Inside a high-stakes flight from a crumbling country

The Great Escape

Sangeen Mateen, a former interpreter for the Canadian military, emigrated from Afghanistan to Toronto in 2012. When Kandahar fell to the Taliban last summer, his family back home was suddenly in danger—until a group of army veterans stepped in to help

As told to Luc Rinaldi| Photograph by Vanessa Heins
| March 28, 2022

Growing up in Afghanistan, Sangeen Mateen and his brother Rangeen Khaerkhowa learned the horrors of life under the Taliban. Both became interpreters for the Canadian military, putting their lives on the line to help turn Afghanistan around. In 2012, they parted ways: Sangeen moved to Toronto in search of a better life, and Rangeen stayed behind to look after their parents and seven siblings. Life was stable—for a while. When coalition forces evacuated Afghanistan last year, the Taliban retook the country and threatened to kill Rangeen and his family. While they evaded the deadly regime, Sangeen sprang into action from afar, appealing to a team of army veterans—including retired major Stephen Peddle and former captain Richard Dumas—to help his family make it out alive.

Sangeen Mateen: I was born and raised in Jalalabad, a small city in Afghanistan. We moved around a lot because of my father’s job. He was a colonel in the Afghan army who fought against the mujahideen in the 1980s and ’90s before doing logistics work for the air force. Our apartments were always crowded. I’m the second of nine siblings, and the oldest son. We were poor, like most of the country. There were no highways or high rises in Afghanistan, no stop signs or speed limits or licence plates. We never had 24 straight hours of electricity; sometimes we’d go without power for five days.

Inside a high-stakes flight from a crumbling country
When the Taliban retook power, it was left to Rangeen­ Khaerkhowa to get 12 of his family members to safety. Photograph by Vanessa Heins

▲ Rangeen Khaerkhowa: I’m one year younger than Sangeen. We have always been close. Whenever I needed help with something, he was always there for me. And whenever he needed advice, he’d ask me what I thought. That was our brotherhood. We were like two bodies, one man.

Sangeen: Early one morning when I was about four years old, I looked out our apartment window and saw several pickup trucks driving through our village, carrying Taliban fighters with turbans and Kalashnikovs. They stopped at the mosque in the centre of our village, fired shots in the air and told everyone to gather. Starting that day, they decreed, everyone was required to come to prayer five times daily. One day, when my dad went to work instead of the mosque, one of them grabbed me by my ear and asked where he was. I shook and cried as I told them he was at work. That afternoon, they found my dad and whipped the bottoms of his feet until blood came out from under his toenails.

Rangeen: Under the Taliban, we weren’t allowed to get haircuts or shave. We had to wear turbans. And they would hit us with rubber batons if we didn’t.

Sangeen: We weren’t allowed to have computers or TVs. We couldn’t listen to the radio unless it was the news channel that they controlled. Music was forbidden. We once attended a secret wedding where we danced to cassettes. Somehow, the Taliban found out. They broke all the windows and stormed in.

Rangeen: Everyone started running. As I was climbing a wall to escape, I fell and hurt myself. My hands and feet were bleeding. But I was lucky they didn’t catch me. Some of the other wedding guests were beaten or sent to jail.

Sangeen: Life under the Taliban was especially bad for girls and women. They’d spend 18 years inside their homes like detainees, only to be married off to spend the rest of their lives in their husbands’ houses. Women weren’t allowed to work, drive or leave the house without covering their faces. In the cities, some girls went to school, but fear kept a lot of them from doing that.

When I was a teenager, American planes flew over our village and dropped pieces of paper with messages written on them. They said they would soon attack the Taliban leaders living in our town, and that we needed to leave. My family didn’t have enough money to feed ourselves properly, let alone rent a truck and find a new place to live. But we left anyway. Three days later, the Americans bombed the village.

Rangeen: After moving from place to place for a while, we settled into an old Russian barracks close to the Kandahar International Airport, a major military base.

“When I applied  to become an interpreter, the first thing the interviewer said was, ‘You may lose your life. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?’ ”

Sangeen: The living conditions there were abysmal. We had no running water, and our power cut out all the time. But we were safe, and I managed to get a caretaking job at the base. I had to clean the washrooms every morning, but I was so happy. I made $250 (U.S.) a month, money my family desperately needed.

Two years later, the Canadians arrived in Kandahar and started hiring local interpreters to help them communicate with Afghan leaders and troops, get accustomed to the local culture and translate documents. I was interested—working at the base, my English had improved, and I also spoke Pashto and Farsi. But my parents didn’t want me to apply. We knew interpreters who’d died or lost their legs in ambushes.

Rangeen: My mom had visited the family of an interpreter who had been killed. She saw how much pain his mother was in and told us, “I don’t want that in my house.”

