By Michael Lee
Toronto, Ontario (CTV Network) — With a smile on his face and a red Santa Claus hat atop of his head, a former Afghan interpreter fixes holiday decorations on the branches of a familiar sight this time of the year — a classic Christmas tree.
The Afghan refugee, who spent years in Indonesia trying to seek asylum, arrived in his new home of Canada earlier this month.
While not among the many interpreters, and their families, who have fled Afghanistan this year following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops, and the subsequent takeover by the Taliban, his story is one that will be familiar to many.
“After eight years, finally, you will go and live as a human being,” the former interpreter said during a Zoom call. CTVNews.ca is not naming him due to the current dangers in Afghanistan where his family still lives.
“That you can be free, you have the right of education, you have the right of work, you have the right of to live in society as a human being, so I was overwhelmed by, like, a happy feeling.”
INDONESIA The man became an interpreter in Afghanistan back in 2012, working initially for a Canadian security company and later with U.S. forces.
He says the salary was good and he hoped it would serve as a way for him to eventually get out of Afghanistan and one day get a better education — and a better life.
In August 2014, he decided to leave the country due to the dangers there, departing first for India as a relatively safer alternative to neighbouring Pakistan. After about a couple of months, he left for Malaysia before landing in Jakarta, Indonesia, in November 2014.
Although he believed the resettlement process would be shorter, he would spend the next four years in a detention centre for asylum seekers as he waited to be recognized as a refugee — his options being either to wait to be resettled or return to Afghanistan.
He described the centre as being overcrowded, where people often came down with disease and frequently protested the conditions.
Indonesia has seen an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the country over the past couple of decades. As of September 2021, more than 13,000 people were registered in Indonesia as refugees or asylum seekers, more than half of which were from Afghanistan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports.
However, the country is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or 1967 Refugee Protocol, and does not allow asylum seekers to work or have access to schools or public hospitals.
“You’re not allowed to work, you’re not allowed to travel freely, you’re not allowed to go to certain places,” the former interpreter said.
He says he shared his experiences on social media, which is how he got the attention of the group of five people who would later support his private sponsorship to Canada.
GROUP OF FIVE Wendy Long, the founder of the organization Afghan-Canadian Interpreters who helped with the man’s resettlement, says it struck her as “un-Canadian” that people were left behind.
While not in the military herself, Long founded Afghan-Canadian Interpreters in 2017, with the aim of advocating for those who helped Canadian Armed Forces during the war in Afghanistan. She, along with her husband, Doug, and son, Devon, were all part of the former interpreter’s sponsorship group.
“We had tried to go over there to help them and give them a better life, and it really did not work out,” said Long, who joined the former interpreter during his Zoom interview with CTVNews.ca.
She says it was in November 2018 that an individual in Canada brought the former interpreter’s situation in Indonesia to her attention, and she believed he could be privately sponsored to come to Canada under what is referred to as a group of five, where five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents collectively arrange to sponsor a refugee.
By around August and September 2019, she says a group was committed, with the application sent in February 2020, just before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic that March.
The pandemic greatly impacted all private sponsorships, as well as immigrations, Long says, delaying a process that would have otherwise taken about a year by another six to eight months.
Following his time in the detention centre, the former interpreter says he was placed in accommodations through the International Organization for Migration, living in a room with other refugees. Throughout much of that time, he says he volunteered with the UNHCR as an interpreter.
As he waited for his application to go through, he says he tried his best to stay healthy and motivated, and ultimately not lose hope.
“You basically just sit there and you wait,” Long said. “The only advantage of being in Indonesia is that technically the Taliban will not come and kill you.”
But years of sitting and doing nothing, she said, “is not a way to live, and many lives are just sitting there being wasted.”
Then, this past November, the man received confirmation that his application to come to Canada had been approved.
After a two-day journey that saw him transit through Istanbul, Turkey, without a shower or bed to sleep on, he finally arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport earlier this month.
Although his welcoming committee wasn’t as large as those seen during pre-COVID-19 times, Long said she was able to be among the few people who happily greeted him at the airport.
His journey had finally come full circle.
‘PEOPLE DO NOT HAVE TWO YEARS IN AFGHANISTAN’ Although the federal government has promised to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has said the process could take up to two years — something Long said should have been done a long time ago.
“People do not have two years in Afghanistan,” she said. “The humanitarian crisis is growing day by day. Food, employment, people don’t have money for anything and it’s not viable for them to be told, ‘You need to go and get a passport from the Taliban and give them all of your information so that they can come and knock on your door.’ Especially for many of these people, we’re bringing them out of Afghanistan because they’re at risk.”
She said even though the U.S. withdrawal was known back to when Donald Trump was president, Canada still didn’t have a process in place and, instead, entered into a federal election.
Long said there are millions of refugees who are ready to be resettled and just need someone to sponsor them, pointing to organizations such as Northern Lights Canada that are helping to resettle refugees from around the world.
In the meantime, she said she is working on helping three more Afghan refugees in Jakarta come to Canada, also through private sponsorship, within the next few months.
“So I’m hoping that coming into the new year, further efforts diplomatically will be underway to effectively get people that are within Afghanistan out and bring them to safety for further processing, and then onward travel to Canada, but we will see,” Long said.
‘I’M READY TO JUMP ON’ The situation in Afghanistan had a profound impact on the former interpreter.
His family, who he has not seen for about eight years, has been able to live in relative safety, but he still worries about the Taliban’s hold over the country.
He recently spoke to his mother, who thought he was still in Indonesia and was overjoyed to hear he had made it to Canada safely.
He currently lives in the Niagara region and, the day after he landed, got a social insurance number.
He says his “humble” request is for Canadians to come together to help more refugees, many of whom are skilled, educated and just need their group of five.
As the eldest sibling in his family, he also says he feels a responsibility to take care of them. His hope is to get an education, find work and acquire a home, so he may one day have a place for his family to stay if he can find a way to bring them over.
“Any kind of job available, I’m ready to jump on.”
With files from The Associated Press
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