Afghan who served Canadian military pleads with Ottawa to save his family from the Taliban

Ramin Sultani estimates there are about 4,500 family members of Afghan interpreters still hiding in Kabul. Thirteen of them are his loved ones.

Ramin Sultani's family is in hiding because of his years of service to Canada's military

Taliban fighters stand guard at the site of an explosion in front of a school in Kabul on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. (Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press)

Ramin Sultani didn't take the death threats seriously at first — the phone calls to his home demanding information about his former role as an interpreter for the Canadian military.

In 2011, aged 23, he was back home in his village near the city of Ghazni and enjoying being close to his family again. It had been years since Sultani had been out on foot patrols with Canadian Armed Forces personnel in Kandahar, a province in Afghanistan's south.

One day, a local shopkeeper told him that men with guns had come to the store looking for him.

Sultani knew exactly who they were — the Taliban, looking to exact revenge on anyone who had helped western forces. The shopkeeper said he told the armed men there were too many people named Ramin in the neighbourhood and he couldn't help them.

Sultani immediately told his father.

Ramin Sultani sits at home in Scarborough, Ont. Sultani, who worked as an interpreter for the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan, is worried about his family's safety under the Taliban. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

"My father got silent for a moment. Then he said, 'You're leaving tonight, Ramin,'" Sultani told CBC News at his home in Scarborough, Ont.

"My father knew these people, [that] they're very dangerous, they could harm me."

His journey took him to Kabul and, eventually, Toronto. 

Sultani couldn't take his family with him. He came to Canada through a special program Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) offered at the time only to interpreters — not to their families.

"[The immigration official] said, 'Only you or, if you're married, your wife,'" said Sultani, who has four brothers and two sisters. "I don't have a wife, but I have my siblings, my parents. He said, 'No, you cannot bring your family.'"

Now, there's a special immigration measure in place for families of those who served the Canadian military as interpreters — but because of his former job, most of Sultani's relations are now in hiding in Kabul and can't get out.

"Honestly, I feel mistreated right now. Because what we did, nobody else could do over there," he said.

"In terms of government, I feel we were left behind over there, our families were left behind over there. We risk our life helping the Canadian Forces, and look what they're doing right now."

Burning family photos to survive

In Kabul, Sultani's family struggles to stay off the Taliban's radar.

Sultani's brother spoke to CBC from the Afghan capital, where Taliban are on the hunt for those who worked for Western governments, along with their families. CBC is not naming Sultani's brother out of concern for his safety.

The brother describes August 15, 2021 — the day the Taliban entered Kabul — as the worst day of his life. Some people in the capital got calls from foreign governments offering to evacuate them, he said, but his own phone stayed silent.

"Everyone was worried about their future. Everyone was worried about their life," Sultani's brother said.

The situation hasn't improved since, he added.

"No one is comfortable with [the Taliban], and no one is getting used to this situation."

For more than six months, Sultani's brother, mother and nephews have been changing their location every week or two. They've been able to evade the Taliban by staying with relatives and friends, but Sultani's brother worries about the toll it's taking on his family and himself.

All of them are having trouble sleeping, he said, and his nephews aren't able to go to school. Before he fled his own residence, he was forced to burn everything connecting him with his brother — service certificates, his brother's Canadian Armed Forces uniform, precious family photos.

"Burning my own brother's photo is like the worst feeling," he said.

Ramin Sultani's certificate of appreciation for his service as an interpreter with the Canadian Armed Forces. Ramin's brother was forced to burn documents like this so that the Taliban wouldn't find them in his Kabul home. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

Sultani's brother said he heard from a relative in mid-March that the Taliban had searched his former home. He said his family can feel the Taliban dragnet tightening around them; security checkpoints are plentiful in and around Kabul. Meanwhile, he said, safely acquiring travel documents to flee to a neighbouring country like Pakistan or Tajikistan is impossible.

He said his family's only hope for salvation is evacuation by the Canadian government.

"Secure my life and just take us out of this," he said.

"I want each and every member of my family to have a good sleep, to have a normal life, like how a human being needs to have a normal life."

Back in Canada, Sultani said he wonders why Ottawa hasn't done more to get families like his out of Afghanistan. He said he thinks the Canadian public has taken note of what he views as a weak government response to the problem.

"It's just excuses that they're making," he said. "Stop the politics. People already know what's going on here. Stop fooling people."

An Afghan boy looks through a locked door as he waits his turn to receive food supplies during a distribution of humanitarian aid in Kabul on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

The government says that, so far, it's brought 11,165 Afghans to Canada through two programs — a special immigration program for Afghans who assisted the government of Canada and a humanitarian program. That figure is far short of its target of 40,000 Afghan migrants.

Government officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have said repeatedly that evacuating vulnerable people from Afghanistan is exceedingly difficult. They've blamed the Taliban for the slow pace of the evacuation.

Ottawa called on to negotiate with the Taliban

Sultani said the government should try new approaches. He said Ottawa could attempt to leverage the Taliban's good relationship with Qatar to get Afghans on flights to Doha, the Qatari capital.

The federal government, he said, could also negotiate travel documents to permit some Afghans to enter Pakistan, where they could make arrangements to travel on to countries like Canada.

Some Afghans have come to Canada from neighbouring third countries like Pakistan — but many took risks to get to those third countries by smuggling themselves across the border.

Engaging in these approaches likely would mean bargaining with the Taliban, Sultani said.

Nipa Banerjee, a former Canadian diplomat who served in Afghanistan, has written reference letters for a number of Afghan interpreters who worked for the Canadian government. She said she's not impressed with the government's recent efforts on the file.

"I really feel very bad. I feel very embarrassed that the Canadian government is not willing to assist them anymore," she said.

Nipa Banerjee, a professor at the University of Ottawa, says the Canadian government must find ways to negotiate with the Taliban. (Michael Cole/CBC)

Banerjee, now a professional in residence at the University of Ottawa's School of International Development, said the threat facing families trying to flee Afghanistan is dire enough to justify government-to-government negotiations with the Taliban.

Banerjee said that while she's not in favour of formally recognizing the Taliban government in Afghanistan, it's worth the effort to talk to them.

"If an effort was made by the Canadian government, they could get certain things," she said.

Banerjee said the Canadian government could offer the Taliban conditional aid or an easing of economic sanctions in exchange for letting certain Afghans leave the country.

Beyond that, she said, the government also needs to be more open about its efforts on the issue.

"Our government is not being very transparent," she said. "They're keeping public policies private."

CBC News has asked for interviews with Global Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Canada's Special Envoy to Afghanistan David Sproule. The government has made neither official available.

Ottawa sets conditions for engaging with Taliban

In a statement, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said the government is working on the issue.

"Canada continues to have discussions with allies and countries in the region to explore avenues to assist those who remain on the ground, as well as those who have already travelled to third countries and wish to come to Canada," the statement reads.

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It added that the government has no intentions of recognizing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. 

"David Sproule, Canada's senior official for Afghanistan, is currently in Doha coordinating with allies on a joint international response to the crisis in Afghanistan," the statement says.

"Mr. Sproule has conveyed Canada's conditions for official engagement with the Taliban regime."

The statement says those conditions include "safe passage for Canadian citizens and Afghan nationals departing Afghanistan for return to or settlement in Canada" and "full and free access for delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people as Afghanistan faces an impending humanitarian crisis."

Sultani said he has no regrets about serving Canada as an interpreter but his family's experience has shaken his faith in parts of the Canadian government.

"We don't trust IRCC. We don't trust them anymore," he said.