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Rights + Justice

An Afghan-Canadian Father Is Desperate to See His Kids

He’s in BC. As Canada suspends evacuations, his children are trapped in Kabul.

Hiren Mansukhani 26 Aug 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Hiren Mansukhani is a writer and reporter who is working with The Tyee in partnership with the Tula Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @hirenm1996.

Around a week ago, Mohammed Daud Yousofzai fell off a ladder and injured his abdomen while measuring a piece of drywall at an apartment in Langley. None of his colleagues were around, so he was able to hide his injury and get back to work. He wanted to avoid attention.

A month earlier, he accidentally slit the back of his hand as he was slicing drywall with a knife. His boss asked him why he was being so careless, and gave him a warning.

Yousofzai didn’t know how to tell him that all he could think of was the safety of the two children he’d had to leave behind in Kabul.

His mind kept replaying scenes of the time in Afghanistan, three years ago, when he’d narrowly been missed by two bullets and received three official, written death threats from the Taliban. And the time when a member of the terrorist group called him, rattled off information about his wife and children, and carefully described how he would harm them.

Yousofzai, who was born and raised in Afghanistan, lived there with his wife Mariam Yousofzai and their four children until 2018, when it was no longer safe to stay. He fled the country and arrived in Canada that year. A month later, he was able to figure a way out of Afghanistan for his wife and their youngest two children — but wasn’t able to bring his other two children with him to Canada at the same time.

The Yousofzais, who have since had a fifth child, born in Canada, have been waiting to be reunited with their eldest two for the past three years.

Now that Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban, Yousofzai fears that his two eldest children, and his brother, Abdullah Yousufzai, who is also stuck there, might slip away from him for good.

“My 13-year-old daughter told me last weekend that she’ll kill herself if she has to surrender herself to the Taliban,” Yousofzai said.

The Taliban has signalled that their return to power would not be as hardline as their rule in the past. The group has promised to respect the rights of women and not seek vengeance on Afghans who served the previous government.

But Yousofzai calls this messaging a farce. “Since they came to power, they killed two of my cousins,” he said.

Yousofzai is just one of many Afghan immigrants and refugees in Canada who are desperately waiting to reunite with their family members. As of Monday, Canada had successfully evacuated about 1,700 of the 6,800 Afghans who were seeking resettlement in Canada at the time the Taliban took over.

But when the Taliban announced on Tuesday that they will bar Afghans from reaching the airport to board evacuation flights, hopes of family reunifications began fading.

As of today, Canada has evacuated 3,700 people from Kabul.

Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a press conference that the government is doing everything it can to support Afghans and evacuate them. “The security situation on the ground is all changing rapidly, sometimes literally by the hour,” Sajjan said. “I can assure you that they’re doing everything in their power and taking every opportunity.”

For Yousofzai, such promises come too little, too late — he has been working to bring his family to Canada since long before the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan.

Yousofzai’s case highlights gaps in Canada’s immigration system, which, advocates say, fail to prioritize the most vulnerable type of refugees: separated children.

Yousofzai was a wealthy businessperson in Kabul who ran multiple businesses, including a construction enterprise. He had also built a hotel, which he rented out to the United States Agency for International Development as a teacher-training centre in 2016. As time passed, word spread that the centre was a hub for propagating Christianity. Yousofzai, who is Muslim himself, told The Tyee it wasn’t true. But the rumour stuck, and, in 2017, death threats began pouring in.

A few months later, in January 2018, Yousofzai was attacked by members of the Taliban near Kabul University while he was in a moving car. Yousofzai was unscathed, but the colleague beside him in the car was shot twice in the chest. (The colleague survived, and recovered.) A few days later, Yousofzai sought temporary haven in India. When he returned after two and a half months, he was ambushed again. This time he was in a car with his brother, Abdullah, in a neighbourhood of Karte-Ye-Sakhi. As the Taliban sprayed bullets on his vehicle, he managed to swerve and avoid the assault.

Yousofzai realized he needed to leave his homeland if he wanted to keep himself and his family alive.

In July 2018, he fled the country with his brother-in-law Ahmad Yousufzai and sought asylum in Canada. More than a month later, he brought with him his wife, Mariam, and two of his four kids, nine-year-old Husnah and seven-old-year Ahmad. He thought he’d be able to fly his other two children, Musbah and Ahmed, then 10 and 13, to Canada in a few months.

But it didn’t work out, and despite repeated efforts and pleas to the Canadian government, they’ve been separated from their parents ever since.

“For three years, they haven’t been able to go to school, they can’t go out of their house,” Yousofzai told The Tyee. “They’ve been living like prisoners for three years.”

The Yousofzais are not alone. More than 21,000 family members of refugees around the world are currently waiting to join their loved ones in Canada. The federal department of immigration said last year the average wait while applications were processed was 39 months.

According to immigration rules, people who have been accepted as refugees to Canada can reunite with their immediate families by applying for permanent residence for themselves and their family members, whether in Canada or abroad.

However, before the applications of those who live abroad could be finalized, their family members in Canada may have to first wait to become permanent residents, a process that takes almost two years.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, told The Tyee that the Canadian government currently has no process to identify separated children in order to expedite their immigration applications.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for the Canadian government not to take into account that these kids have neither parent with them and therefore are particularly vulnerable,” Dench said.

