and launched a temporary policy to bring the extended family members of the 45 language and cultural advisers to Canada in March. 

But that only applies to people who were in Afghanistan after July 22, 2021, shortly before Kabul fell to the Taliban. 

Conservative MP Scott Reid called the criteria "perverse," and said they more or less guarantee failure.

"The date which was chosen … is unreflective of the fact that some of these individuals were in areas of the country which were much more dangerous," he said. 

"Things were falling apart in Afghanistan earlier than that particular day."

The government has been "flexible and tailored its approaches as the difficult situation has evolved in Afghanistan," Immigration Department spokesman Stuart Isherwood in a written statement. 

He said the government's approach has been informed by a "range of stakeholders," but would not comment on specific cases.

"Each program has eligibility requirements, and individuals must meet those requirements to be eligible to apply," he said. 

In India, another sibling of one of Canada's language and cultural advisers also fears deportation to Afghanistan.

The adviser convinced his brother to leave in 2011 when he realized how unsafe the situation had become for his family members. 

The Canadian Press has agreed not to name him because of the risk his brother faces if he is forced to return to Afghanistan.

"They left Afghanistan because of my job," he said in an interview.

The program also excludes the adult children of qualifying family members. That means the adviser can bring his sister to Canada, but she would have to leave her 22-year-old daughter behind in Afghanistan. 

"We are Canadian citizens and we were the ones who put our lives on the line," he said. "Our families deserve to be here."

Sam and his former colleagues have spent years advocating on behalf of their families, contacting politicians of all stripes. They've shown up to parliamentary committee meetings, called constituency offices and written countless emails in hopes of bringing them to safety. 

"Psychologically, it's torturing me," Sam said.

A government has allowed a maximum of 380 principal applicants under the special program, which is expected to remain open until September. 

Until then, Sam is desperately hoping his phone will ring and someone will be able to help him save his sister from further danger. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2023.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press