Jawed Haqmal is a former Canadian military translator in Afghanistan. He and his family have been in limbo after escaping Afghanistan 15 months ago. This piece was written with support from Globe and Mail editor Adrian Lee.
Education was always very important to my family. My father worked all day in his small workshop in Kandahar, fixing cars to pay for his kids’ education, and because of him, my four sisters and five brothers were able to graduate from university. After I graduated, I wanted to do work that would help my country and support my family, so I worked with the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force and NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, providing translation, cultural advice, supply and construction work.
I became well-known among Canada’s mission in Kandahar because the locals knew me well, and I got to attend all the meetings, including the most important ones. I helped decipher Taliban radio commands to keep NATO soldiers safe from ambushes; once, I even impersonated a Taliban commander on the radio to stop a planned attack on Canadian forces.
Those were hard years, but good ones. But then, in May, 2021, we heard that the Taliban had launched its offensive to take over Afghanistan again; over the course of the summer, the Afghan Army’s checkpoints and the country’s districts fell, one by one.
Every Afghan who had gotten education over the past 20 years – especially anyone who had helped the foreign forces – suddenly felt that death was coming.
What happened next happened so quickly. And, at the same time, everything since then has taken so long. It’s been a year and a half, and we’ve escaped two wars through four countries, but we are still not in Canada – and throughout, I have been haunted by one awful, draining word: soon.
Late one night, in that anxious June of 2021, I got a message from my friend Robert St. Aubin, who works for Canadian MP Marcus Powlowski. He told me I had to get my family out of Kandahar and head to Kabul; that would put us closer to the international airport, where we could get an evacuation flight. He told me that people in Canada’s defence ministry had approved me to come to Canada.
I woke up my family to share the good news. We were getting a new life!
Shortly afterward, I left for Kabul with my family, full of hope. I remember watching my five children sitting together while on the phone with relatives, telling them how happy they were, and promising that they would come back to Afghanistan as doctors. I remember hearing their grandparents reminding my girls that when they got to Canada, they needed to study as hard as they could so they could help the poor women of Afghanistan in the future.
We didn’t know yet about the bureaucratic nightmare that was to come.
It was an August morning when I went to a bazaar in Kabul to buy pants for me and my daughters. I had heard that these were the “normal” clothes worn in Canada, so I wanted to get them for us, so we could fit in in our new home.
That’s when the Taliban broke through and entered the city – and when the shooting began.
My wife called me crying, begging me to come back to the hotel we were staying at right away, because the children were so scared. In the afternoon, Robert phoned me and told me that everything was collapsing. Following his advice, I managed to get a taxi and stuffed my family in – and on top of – the cab. But we couldn’t get to the airport; crowds of people were stuck, bottlenecked at the Abbey Gate, where the scared masses were trying in vain to show their documents to the foreign soldiers who were stationed there, preventing people from getting through. In the madness, I tried to ask other patrolling troops to put me in touch with the Canadian mission, but they weren’t able to help me. Occasionally, soldiers threatened to fire on people to keep them away.
At some point, Robert called. He told me there was no way out left. It was up to me to figure out what to do next.
At the urging of my Canadian friends, including my former platoon commander, retired captain Jérémie Verville of the Royal 22nd Regiment, I kept trying to get into the airport over the next few days.
I tried everything. I wore red clothing to attract notice from Canadian troops; we stood waiting outside the Abbey Gate for as many as 12 hours without food or water; I slept outside the airport so I could try again early in the morning. But my wife and my sick, elderly mother were unable to navigate the steep-walled, crowded canal of filthy water near the airport gate that people had been forced to stand in.
One afternoon, when my children and I were in the canal trying to get through, an explosion went off close by. After a few terrifying moments, I saw hundreds of people lying on the ground; some were bloodied, others were dead. My daughter Dunya lost her hearing because of the blast, and she’s still having problems today, even after having surgery last month. I later learned the explosion was caused by a suicide bomber.
