Injured. Attack. Ambush. Suicide.
Those are just a few of the English words Mohammed Nabi Wardak learned when he arrived at Kandahar airbase in 2007 for a 20-day course, before taking up a front-line interpreter’s role with the Canadian Armed Forces.
It should have frightened him. And maybe it did. But in his mind, helping those countries making up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fighting the Taliban meant helping the Afghanistan he wanted to see come into being.
“They gave us hope,” he said. “They told [of] brightness, good future, education, technology, computers. That stuff. At that time, for the first time, I saw a computer.”
Wardak, who was 18, spent the next 16 months as an interpreter with Canadian troops who were mentoring Afghan soldiers and police as part of an operational mentoring and liaison team (OMLT) in Kandahar Province.
“We were so deep in enemy territory that we could get overrun at any time,” said a former combat engineer attached to the 3rd Battalion of the Royal 22nd Regiment, also known as le vingt-deuxieme or the Van Doos.
CBC News agreed to refer to him by his nickname, Franck Charly, which he was known by when he spent his third and final tour in Afghanistan. Back then, he and Wardak were stationed at a remote police substation.
“Nabi used to sleep in the same room as me every night for almost six months. He was about, what, three metres from me? So, yeah, I knew him well. He dodged bullets the same way as we did.”
Today, Wardak finds himself homeless, jobless, and quite often, he says, hopeless. He’s been living rough in Athens since 2018, arriving as a refugee after fleeing Taliban death threats.
The Trudeau government is currently facing severe criticism for leaving behind many Afghan interpreters and others who supported Canadian military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan over the years in its chaotic exit this past summer, described by critics as disorganized at best and uncaring at worst.
Retired major Peter Sullivan, a deputy commanding officer of the OMLT in 2007, says Canada could have streamlined efforts to vet people and get them on planes out of the country as a priority, and dealt with other issues later.
“That’s, I understand, a very simple way of looking at it,” he said, acknowledging that it’s easy to judge from afar.
“But I think when the world is collapsing around you, you need simple, effective solutions. And so my belief is we, Canada, could have done a better job at that. I think some other countries did.”
Wardak, of course, had already left Afghanistan. But his is a tale of an impenetrable bureaucracy nonetheless, and a system that he says has managed to mute his voice and render him invisible.
“It was not easy, my job. But these people which is sitting behind the desk and they haven’t been in Afghanistan one minute. They don’t know. They don’t think about that, what feeling I have.”
Death threats from the Taliban
When we met him in Athens in September, he showed us the carefully protected certificates of merit he was presented by Canadian and Afghan commanders, along with pictures of the men he had risked his life alongside, including Charly.
“Some of them, they call me brother,” he said with obvious pride. “As much as they were taking care of me at that time, I protect their lives from my experience because I grew up in the war. I [knew] Afghanistan’s situation.
“I was understanding who is the [Taliban], who is the farmer. Because how would [they] know that? A Canadian soldier when they arrived from Canada?”
Wardak eventually moved on to work as a battle group interpreter with British forces in the summer of 2008.
He says when he began receiving death threats from the Taliban, he approached both British and Canadian Embassy staff in Kabul for help.
The Canadians told him he would have to make any kind of immigration or asylum claim outside of Afghanistan, he said.
When the Taliban threats grew more insistent, Wardak decided to take his chances on the smuggler’s route from Iran to Turkey. He left his wife and four children behind with the hope of sending for them from either Canada or the U.K.
In 2015, he made it as far as the Turkish border before Iranian police caught him and deported him back to Afghanistan. He tried again the next year, making it to Turkey, where he spent 17 difficult months, working at one point as a shepherd.
When he contacted the Canadian Embassy in Ankara, he says he was told there were only two ways to get a visa for Canada: with the help of a sponsor or to be recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR would not be prioritizing single men.
Wardak finally made it one step further, to Greece, in 2018, where he was promptly jailed. He says he was given three choices: stay in jail, apply for asylum or be deported back to Afghanistan. He made an asylum claim.