Sangeen: I went to the interview anyway. I had just turned 18. I’d had enough of cleaning toilets, and the pay was much better: $600 (U.S.) a month. The first thing they said to me in the interview was, “You may lose your life or part of your body. Is that a risk you’re willing to take? Do you have your family’s permission?” I lied and said yes, and I got the job. On the walk home, I tried to find the words to explain to my parents what I’d done. In my country, when you’re the oldest boy, you’re like a second dad, a deputy. If he’s not available, you step in. I told my mom, “Dad’s salary is not enough to look after the entire family. I need to step in.” She started crying and begged me not to go.

Rangeen: I applied to become an interpreter, too. I told Sangeen, “I want to help the family, and you can’t do it alone.” Our mom asked one of my close friends to try to convince me not to do it. But I told her I wasn’t going to be on the front lines, that I wanted to improve my English, that I would come back safe.

Sangeen: Before I started the job, my dad, who lost many of his friends to war, told me, “Never think that you’re going to get killed. The moment you start thinking that, you’ll lose morale. And once you lose morale, you’re done.”

Inside a high-stakes flight from a crumbling country
Retired major Stephen Peddle offered to bring Sangeen to Canada through a ­private sponsorship program. Photograph by Curtis Comeau

Stephen Peddle: After 9/11, the Americans went after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Taliban wouldn’t hand them over, so the U.S. sent troops to find them. Canada went in because we’re allies. The focus at that point was twofold: target and destroy al-Qaeda and their Taliban enablers, and country-build at the same time. When I first went to Afghanistan, in 2007, I spent six months in Kandahar, mentoring a 500-man Afghan National Army infantry battalion. They knew basic field skills, like how to shoot an AK-47. But my team helped them plan missions and logistics, learn how to call in air support and use intelligence assets. We were optimistic that we were going to turn the country around for the better. We wanted to help Afghanistan prosper and grow into a modern society.

Sangeen: I interpreted for the Americans, the French and the Brits, but most of my work was with the Canadians. For security reasons, I had to use a code name, so everyone called me Max. I was away from my family for months at a time. We travelled from province to province, building bases, setting up checkpoints and sleeping in tents. I helped deliver commands to the Afghan forces, communicate with villagers and read signs along the way. Once, I didn’t take a shower for an entire month. I didn’t take my shoes off for days at a time; my feet were wrinkly like a newborn baby’s. There was no cellphone coverage out there, so the only way to reach my family was through a satellite phone. I was lucky if I got to talk to my parents for five minutes once a month. When I went home, I’d only stay for a week before leaving again.

Rangeen: I spent a year interpreting for the Canadian army in Kandahar. After that, I started working with ATCO, a company that collected and disposed of waste from military bases. My supervisor was a local guy who couldn’t speak English, so I translated for him. Before long, I was promoted to supervisor myself and started interpreting for 20 other workers.

Stephen: As an intelligence and operations officer, I had first pick of interpreters. It’s an incredibly important job. Interpreters are your voice. If you’re in front of 500 Afghan soldiers, telling them how to carry out a mission, you need an interpreter who can confidently speak to a large group, properly translate technical speech, read the room and advise you afterwards how it was received. Their job is half translator and half cultural adviser. Your mission success depends on building a rapport with Afghan leaders, and you have to rely on your interpreter to speak to them in an eloquent and culturally sensitive way.

I interviewed about 15 interpreters in short succession. I didn’t have a lot of questions. I wanted to know what languages they spoke and test their spoken and written English. None of them impressed me—until I hit Sangeen. He was the youngest, but he was incredibly smart. His spoken English was better than the others, and he could read and write. He was personable, too. We hit it off from day one and became good friends.

Sangeen: My first trip as an interpreter was hard. It was scary being with a group of people I’d never met. I didn’t know their culture, and we didn’t trust each other. I remember sitting in a tank with them, not speaking. I was looking at them weird. They were looking at me weird. On my second day, the Afghan police called us for help. The Taliban had stopped a local bus and killed two passengers, recent graduates from the Afghan army’s training centre. They decapitated the men, dumped their bodies by the roadside and placed their heads on their chests. We sent a robot to check the area for bombs and then escorted the police as they took the bodies to the hospital. That was the first time I had seen a beheaded body. When an officer held up one of the heads by its hair to identify him, I was on the verge of fainting. The sergeant major grabbed my shoulders, shook me and asked if I was okay. He told me to look away and just interpret. As soon as I got back in the car to go back to the base, I threw up.

Stephen: Afghanistan is a complicated battle space with a lot of tribal dynamics. The country was kind of cobbled together after World War I without a lot of insider thought put into ethnic, cultural and tribal lines. Sangeen made sure I didn’t insult Afghan military leaders. He taught me that, for example, every time we sat down with senior officers—even if we were in a rush and had seven other meetings to get to—we were going to have a cup of tea and talk about family for a while before getting down to business.

Inside a high-stakes flight from a crumbling country
Richard Dumas, a retired captain who worked with Sangeen, trained more than 6,000 Afghan servicemen. Photograph by Curtis Comeau

Richard Dumas: I worked with Sangeen during my second of two tours in Afghanistan. I was part of an operational mentor and liaison team that was embedded with Afghan battalions as they trained and went to war. Sangeen and I put in some long hours together, and we became quite close in a short period of time. By the end of the tour, it was almost a father-son relationship. He’s the same age as my middle son, so that came naturally. One day, when he was translating some documents for me in the office, he pulled out a thumb drive and showed me pictures of his family, including his sisters, mother and grandmothers. I was touched because Afghans are typically very protective of the women in their family.

