Day 6

As Taliban re-emerges in Afghanistan, former interpreter calls on Canada to 'help us back in our time of need'

The re-emergence of the Taliban has put the lives of Afghans in jeopardy, including Afghan interpreters who assisted foreign troops. Maryam Sahar, a former interpreter, hopes Canada will "help us back in our time of need."

Plan being finalized to bring Afghan interpreters and their families to Canada, Ottawa says

Maryam Sahar began working as an interpreter with the Canadian Armed Forces when she was just 15 years old. She was brought to Ottawa under the Afghan Interpreter Immigration Program in 2011. (Submitted by Maryam Sahar)

As the Taliban re-emerges in Afghanistan, former interpreter Maryam Sahar understands the fear many Afghans are experiencing. 

"I have grown up under the [Taliban] regime. I've seen the brutality. I've seen women being stoned to death," she told Day 6's Brent Bambury.

Sahar began working as an interpreter with the Canadian Armed Forces when she was just 15 years old. Two years later, she was brought to Ottawa under a special program for interpreters who supported Canadian soldiers and diplomats — alone. 

"I was not married. I didn't have kids before. I [had] no immediate family, but an extended family, and the process was not designed for that."

Taliban saw us as a spy for Canada. We were the ears and the eyes of the mission.- Maryam Sahar

Following the withdrawal of the last remaining U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, Sahar and many others like her are concerned for the safety of the families they had to leave behind. 

Ottawa says work is underway to protect interpreters and their families who assisted them during the war. On Thursday, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino told The Current that a plan is being finalized to bring Afghan interpreters and their families to Canada "as quickly as possible."

Sahar said she was "delighted" by news of the plan.

"I have faith in them that they will do the right thing."

Here is part of Sahar and Bambury's conversation.

How concerned are you for the safety of your colleagues in Afghanistan today?

It's not only about my family's safety and the consequences they're going to face because of my work as an interpreter for Canada. This is about all the other interpreters and their families that are left behind; that they're going to pay the big price because they work and they were associated with the Canadian mission. 

The big price is that the Taliban [for a] long time had warned us not to cooperate with infidels;  they would leave and we would stay behind, and they — the Taliban — would skin us alive. 

I was told to stop working and because of my gender — that I am a woman — if the male interpreter is shot [with] 30 bullets, I as a woman will be shot [with] 60 bullets and I will be skinned alive.- Maryam Sahar

Taliban saw us as a spy for Canada. We were the ears and the eyes of the mission. The Taliban knew that the military here in Afghanistan, they don't know the culture, they don't know the language. We the interpreters were the ones showing them around. 

Taliban always say: "Cut off the eyes and the ears of the infidels." Those are the interpreters.

That's terrifying. Did you believe the Taliban when they told you that the infidels would leave and they would stay behind?

At the time, we did not believe because we strongly believed in the mission, the work they were doing for our country, for our future … and we had the support of the world. So we never thought that [the Taliban] will become such a powerful force once again. 

Some Afghan interpreters have been resettled in Canada — you're among that community. What are you hearing from the interpreters that are still in Afghanistan about the situation there today? 

They're very concerned. Their situation is exactly like [mine]. They are depressed. They worry for the safety of their family. They don't know what will happen to them, what their fate will be, and how they're going to rescue them. 

You understand the threat the Taliban poses firsthand. How old were you when you first began working as an interpreter? 

I was at the time 15 years old when I started working as an interpreter … in 2009. 

Maryam Sahar (right) interpreting a speech for Leslie Wright on International Women’s Day in 2011. (Maryam Sahar)

What made you decide that taking the risk … was worth it? 

I believed in the mission. They came to our country to rebuild Afghanistan, to give us a good future and a bright future. I was educated and I wanted to help the people who came to my country to help me. 

But at the same time, you faced intimidation. Can you tell us about the intimidation that you personally faced as an interpreter while working with the Canadian military?

I was threatened all the time, I was told to stop working and because of my gender — that I am a woman — if the male interpreter is shot [with] 30 bullets, I as a woman will be shot [with] 60 bullets and I will be skinned alive. 

Those were the direct threats we were getting, but we were still doing the job because we believed in the mission and we believed what we were doing was the right thing to do. 

I can't imagine facing those threats, and you really were a young person at the time. How did you psychologically reconcile with what the Taliban were saying they would do to you?

When you're too passionate about women's rights and education, and you have dreams and goals as a young person, you don't really think about those things at the time. 

All you want is to get your education, to help the people who came to your country, and to see Afghanistan as [a] stable, peaceful, educated country. 

So for us, one of the coping mechanisms at the time was we're doing the right thing, we're rebuilding our country, and we are helping the people who came here to help us. 

As the Taliban seized a vital border crossing this week between Kandahar and Pakistan, at Spin Boldak, people seen here on the Pakistani side, on vehicles, raised Taliban flags. (Abdul Khaliq Achakzai/Reuters)

The work that you were doing wasn't only dangerous for you, though. It was also dangerous for your family. That threat continues for them. Can you give us a sense of the danger that they're currently facing? 

In my personal case, I come from a very liberal family. My father strongly believed in education, in our work, and he also strongly believed in the mission, that this is the right thing to do. 

But he also knew from the onset of the mission that eventually the foreign forces will leave, and that's why he  emphasized that we have to get our education. We have to do our best because eventually the forces will leave and the future will be unknown. 

When I needed help, so many Canadians stepped in and helped me to achieve and to get my education.- Maryam Sahar

My family, for the past nine years, they have never, ever pressured me … because I'm diagnosed with PTSD and they do not want to give me any negative news.

[But] very recently, my father, for the first time in a very anxious voice, told me: "Do something for your family. They are taking over and they're going after the interpreters, their families and anyone who are associated with the mission." 

What do you think should be done for your family? 

I believe Canada is a good country, have always done the right thing on the international stage, always helped refugees. I believe in Canadian generosity. 

I personally [came at] a very young age, at the age of 17, without a family member. When I needed help, so many Canadians stepped in and helped me to achieve and to get my education … and every single other Canadian did, in their own little way, to help me to integrate into the Canadian society. 

I have faith in them that they will do the right thing, and I was very delighted and happy to hear [Thursday] that ministers say they are finalizing the interpreter case and they will bring them as soon as possible. And I really hope it happens as soon as possible because we don't have much time. 


Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Annie Bender. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

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