As the nine-year-old boy was shoved and pushed by the sea of desperate people behind him, his head kept turning, looking back for his parents and two younger brothers as they fell further and further behind him.
When Hadisullhaq Afghanfar finally got past the front gate of the Kabul airport amid the chaos last August to board one of the final evacuation flights out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, his grandfather assured him the rest of the family would follow.
Seven months after Hadisullhaq arrived in Toronto with his grandparents and an aunt, he remains separated from his parents and siblings, who are stuck in Pakistan waiting for a visitor visa to join him in Canada.
“Hadi thinks his father did not keep his promise. He is angry with him. His mother has to call him every morning and promise him they will see each other soon, until he agrees to get up and go to school,” Mohad Asef Faqiri said of his grandson, who now attends Grade 4 at Taylor Creek Public School.
“He is having a very hard time and feels very much alone. He misses his parents and siblings a lot. There’s so much depression and anger in him.”
Immigration consultant Kimia Moshiri, who is assisting the family pro bono, submitted a visitor visa application for Hadisullhaq’s parents and brothers — then still in Afghanistan — on Oct. 1. After numerous calls and emails, Canadian immigration officials responded on Nov. 17 that the application was “set aside” until the family could reach a third country.
In January, Mohammad Aimal Afghanfar, his wife Rokhsar and their three other boys — Mohammad Anas, eight years old; Hanzala, five years old; and Mohammad Adeel, seven months — finally made it to Pakistan. They have since submitted their fingerprints and photos for their visa application, and are waiting.
“We have represented many Afghans since August, but this case struck me as unique because of the concerns we have for this nine-year-old boy, who is here without his parents and siblings,” Moshiri said.
“It’s been really frustrating because they call me every day and message me every hour. ‘Do you have any updates?’ This has been going on for a few months. I know they’re living in a very bad situation over there. There’s really nothing I can do other than
sending more emails (to immigration) and getting more automated replies.”
Ottawa has committed to welcoming 40,000 Afghan refugees through its special immigration measures and humanitarian resettlement program after the Taliban took over Kabul and returned to power last August. As of last week, Canada has admitted more than 10,000 Afghans.
“Despite extraordinary and complex challenges that we are facing on the ground in Afghanistan, the pace of arrivals continues to be strong,” Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said in a news release last week to update the government effort.
The government has blamed the logistical challenges of resettling Afghans who are still in Afghanistan, but critics expect officials to move quicker on the files from applicants who are in limbo in a third country.
“What is the source of this delay? Is it because they do not have the resources that they need? Do they not plan for this adequately? There is a need for transparency out there,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Erin Simpson.
“Is this still a priority for the government? How do they plan on addressing the serious implications for people’s lives and their safety? People made decisions about how to keep themselves and their kids safe on the basis of communication about what was going to be Canada’s plan.”
Simpson said she has a number of Afghan clients who are stranded in a third country, including a family of five who were intercepted by Pakistani border officials in their first attempt to cross into the country, and so missed their appointment at the Canadian High Commissioner’s office in Islamabad last August.
“They were forced to return home and remained in hiding. We had extensive communication with the High Commission and were told they had to be outside of their country of origin and that the final stages of the processing could only occur once they got out again,” said Simpson.
“They were able to obtain visas and get back again to Pakistan, but they only have 60 days for entry. We gave (officials) ample warning and notice and we were told over and over again they were being processed in an expedited fashion. They crossed on Feb. 28 and there is still nothing.”
Although Hadisullhaq’s family has a Pakistani visa that’s good until next January, his parents are not allowed to work and must live off the savings from the technology company that his father used to own to provide IT networking support and services to Afghanistan’s previously elected government.
Hadisullhaq’s father told the Star that he and his family went to the Kabul airport on Aug. 21 but were falling behind Hadisullhaq, who was with the grandparents and arrived in Canada four days later via Kuwait and Germany on a temporary resident permit. (The boy has applied for permanent residence but he is too young to sponsor his family here, and a visit visa is the only option to reunite the family, said Moshiri.)
“Hadi’s mother was nine months pregnant at the time and she was unable to tolerate the pressure and overcrowded people outside the airport. We couldn’t manage our children in the crowd. We were trying our best to get to the airport but we couldn’t,” said Afghanfar from Islamabad.
“We got separated in a matter of seconds and we were left behind the gate.”
Despite the time differences, he said he and his wife talk with their son over the phone at least three times a day and they both worry for his well-being.
Hadisullhaq has on many occasions asked his father for the contact number of Moshiri, the family’s immigration counsel, thinking that she’s causing the family’s separation.
“I have to calm him down and explain to him that issuing a visa is not up to Ms Moshiri but it is up to Canada and they are processing it. He is a child and it is very hard for him to understand this situation,” said the 37-year-old father of four.
“He has never been separated from his mother and now they have been apart for seven months. No mother should be separated from her child like this. We did all we could and got ourselves to a third country to reunite with our son. We just hope to be together as a family again.”
The Star did not reach out to the immigration department to respond to the cases of the Afghanfars and Simpson’s clients because officials have stopped commenting on specific Afghan cases out of safety and privacy concerns, even with the person’s consent.