Even before the Taliban took over their country in August, these women were already in hiding with their young children, waiting to join their husbands in refuge in Canada.
Now, without a man’s escort, these wives and mothers can’t even leave their homes and move around to take care of themselves and their children.
The 170 women and 385 children are stranded in Afghanistan as their bygone family reunification in Canada gets further buried in thousands of new applications amid Ottawa’s Afghan resettlement operation that began this summer.
“My kids can’t go to school and my wife can’t even go out to get food without being accompanied by a man now under the Taliban,” said a former senior Afghan government official, who left his spouse and 10 children for asylum in Canada in 2018. He was granted protection two years ago but only got his permanent residence last month.
“We’ve done everything. We’ve called and emailed Canadian officials but we have been ignored,” added the 41-year-old, a spokesperson for The Forgotten Families, which represents 180 Afghan refugees who have been granted asylum in Canada but are separated from their spouses and kids.
Like others in his group, the Toronto man, who has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, asked his name be withheld for the safety of his family in Kabul.
What’s most frustrating, he said, is seeing other Afghans, who only recently applied for resettlement to Canada, arriving while their own families, who have been in the queue much longer, are still stranded back home.
“Many of these families went into hiding from the Taliban and have been terrorized for years, not just the last two months. They’ve been caught and lost in this crisis,” said Bridget Lynch, a supporter of these Afghan families, who helps co-ordinates the group.
“The latest event of having the Taliban take over the country has moved them into profound trauma. The wives have been waiting and waiting and keeping the family going. Now they have lost all of their rights to go out.”
This week,to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, demanding these women and children be prioritized in its resettlement operation.
In July, Ottawa joined an international evacuation effort to resettle 20,000 Afghan civilians to Canada through its special immigration measures, and doubled that target to 40,000 last month.
One of the special programs focuses on resettling particularly vulnerable groups that include women leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, persecuted religious minorities, LGBTI individuals, and family members of previously resettled interpreters.
“Canada is starting to secure seats on charter flights to bring people out of the country, but women and children travelling alone are not being prioritized,” said The Forgotten Families, which also includes a few Afghan women in Canada longing to reunite with their husbands and children who are back in Afghanistan.
“There is an urgency to give this most vulnerable group the highest priority — before it is too late and they are forbidden from travelling at all.”
According to a, women and girls — let alone the ones without a male figure at home — are at risk in Afghanistan as gender rights have quickly eroded at the hands of the Taliban in the short two months since they returned to power.
Lynch said many of the families belonging to her group have been languishing in the lengthy family reunification process for refugees.
“The immigration department has included these families’ files in thousands of other files that have been newly accepted,” explained Lynch, who worked internationally with maternal newborn health and had visited Afghanistan.
“These 170 and 180 families’ files have basically just been dispersed through thousands of files. So immigration is saying, ‘Well, you know, we’re looking at your files,’ but in fact, they’re just waiting in line to be addressed.”
In their open letter, the Afghan refugees cited the increasing risks their families face back home, including one incident a few days ago when the Taliban broke into one of their family homes, searching for the husband who was in Canada. The wife and small children were told they would come back to take one of the kids if the husband wasn’t there when they returned.
Daud, 45, who was granted asylum in Canada in February 2020 and whose full name has been withheld for safety reasons, had waited 18 months to get his permanent residence in Canada only in October.
The former physician said life in Afghanistan has become worse for women who don’t have a male relative in the household. His wife, for instance, couldn’t take their seven-year-old son to a doctor for his bladder problem because of Taliban restrictions on women’s mobility.
“When Canada started evacuating people in Afghanistan in July, I told my family they should be able to join me soon. Today, we still haven’t heard anything,” said the father of four, who now works as an Uber driver in Toronto to support himself and his family.
The group asked Ottawa to expedite the families’ reunification applications, prioritize seats for women and children travelling alone on its chartered flight and reassess the terms of cost-prohibitive travel loans to make travel possible for all families.
Neither Mendicino’s nor Garneau’s offices responded to the Star’s requests for comment.