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Volunteers sought to help Afghan interpreters

OTTAWA — An organization counting retired military officers and diplomats among its ranks is looking for volunteers to welcome and help integrate any former Afghan interpreters and their families who end up being evacuated to Canada.

OTTAWA — An organization counting retired military officers and diplomats among its ranks is looking for volunteers to welcome and help integrate any former Afghan interpreters and their families who end up being evacuated to Canada.

The call to arms from the Conference of Defence Associations Institute comes in anticipation the federal government will rescue dozens of Afghans who are now facing Taliban arrest or worse for having previously worked with Canada.

“We don't know exactly what the needs are going to be,” said Guy Thibault, chair of the institute and retired lieutenant-general. “We're just really trying to get ahead of it with a group of volunteers who have a connection to the whole story of Afghanistan.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday the government is working furiously to approve such a humanitarian effort in the face of pressure from Canadian veterans concerned about the fate of their former Afghan colleagues.

“We are working with Canadian veterans, we are working with different organizations and with communities in Afghanistan to be able to provide safety and coming to Canada for many of them and their families,” he said during an event in Hamilton, Ont.

“This is something that we take very seriously and that we are working diligently and aggressively on.”

The veterans’ concerns have nonetheless only increased in recent days as the Taliban has advanced across much of Afghanistan, including into the province of Kandahar where Canada spent years fighting the group.

The lack of action has led to mounting frustration in the veterans’ community, with some saying they have sent money and other support to help relocate former interpreters, drivers, cultural advisers and others from Kandahar to safer parts of the country.

One of those relocated was Najeb, who fled Kandahar with Canadian assistance with his wife and four children on Monday. Documentation provided to The Canadian Press shows he previously worked with NATO and a Canadian company in Kandahar.

“There’s a lot of interpreters in every province, but Kandahar is the front line,” Najeb said in an interview. “I can’t tell you my position right now, because I'm safe. I don't care about my condition. I have a room … I'm safe.”

The Canadian Press agreed not to disclose Najeb’s full name or his location to protect the safety of him and his family.

Najeb says he tried to apply for help with the British government but was turned away because he worked at Kandahar Airfield and not on the front lines with NATO troops.

That distinction appears irrelevant to the Taliban. Najeb says the group burned his house in December and delivered numerous threats before its current offensive. It was only through the help of a group of Canadians that he was able to escape Kandahar.

One of those Canadians was retired corporal Robin Rickards, who says he has been running on three hours of sleep per night for a week as he and others have worked to keep former interpreters from the Taliban until Ottawa can get them out of the country.

Such grassroots efforts have sprung up in different parts of Canada virtually overnight in response to the Taliban's rapid advances across much of Afghanistan, and the lack of action from the federal government.

Rickards says an anonymous donor provided the money to relocate Najeb and 20 other interpreters and their families over the weekend to safer parts of Afghanistan, one of several such efforts aimed at keeping them out of the Taliban’s clutches — for now.

While Rickards acknowledged the challenge of screening and verifying those who want to come to Canada, he said the lack of action from the government has added fear and uncertainty to what was already a difficult situation.

“Hopefully the government acts fast enough that these people won't be left lingering,” he said.

In the meantime, he and others are providing advice and assistance to Afghans looking for help as well as emergency aid.

One of the big questions aside from when the government will launch a plan to help Afghans who worked with Canada during this country’s 13-year war in Afghanistan is who will be eligible for assistance.

While Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino has previously spoken of helping translators, interpreters and people who worked at Canada’s embassy in Kabul, some are also asking about others who supported Canada’s war effort such as cooks and drivers.

There are also growing concerns about the extended family of the 800 Afghans who left their native land for Canada in 2008 and 2012, when the government launched two different programs for former interpreters.

One of those former interpreters, Noori, now lives in Vancouver and said he prays every time he gets a message from Afghanistan as the Taliban has been threatening his family in Kandahar because of his past work with the Canadian military.

“I put my whole family in danger,” he said. “And when you were my brothers or my father is captured by those guys, that's the end of their life. We definitely need help from people like you and good people in the government.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press