That was one of the worst days of my life. I can’t forget it, ever.
Later, my friend Mohammed Sharif Sharaf – an interpreter who had worked with The Globe and Mail – gave me a call. He told me to get my family to Kabul’s Serena hotel, because Qatari security guards were escorting eligible people from that location into the airport. We waited 12 days at that hotel, only for the Qataris to eventually tell us that they couldn’t help people without a valid passport and a visa for their final-destination country. The Canadian government sent us a piece of paper validating that we had been granted a visa, but only my brother and I had passports; the rest of my family had applied, but they weren’t able to print any of their documents. So the Qataris couldn’t help us.
That night, Vice News correspondent Seb Walker told me about an evacuation flight he’d learned about; if we went to the meeting place, he said, Americans could take us to the airport. We waited there all night in the cold weather, until he eventually called us to say that the mission had been cancelled because of security concerns.
Sharif called me again late one night. He told me that Mark MacKinnon, The Globe’s senior international correspondent, had been told that Ukrainian special forces could get his family and the family of Mukhtar Amiri – who was a news assistant in The Globe’s temporary Kabul bureau – to the airport. But Mukhtar decided he couldn’t leave his grandmother behind in Afghanistan; she was in her nineties, and had gotten hurt trying to get to the airport. So Sharif asked Mark to put my family on the list instead.
I was so tired by that point. It was hard to believe anything any more. But after about an hour, Ukrainian soldiers came to get us to the airport. About six hours later, we were sitting in a military airplane, ready to take off. It was really happening. I took photos of my family on the plane – all 12 of us, including some of my extended family. We were so happy, once again. We had been saved by angels.
The nearly 24-hour journey was terrible – loud and over capacity, the military plane required two fuelling stops and had only one toilet for the roughly 160 of us on board. Still, we couldn’t stop smiling. Two days after we arrived in Kyiv, an immigration official came to our hotel and told us that we’d fly to Canada soon, but that because of COVID-19, fitting everyone on the same plane would be impossible.
There was that word: soon.
We had to split our families in two, and Sharif and his group of family members flew out first. But days went by without us hearing anything from the embassy or from Canada’s immigration department (IRCC) about when we’d be able to leave. When we’d ask them about our flight to Canada, they’d tell us, it’ll take just one more week, because there was still paperwork to do. They would repeat that – it will be soon, just wait one more week – for six months, and still, we were stuck.
Our Ukrainian humanitarian visas were only valid for a month, and when we asked for them to be extended, the Ukrainians refused. They told us that Canada needed to come get us out of Ukraine, but when we asked Canadian officials about our flight, they kept telling us to wait – our case was still being processed. We’d hear from them. Soon.
In the cold Ukrainian winter, we were without food, warm clothes, health supplies or financial support. I had to become a beggar, pleading with friends and relatives to send money. We were scared to leave the hotel, too, because if someone asked us for documents, we wouldn’t be able to produce any. We felt like prisoners.
During this period, my wife realized she was pregnant. I thought we should get an abortion, but my wife desperately wanted to keep the child. Soon, she said, we will be in Canada! Things will be easier there! The government will help us raise our baby!
This time was so hard for my children. The same children who dreamed of becoming doctors and returning to Afghanistan to help poor women were denied education for months. Whenever they got sick, we had to rely on the kindness of hotel staff to bring medicine from their own homes.
Still, they clung to hope about a life in Canada. When I asked them to wear the pants I had bought for them in the Kabul bazaar, they refused: “No, Dad!” they said. “We will wear our new clothes in Canada.”
We know we are lucky in some ways, but we have also suffered and lost so much. My father, who is still in Kabul, was taken in by Taliban authorities multiple times for investigation. My house in Kandahar was taken over by a Taliban warlord. My sister-in-law, who escaped with me, got tuberculosis. My mother, who also got on that plane with me, suffers from diabetes, depression and heart disease, and had a heart attack in Kyiv. My mother-in-law had a heart attack, too, and she died; I think this is my fault. She was so depressed at having to stay in Afghanistan while we were fortunate enough to get out of the country that it broke her heart.
