Inside the chaotic scramble to bring Afghan interpreters to safety

Army of civilians is working day and night to help Afghans escape

For years, Wendy Long has been working tirelessly from her home in Niagara, Ontario, to bring people thousands of kilometres away in Afghanistan to safety in Canada.

Despite having no military affiliation, Ms Long founded Afghan Canadian Interpreters (ACI), a group dedicated to helping Afghans who worked with the Canadian Armed Forces navigate Canada’s immigration process.

“I just felt that this was just so wrong on so many levels that Canada would use people in that way and leave them there to be victimised, or to a situation that was unsafe for them after them doing so much for our men and women in service,” she said.

Ms Long’s work with ACI has taken on renewed urgency during the chaotic and haphazard US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

She has spent the last week frantically trying to bring as many Afghans out of the country as possible.

Her small team of volunteers has compiled a list of 630 people who they believe are eligible for resettlement in Canada and require urgent removal from the country.

“People on our list are interpreters that were left behind and locally engaged civilians,” Ms Long told The National.

The Canadian government has a team on the ground and has started flying in planes to ship people out. On Thursday, however, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged “it was going to be very, very difficult to get many people out” of Afghanistan.

Ms Long estimates the number of Afghans eligible for Canadian visas to be about 5,000. That number includes roughly 1,000 people who worked with the Canadian government over the years as well as their families.

Canada has said it will take in 20,000 Afghan refugees, but gave no timetable for when those refugees might reach Canadian soil.

Some activists like Ms Long have criticised the government for its lack of communication on the specifics of its refugee plan as well as the lack of information, such as a hotlines or a website, detailing how Afghans and the Canadians working to help them can gain access to government resources.

As the US military and its allies race to secure Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport and enable safe passage out of the country for eligible Afghans, they are being aided by an army of volunteers, like Ms Long, who are determined to do the hard work their governments have avoided for years.

“The problem has been over the last many years, that there was no willingness to do the right thing, to get the programme and a process in place,” said Ms Long. “That is why we are stuck scrambling and now we have not adequately prepared.”

Afghanistan war veterans and others rush to help

Canada is not alone in dragging its feet: the administration of President Joe Biden is also facing rising criticism from US veterans and policy experts.

Jenna Ben-Yehuda is the president of the Truman National Security Project, an organisation based in Washington, DC, that is actively working to bring Afghans to safety.

“It seems to me to be unconscionable for [the US] not to do everything it possibly can to assist Afghans in their efforts to reach safe harbour after the enormous trauma of the last 20 years,” said Ms Ben-Yehuda.

Her organisation is gathering real-time intelligence and disseminating as much accurate information as possible to Afghans who are trying to make their way to the airport.

“It's everything from planning charter planes for private airlift to crowdsourcing information on road conditions and identifying … Afghans who are stuck to make their way to Kabul,” Ms Ben-Yehuda told The National.

Some US veterans have resorted to using crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe to rescue their former interpreters.

Jimmy Hurley is a Marine Corps veteran who is raising money to bring his former interpreter, Haji, and his family to the US.

“He risked his life for over 20 months to provide America assistance in its mission in Afghanistan, and now he and his family are in constant danger of retaliation as US forces withdraw and Taliban activity increases,” Mr Hurley wrote.

'Almost impossible' to leave Kabul

Many Afghans who worked with western countries over the years feel trapped. Hussain Ramoz is a civil society activist who has spent the past 20 years trying to build a more open and tolerant Afghanistan.

He said that while he would consider leaving because he fears for his life, it is “almost impossible to leave Kabul right now".

Speaking from the Afghan capital, Mr Ramoz told The National, that while he would like to leave, he believes there are Afghans who are more at risk than him that should be given priority.

“I have been living under fear and persecution half of my life. And I have got used to that, I should say, but over the last week, I should say that every minute, I was expecting somebody would knock on the door of my house, take me away, shoot me or take me to some unknown place,” Mr Ramoz said.

Mr Ramoz said his friends in the West have been trying to help him, but for now, he’s staying put and will keep fighting for the Afghanistan he wants.

“I can still remind the people of Afghanistan, they should not forget their value system, that they believe this is their country,” he said.

Refugee agencies prepare for another Syria

While there is a major emphasis on bringing people out, resettlement agencies across the US and Canada are working overtime to find accommodation for those that have managed to leave.

“They're coming and they’re coming quickly without a lot of notice,” said Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), a Connecticut-based resettlement organisation.

IRIS has already resettled 32 Afghan refugees since July 26 and Mr George expects to resettle close to 100 before the end of the year — an influx that reminds him of 2016, when Connecticut took in a record number of Syrian refugees.

As the Afghan refugees arrive in the US, organisations like IRIS are rushing to find them homes and will eventually help them settle into their new lives in America.

The lack of advance notice, however, complicates things.

“It means we have to work very quickly to find apartments, and then, on top of that, there is a housing shortage, apartment shortage, and the prices have gone up,” Mr George told The National.

But the long-time head of IRIS said he has been impressed by how willing people have been to aid Afghan refugees.

“There are people who are offering spare bedrooms in their homes. I mean, imagine that, for a refugee family from Afghanistan,” he said.

Updated: August 20th 2021, 6:37 PM