Habib Zohouri is used to telling other people’s stories. He is an Afghan journalist living in Ottawa and has worked for the Washington Post and New York Times in Afghanistan.
Zahouri moved to the United States to study at university in 2014 and circled across the Canadian border in 2016 to apply for refugee status after her father was kidnapped by the Taliban.
He is now trying to be reunited with his younger brother and sisters who frantically fled Kabul International Airport last August when the Taliban took control of the country. They live in the Netherlands.
“I am a man who lives two lives,” Zahouri said. “I am here physically and mentally I am with my family. I think about them all the time.”
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Canada, like many Western countries, has pledged to help people fleeing Afghanistan because they fear the Taliban. This includes people who worked with the Canadian military after the US-led invasion in 2001.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to permanently resettle 40,000 Afghans in Canada. As of mid-April, about 10,000 people have arrived in Canada.
The slow pace of aid has destabilized many Afghans. On Monday, a group of interpreters working with the Canadian military accused the government of making “false promises”.
They told a special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan that their family members, many of whom are stuck abroad due to cumbersome paperwork, should be treated with the same level of urgency as Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.
“I appreciate what is being done to the Ukrainians, (but) we want to be treated equally,” said Safiullah Muhammad Zahid.
Al-Zahid, who worked as an interpreter in the Canadian Armed Forces, told the committee that 12 members of his family are currently hiding in one room in Afghanistan waiting for their turn to come to Canada. Other translators said their families burn documents proving any connection to Canada to avoid detection by the Taliban.
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One program the government has set up to bring vulnerable Afghans to Canada is for journalists and anyone who has helped Canadian journalists.
To qualify for this special humanitarian program, the person must have already left Afghanistan, must live in a situation the government considers unacceptable, and must be sponsored by a humanitarian group, such as the United Nations refugee agency.
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All of Zahouri’s brothers worked as journalists in Afghanistan or were “mediators” or translators for the Western media. But because they fled Kabul on a Dutch military flight and now live in Amsterdam, they do not qualify for the special humanitarian programme.
This is because they have what the government calls a “permanent solution” in the Netherlands, which means that Canada considers the Netherlands a safe country that can offer them protection from the Taliban.
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Zahouri said this policy is unfair and unfair because it does not recognize the family ties that bind his brothers to Canada.
He wants the government to do more to reunite him with his family, especially since he is a permanent resident of Canada, married to a Canadian, and has a Canadian son.
“There’s this world of very special people who can travel around the world without a problem, and then there’s the rest of us,” Zahouri said.
Afghan refugees are treated differently
Zahouri’s struggle to be reunited with her family comes at a time when world attention is focused on the refugee crisis in Ukraine.
Canada has agreed to grant temporary residence to an unlimited number of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. Ukrainians can live, work and study in Canada for up to three years. This program applies to all Ukrainians, regardless of the country in which they are currently living.
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Canada has also eliminated several visa requirements for Ukrainians, including biometric security checks for some applicants.
There are also plans to create an accelerated family reunification program that will provide permanent residency to Ukrainians who have relatives already living in Canada.
“The Canadian government is opening all doors to the Ukrainians (and) they should have our full support,” Zahori said. “Having said that, I can’t help but think: What hypocrisy.”
Zahouri said he has spoken with other Afghans who have been trying to bring family members to Canada but have faced similar bureaucratic hurdles.
“This is like a very clear example of bias,” Zahouri said.
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Immigration Minister Sean Fraser explained these different approaches by saying that Ukrainians only want to stay in Canada temporarily. He said that efforts to ease administrative burdens on Ukrainians, such as creating a new temporary visa program and abolishing some requirements, are aimed at facilitating this desire.
“In our conversations with the Ukrainian community, we have heard that many people want to come to Canada temporarily, not as refugees, while the situation (in Ukraine) develops and then return home,” Fraser’s spokesman, Aidan Strickland, said in a statement. By email.
“People will be considered refugees when there are no other durable solutions. This is not currently the case in Ukraine because people have fled to the ‘relative stability of safe neighboring countries’ where Canadian officials can process applications.”
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But immigration experts say that’s what nearly all refugees want: freedom from danger and to live in a place of safety so they can go home.
“I think the discrimination here comes from giving Ukrainians the benefit of the doubt, that they will go home, not other groups,” said Serena Parikh, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston and an expert on refugee resettlement globally.
There is also nothing to prevent Ukrainians from applying for asylum once they arrive in Canada. National and international laws give everyone the same right to seek protection in Canada.
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The government should also consider humanitarian applications from anyone who wants to stay in Canada, even after the temporary visa has expired. If the applicant has a job, owns a business, or has a family, the government will assess these factors before deciding whether to repatriate them.
“The truth is that none of us know what will happen in Ukraine,” said Christina Clark-Casack, an immigration expert and professor at the University of Ottawa.
Clark Kazak said Ukrainian-Canadians succeeded in persuading the government to help fellow Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion in ways no other refugee had received before.
And while that’s a good thing, he said, Canada also has a “moral obligation” to help the Afghan people because of the role the Canadian military has played in the country’s two-decade conflict.
“Individual circumstances will determine whether or not people decide to return and when they decide to return,” he said. Like when they run away.
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