While his case was being processed, he contacted the Canadian Embassy in Athens and says he was told he would have to take his request to a larger embassy in Rome. And so he started writing emails.
‘His situation … gives me palpitations’
When CBC News managed to track down two of the Canadian servicemen shown in Wardak’s pictures, they were clearly distressed to hear of his plight.
One of them was Charly. The other was retired master warrant officer Guevens Guimont, who had looked for Wardak on a return tour to no avail.
“My God,” he said. “We had many fights against the Taliban. Many confrontations. Hearing about his situation right now actually gives me palpitations.
“He [risked] his life, yes. I risked my life many times for his country. For a change in his country. He was my brother. He is my brother.”
Now that the three have been reconnected, Guimont and Charly are trying to help Wardak through a system he’s so far failed to penetrate on his own.
“Five years here in Greece, when I will have news from somebody?” Wardak asked us back in September. “My life is past.”
Since then, he’s been contacted by the British Embassy in Athens, with a potential visa in the offing, although he says he’s not counting on it.
“I’m the ball of the football. And on one side of the pitch there is British and Canadian. They’re kicking me to each other. The other side, there is Taliban.”
Simply staying in Greece, now that he has the right to do so having been recognized as a refugee, is not an option in his mind, as family reunification is notoriously difficult there. Not to mention finding work to support them and their journey.
Wardak’s youngest son was just one year old when he left.
“Me and my wife, we are feeling ourselves in the middle of sea with broken ship and absolutely dark night,” he said. “We are not understanding to which side we are moving.”
Navigating the application process
When CBC News contacted Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to ask if they were aware of Wardak’s case, the stock reply came back to say they couldn’t comment for privacy reasons.
Canada has committed to resettling some 40,000 “vulnerable Afghan nationals” through two streams. The first includes individuals and their families who assisted Canada, and the second focuses on vulnerable groups outside of Afghanistan.
Although more than 9,000 applications have so far been approved in the first stream, just over 3,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in Canada.
To be eligible for that group, Wardak would have had to be in Afghanistan on or after July 22, 2021.
It is not the first time he’s fallen through the cracks.
In 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government announced an immigration program open to Afghan interpreters who had supported Canada’s combat mission for at least 12 months between Oct. 9, 2007, and July 31, 2011.
Wardak’s service didn’t fit that window and he only learned of the program after it had closed.
“They did not go far enough back in that program and they should have kept it open for much longer than they did,” said Wendy Noury Long, founder of Afghan Canadian Interpreters, an advocacy group working to relocate interpreters to Canada since 2017.
“Having programs open for a very short period of time does not allow everybody to be able to apply. You’re dealing with Afghanistan in 2009, 2010, 2011. People did not have Facebook, people were just starting to get cellular phones.”
It’s a disconnect she points to today in the way IRCC handled the crisis over the summer as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. There was an emphasis on forms and process “in the middle of what was essentially a war zone,” she said.
“An inability to be flexible and to understand the realities cost many, many people their chance to come to Canada in a much safer manner,” she said.
For its part, IRCC insists it has mobilized its “entire global network to process visas and issue them on an urgent basis.”
“We have set up a dedicated process, web form for questions and telephone line, with extended hours, to solely serve Afghan clients who are seeking information and assistance.”
‘I hope to see Nabi in my country’
None of this, it would seem, will be of any help to Wardak. At least not yet.
His small ray of light in all this, if there is one, lies in the knowledge that he has not been forgotten by his former brothers in arms.
That seems to mean something to him.
“If they hear my voice, they will understand what an important job I did,” he said when we first met.
They do. And they want Canada to do right by him.
“We gave our words almost, you know?” said Charly. “They did their part of the job. We should do ours.”
“I hope to see Nabi in my country,” said Guimont. “My God, if I can receive Nabi anytime.”
If it ever does happen, Wardak needn’t worry about having someone to pick him up at the airport.