“I used to be one of Kabul’s best-known musicians,” Farwid Parwani said over the phone from the capital of Afghanistan, “and now I’m selling my family furniture to survive.”
The 31-year-old singer has dozens of photos and videos of him performing in the Afghan capital’s once-bustling cafés and restaurants, but he says he is now on the street, surrounded by beds, cupboards, drawers and a baby’s cot. All of this is now for sale. The new Taliban government recently banned the performance of music – as it did when it governed in the past – leaving him unable to earn a living, so he does what he must to survive.
Mr. Parwani is just one of thousands of Afghans who says they put their faith in the Canadian government’s promise to take in thousands of at-risk people from Afghanistan, but now feel abandoned.
“About six weeks before the Taliban took over the country, the Canadian embassy contacted the Union of Musicians and Singers of Afghanistan, the organization of which I was the director,” he said. “They said they were working on a scheme to help Afghans who worked in the creative industries escape from the Taliban if they won the war, and they asked me for the details of our membership.”
For Mr. Parwani, a father of six children, including a son with disabilities who requires regular medical treatment, this was a potentially life-saving offer. Together with Haji Nadir, the president of the musicians’ union, he put together a list of around a thousand of members, along with their contact details. “We handed a paper copy into the embassy and were told that we would be contacted soon,” he said.
He and the other musicians waited for months and expected to be contacted when the Taliban stormed into Kabul in mid-August. But no one he knows was ever called, and he has now lost trust that the Canadian government will ever fulfill its promise.
“We were given false hope,” he said. “Now the musicians of Kabul are street peddlers or beggars, and no one is helping us.”
In August, the Liberal Party made a campaign pledge to spend $350-million to resettle at least 20,000 Afghan refugees from various vulnerable groups, including media workers, prominent women, LGBTQ people and others whose professions or previous work with Canadians put them at risk of retaliation or persecution from the Taliban. After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s re-election in September, the federal government increased the commitment to 40,000.
But that promise has been met with serious delays and logistical issues that have led to questions over whether it can ever be fulfilled.
People still in Afghanistan who have tried to come to Canada say that they have been left waiting, with no reply to their applications or follow-up enquiries.
Abdul Majid Ahadi has been a journalist and filmmaker for Radio and Television of Afghanistan since 2019 and applied for resettlement with the help of the Organization for the Defence of Journalists’ Rights, which is based out of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He says that he and six colleagues had been referred by an authorized NGO. But when they tried to contact the Canadian government to follow up on their requests for assistance through multiple channels, they received no reply.
“While the government’s resettlement targets are admirable, the reality is that very few of those at risk have been evacuated to Canada, and a large number remain in grave danger,” said Farida Deif, director of the Canadian branch of Human Rights Watch. “This process has proven unnecessarily challenging, and political leadership is desperately needed.”
Afghans who have managed to relocate are desperately worried for those left behind. Shabnam Salehi, the women’s rights commissioner for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, was also contacted in July and told she qualified for resettlement. She managed to leave Afghanistan at the very end of August after several failed attempts. Ms. Salehi and her family – who followed her on the very last evacuation flight out – are now living in Toronto.
“I am very grateful that myself and my family are safe,” Ms. Salehi said. “But there are thousands more people – activists, academics and human-rights workers – that remain in danger. No one that I know that could qualify for resettlement has been contacted by anyone in the Canadian government to assist them.”
Many serious logistical hurdles remain. For private sponsorship, Afghans must have official status as refugees certified by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). But most international NGOs, including UNHCR, have a very limited presence on the ground in Afghanistan and lack the resources to process such large numbers of people. Many Afghans, including Mr. Parwani, do not have passports and the Taliban have not yet begun reissuing them. While the Canadian government claims to have secured a commitment from the Taliban to allow Afghans with resettlement offers to leave unhindered, it has no means to enforce this.
Canadian officials still defend the plan, but admit that it is taking longer than anticipated. “During the international airlift from Kabul in August, Canada evacuated more people than any NATO nation,” Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said. “Some 4,800 Afghan refugees have arrived in Canada and over 1,700 are currently in transit points.”
He acknowledged, however, that “there are many obstacles that make this work considerably more challenging than previous resettlement initiatives like Syria. There is no existing infrastructure to support our work; our referral partners like UNHCR are still getting established, and the situation remains very dangerous.”
He also reiterated that Canada was not going to recognize the Taliban and was unlikely to renew its diplomatic presence on the ground in Afghanistan, but stressed that “Canada’s commitment to refugees and vulnerable people is part of who we are as a nation,” adding, “We anticipate fulfilling our commitment to welcome 40,000 refugees over the next two years.”
Back in Kabul, Mr. Parwani says that he is now trying to raise enough money to get his family to Pakistan, where they have a better chance of finding asylum. “I believe we can get some help there,” he said. But when he earns around $2 a day buying and selling trinkets, this could be a long way off.
Ms. Salehi, the women’s rights advocate now in Toronto, stresses that the Canadian government needs to do much more to ensure its promise to support Afghans at risk is kept.
“Their commitment to Afghans in need has been amazingly generous. But they have no clear vision for how to achieve it.”
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