The Canadian Council for Refugees has called on the federal government to establish a standard of six months to reunite separated children with a parent in Canada.

The reason why the government hasn’t been able to do that yet is because of its priorities, Dench said.

“It is completely feasible as long as it is made a priority — as it should be, since Canada has a legal obligation to protect these vulnerable children’s rights,” she added.

Parin Dossa, a professor of anthropology at Simon Fraser University, stressed that it is important to understand why Afghans are in a vulnerable position in the first place: wars waged by western countries.

“Afghans have been rendered refugees because of our actions,” Dossa said. “Canada was in Afghanistan for 10 years. It wasn't just Canada. It was the Canadian military. And what happens when a country is militarily occupied? Of course, people become displaced. Their livelihood is disrupted. Their homes are burned. Family members are killed.”

“We should have to take responsibility for people whom we displace, and taking responsibility means that we need to admit them here,” she added.

Dench told The Tyee that although the Canadian government appears to realize the urgency of the situation in Afghanistan, many Afghans have still been receiving letters from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in which they are asked to do a medical exam or send their passports to visa offices outside the country.

“I don’t know if the people sending these letters have been noticing the news that, actually, it’s not realistic for somebody in Afghanistan right now to do a medical exam, or to send their passports out of the country to one of these offices,” Dench said.

Dossa, who came to Canada as a refugee from Uganda, believes this is a tactic used by the government to delay the immigration process for refugees. “They do not want people who cannot integrate into society and hit the ground running, because they do not want to support people who would need some assistance for some time, such as housing and livelihood,” she said. “So they will not want to invest resources in a population that they think will not contribute to the market economy.”

In response to questions from The Tyee, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada declined to provide specific details about the Yousofzais’ case, citing safety and security concerns.

“We understand that families are very anxious about the situation in Afghanistan and are concerned for their families and we can assure you that we are doing everything that we can to answer applicants as quickly as possible,” a spokesperson from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told The Tyee via email.

“We’re prioritizing processing of family sponsorship applications for Canadians, permanent residents and protected persons in Canada who are in the process of sponsoring their immediate family members who are still overseas,” the statement continued.

With regards to refugees and family reunification more broadly, the statement said the department was currently prioritizing applications from resettled refugees sponsoring dependents under the “One Year Window” policy, which allows non-accompanying family members, such as spouses and dependent children, to be resettled for a period of one year following the resettlement of their family members in Canada.*

With or without the government’s help, Yousofzai has been doing everything within his power to bring his kids to Canada.

After Yousofzai was accepted as a refugee, he applied for a temporary resident visa on behalf of his children. A month later, immigration services returned all his documents and told him to request a visa from the country his children lived in. Since returning to Afghanistan wasn’t safe for Yousofzai and his family, he arranged to have his children brought to Pakistan to make the request there.

When he arrived at the Canadian embassy in Pakistan, however, he learned that he would not be able to use its services, as he wasn’t yet a permanent resident. Instead, officials directed him to a private visa agency that he says took all his documents and charged him a fee but never got back to him.

Not knowing where else to go, Yousofzai returned to the embassy frequently, only to hear the same thing over again.

Five months later, when nothing worked, he came back to Canada. But he didn’t lose hope. While his application for permanent residence was being processed, he approached the immigration services office in downtown Vancouver and chronicled his story.

Officials there told him that apart from applying to the embassy in their home country, there was no other way his children could get a visa. So he flew to Pakistan again, hoping he would get a different result. He spent five more months there to no avail.

Dench said Yousofzai may have been poorly advised. “The thing about a temporary visa is that part of the requirement is to show you’re going to leave at the end of the time allotted to you,” she told The Tyee. Given Yousofzai’s situation, it was evident he wasn’t planning to leave Canada, so his application was bound to be rejected, Dench said.

Yousofzai eventually returned to Canada. But he hasn’t stopped trying to reunite with his kids.

A few days ago, Yousofzai contacted Tamara Jansen, MP for Cloverdale–Langley City, and asked for help. The MP’s office told him that it would do everything it could to get him the information he needed to find a solution. Yousofzai is keeping his fingers crossed.

Less than a month ago, Yousofzai became a permanent resident. Last week, he received an update from immigration services signalling that his children’s applications were at their final stages.

But he’s worried it’s too late.

“We have zero protection in Afghanistan,” Yousofzai said. “We were already targeted even before the Taliban was in power.”

Today, Canada announced that it had suspended all evacuation flights from Kabul, leaving thousands of Canadians and refugees stranded and needing to find their own ways out of the country.

As I sat with Yousofzai and his family at their apartment in Langley, the mood became sombre. Yousofzai furrowed his brows as he spoke. Beside him, his wife, Mariam, who kept a close watch on their youngest three children, held a string of prayer beads. Lately, she says, she’s been speaking with her kids in Afghanistan every day for four or five hours. Yousofzai said the kids and their mother cry every time they speak on the phone.

I asked Mariam Yousofzai what it would mean to see her children in Canada with her.

“The biggest happiness,” she said, as tears rolled down her cheeks.

* Story updated on Aug. 26 at 3:06 p.m. with a statement from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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