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Afghan translators afraid for their lives with Canadian pullout imminent

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Ottawa’s promised fast-track immigration policy for Afghan translators has left many interpreters stuck in the starting blocks and fearing for their lives.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney originally announced the program to assist Afghans who face “extraordinary personal risk” because of their support to Canada’s mission in Kandahar.

Kenney said he expected “a few hundred” successful applicants to qualify by the time the mission and the program ends in 2011.

By the end of May, only 25 of 114 applicants had been approved to move to Canada by a committee made up of officials from the departments of National Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and Immigration and Citizenship.

The committee works in conjunction with the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental agency based in Kandahar.

An official with Immigration Canada said there have been 230 firm applications under the program.

The official didn’t say how many have been approved.

However, a number of interpreters in the Kandahar area have applied with the full blessing of their superiors and have still been rejected.

“We were given special forms and we were told you have to face extraordinary risk and I do not understand what they mean by that,” said an interpreter who goes by the name Mojo to protect his identity. He has worked with the Canadians for a few years and currently translates for Corrections Canada officials overseeing Sarposa Prison.

“I would like to give you an example. ‘Popeye’ was killed last month. He was a simple worker, working for the Canadians filling generators with fuel and putting in water for the offices,” he said. “We are the interpreters. The insurgents are saying we are the eyes of ISAF so if they caught us they would cut our throats.”

Fida Mohammed, a jack of all trades affectionately nicknamed “Popeye” by American soldiers, had worked at the PRT in Kandahar city for 35 years and was murdered when he left the base last month.

A recently intercepted message from Mullah Omar orders Taliban members to capture and kill any Afghan who is supporting or working for coalition forces or the government of the Afghanistan.

The information from the minister’s office said any applicant needs to give detailed information about the extraordinary and individualized risk they face.

“The applicant must demonstrate that: the threat is directly related to the individual’s support of the Canadian mission in Kandahar, or directly related to an immediate family member’s support of the Canadian mission in Kandahar; and the threat is greater than the level of risk faced by the many others working for the Canadian government in Kandahar province in general.”

Another interpreter has seen what happens to translators who get caught by the Taliban.

“I applied to come to Canada but I was turned down. I was told my life was not at enough risk,” said the young man who has worked for both the Canadians and the Afghan National Army.

“I have had friends killed and their bodies cut apart. I worry that will happen to me when the Canadians leave.”

Applicants require 12 months service to the Canadian mission and a recommendation letter from a senior soldier or diplomat. They also need to meet standard immigration criteria such as criminal, medical and security screening before being allowed to come to Canada.

The life of an interpreter who works with the NATO-led mission is a dangerous one. An unexpected knock, a threatening late-night phone call, or a so-called “night letter” nailed to the front door are just some of the many intimidation tactics that are a chilling fact of life for locals who work as translators for the Canadian Forces or federal agencies in Afghanistan.

“We are in danger. Believe me when we go home we are actually looking all around to make sure nobody’s chasing us,” said Mojo.

“It is dangerous. If you guys leave we are so worried about that. We do not know if we will keep working for the Americans or not. The situation in Kandahar is actually getting worse so we do not know what will happen.”

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