Promises of new life in Canada not coming to pass for many Afghan interpreters
By: Dene Moore, The Canadian Press
The Winnipeg Free Press
Posted: 26/09/2010 3:32 AM
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Canadian soldiers had just arrived in Kandahar province in 2006 when a local interpreter everyone knew him simply as Max took some shrapnel to his left eye from a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade.
The attack came during Operation Medusa, one of the bloodiest of the war. The driver sitting in front of Max was killed in the blast; the two soldiers riding with him were also injured.
Max, who cannot be identified because he continues to help Canadian troops bridge the language cap with local villagers, was evacuated to the base at Kandahar Airfield, where he underwent emergency surgery, with at least one follow-up operation.
His left eye still bears the scars of that battle.
And yet Max has twice been turned down in his efforts to immigrate to Canada under a new fast-track program for Afghans who face “extraordinary personal risk” because of their work with the mission in Kandahar.
“The first time, they said I was missing one piece of paper,” Max said in an interview. The second time, they said he did not qualify.
“They denied me. I don't know why.”
When he first made the announcement in the spring of 2009, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney predicted “a few hundred” applicants would qualify by the time the combat mission and the program ended in 2011.
But 10 months from the July pullout date, only about 50 of 250 applicants are “moving forward in the process,” said Douglas Kellam, spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The department has fielded some 280 additional inquiries from potential applicants, he added.
“Should they all pass security, criminality and health screening, they will be accompanied to Canada by some 75 eligible family members (wives and dependent children),” Kellam said in an email response to queries.
“As with all immigration programs, not everyone who applies is approved.”
Capt. Annie Djiotsa, spokeswoman for Canada's Task Force Kandahar, said approximately 6,000 interpreters have worked for the Canadian Forces throughout Afghanistan since 2006.
The job is a perilous one and has a high turnover rate, Djiotsa said.
Interpreters are considered traitors by the Taliban, who threaten death to anyone who co-operates with coalition forces. Most “terps” rarely go home to visit their families, even if they live in Kandahar city, for safety reasons. When they leave the base, they often hide their faces behind scarves and sunglasses.
“The type of work that they do for us is absolutely essential to us,” Djiotsa said. “At the same time, we can't get involved in the (immigration) process.”
Although many of the interpreters work at remote forward operating bases, applications must be filed in person in Kandahar city with the International Organization for Migration. The applications are evaluated by a committee made up of officials from the Canadian departments of National Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and Immigration and Citizenship.
Kellam said the program is in full swing, but can appear to be slow moving because of the security situation in Kandahar.
To qualify, applicants must be Afghan citizens currently living in Afghanistan who have 12 cumulative months of service in direct support of the Canadian mission.
They must be facing extraordinary individual risk or have suffered injury as a result of their work. Kellam said the threat must be beyond the risk faced by the many people who work for the Canadian mission in Kandahar province in general.
Although the number of successful applicants seems low, Kellam said one in five applicants processed so far has met the criteria. He did not say how many people that ratio represents.
Max, who carries the recommendation letter from his Canadian military supervisor in his wallet, said he will apply again.
“In Afghanistan, life is very difficult generally for those people who are working for the government and coalition forces,” he said.
“They (Taliban) know us.”