Afghans know all too well what it is like to be invaded by Russians; the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s was a terrible time. When we heard that many Russian troops had gathered on the Ukrainian border, my mother shared horrifying stories from that time with us, and we became scared. But by this point, Canada’s Ukrainian embassy had moved to Poland, and officials told me they couldn’t help us if we were still in Ukraine.
When the invasion of Ukraine began in February, everyone was just trying to survive. We were left alone in the dark rooms of the hotel, looking out from our fourth-floor window as roads were blocked, markets were closed and sorrow spread across Kyiv. We heard explosions from the hotel, and the sound of warning alarms made my children cry.
So we had to act.
I had gotten to know an Afghan shopkeeper who sold phone covers and chargers near our hotel. I asked him for help, and he told me that he was planning on leaving Kyiv in two days and could help get us on his bus out of Ukraine. I didn’t have any money, though, so I gave him my wife’s gold wedding ring as a deposit for our tickets, with a promise to pay him when we arrived at our destination.
On March 1, the 12 of us walked for more than four hours in the bitter cold to where we were going to be picked up. The plan was to go through Poland to Germany, and once there, we’d head to Berlin, where Canadian officials had told me we could get an immigration interview.
But when our bus arrived at the Polish border, Ukrainian guards asked me for our documents, and we only had expired ones. One gave me a slap and told me to return to Kyiv. Fortunately, the shopkeeper was able to speak to the soldier in Ukrainian and give him some money. The guards eventually let us into Poland, where we slept in a military training school with hundreds of others who had also fled the country.
Many angels have helped us in our journey. One is a Canadian man who learned about our story when my friend Jérémie was interviewed on CTV News. The man got in touch with me and sent me money to pay the Afghan shopkeeper so I could get my wife’s ring back; that man gave me courage to keep fighting.
Another angel was the woman who saw our family near the Polish-German border and wanted to help us. She took us to a school to sleep in that night, before arranging for her friends to drive us to Berlin. I was hoping to find more angels there.
When we got there, I contacted IRCC for our entry interview, which a Canadian official conducted online. We’d get the results soon, they said. That word again! Ten months later, we’re still waiting.
In Berlin, we waited 10 days in line to register for a refugee camp, but when we finally got to the front, we were told that the camps in the city were already full with Ukrainians and that we should go to the town of Bramsche, about 400 kilometres away. But our room there was full of garbage and there was nothing to eat; at one point, my hungry kids scrounged in trash cans. With my wife so close to giving birth and with Ramadan coming up, we had to leave. A volunteer helped connect us with a church in Betheln, 200 kilometres away, and we stayed there for a few months.
That’s where my little girl Haya Haqmal was born in June. We welcomed her to this dark world, and now, she is on this difficult journey of life with us.
After that, the man who paid for my bus trip from Kyiv to Poland rented us a house about 300 kilometres outside Berlin, where we are today. We are so grateful. But we are still trapped. The German government rejected our asylum application, because another application was already in process – the one we made more than a year ago, to go to Canada. As a result, we have no benefits or social support. Angels are amazing, but we shouldn’t rely on their grace.
It is four o’clock in the morning in Germany as I write this, and my little girls are sleeping around me. My eldest daughter Marwa is dealing with a serious cough from the winter cold. Every few minutes, she wakes up, and sometimes, she asks: Dad, when will you take me to the doctor? When will you buy me a winter coat?
Please sleep now, is all I can say. There will be relief soon.
That word again: soon. I don’t know what it means any more.
I look at my children and think about their dark and unknown future, and tears roll down my face. It feels like we have been physically saved – but emotionally destroyed by a bureaucracy that does not seem to care about us.