Sangeen: With some of the soldiers, I was more than just an interpreter. Stephen, Richard and some of the others consider me a brother, and I consider them brothers, too. That’s what happens when you go through hard times together. In 2007, I was travelling with a Canadian convoy that got ambushed by the Taliban. We took cover behind a big mud wall and needed to run about six metres to reach a sewage canal that we could follow to safety. Bullets were raining down on us. I had a helmet and body armour, but no gun. A sergeant major looked at me and said, “Max, are you ready to die?” I remembered what my dad told me about not losing morale, so I said, “Yes, sir! I’m ready to die.” Then he kissed a cross that was hanging from his neck and said “Run!” We threw ourselves toward the canal and, miraculously, we made it out alive.

Rangeen: There is one mission I’ll never forget. We were bringing supplies to a small base. I was in a Humvee and one of my interpreter friends was in a tank. He asked to switch places with me because he couldn’t breathe well in the tank, and I agreed. As we were approaching the base, the Humvee triggered an IED hidden in the road, and the car blew up. Lots of people were injured, and my friend was gone. I felt like I had escaped death, because I was supposed to be the one in the Humvee. When I saw his body, that was the hardest moment of my life.

Sangeen: Every time a group of Canadian soldiers left Afghanistan, there was a farewell ceremony. They’d often give me letters of appreciation, share their contact info and tell me to keep in touch. Saying goodbye was always hard. You’d get along with somebody, become friends, and then you’d never see them again.

Stephen: After my tour wrapped up, there were only a couple of Afghans that I stayed in touch with. Sangeen was one of them. We’d talk on the phone every few months and email each other about what was happening in our lives.

Richard: Interpreters represent continuity. Handovers between different deployments are as short as they can be, but Sangeen was there for years. He could tell you, “This Afghan is a good guy” or “This Afghan is a bad guy.” He could say, “The Afghan army won’t buy into your proposal because they already tried this two years ago.”

“During a foot patrol, my friend stepped on a bomb. One of his hands and both his feet were blown off. Bones were jutting out of his legs”

Sangeen: After a few years of interpreting, the American special forces wanted to hire me as an interpreter. My salary would have doubled to $1,200 (U.S.) per month, but I declined. I had a good relationship with the Canadians. If I moved, there would be a big gap. They would have lots of problems.

But eventually I started thinking about leaving Afghanistan. In 2008, I married a beautiful young woman named Mena. Our parents arranged the marriage, which is customary in Afghanistan. We had our first daughter in 2009. By then, I was making enough money to provide for my family, but I had lots of connections in Canada, and I knew we would be safe there. I couldn’t say the same about Afghanistan.

In 2010, I went on a foot patrol with 40 American and Canadian troops. I was walking with Darren Fitzpatrick, a corporal who was about the same age as me and who had become my friend. About two hours into the patrol, he stepped on a bomb. There was a massive boom and a flash of heat. Men went flying through the air almost in slow motion. I was thrown to the ground and there was blood on my face, but I was okay. There was mud and dirt everywhere, so my vision was obscured. But when I saw Fitzpatrick, one of his hands and both his feet were missing. Bones were jutting out of his legs. An American medic tried to keep him awake by talking to him about the previous night’s hockey game. I applied a tourniquet to Fitzpatrick’s leg, but he was losing too much blood. In the end, he didn’t make it. I was devastated.

Stephen: After I got home, Sangeen told me that he was thinking about coming to Canada. I told him I’d do whatever I could. I was willing to cover the costs of a private sponsorship, and I found a company in Alberta that would hire him as an adviser. But while we were in the middle of that, the Canadian government came up with the Afghan fast track, which sped up the immigration process for those who had worked with the Canadian Forces. They had proven their loyalty to Canada. Sangeen was on the front lines for Canada for three years. That’s like six combat tours.

Sangeen: After I filled out the immigration application, I continued to interpret as I waited for a decision. It took two years, but I was finally accepted. My last name is Khaerkhowa, but due to an administrative error, my name was recorded as Sangeen Mateen, a combination of my given name and my father’s first name. Rather than try to correct it, I decided to embrace it.

Rangeen: I could have also applied to go to Canada, but somebody had to stay behind to take care of our family. My two brothers were still too young to look after everyone. Plus, Sangeen and I had started a business that had a contract to supply equipment to ATCO, and someone needed to manage that. I told Sangeen, “You go to Canada. Maybe you will be able to help us later on, but this is your chance.” Of course, I was sad that he was going away. But I was also so happy for him.

Sangeen: Rangeen and another one of my brothers took me to the airport, and we hugged goodbye. By this time, Mena and I had two children—our daughter was two and our son was six months. We landed in Toronto around 5 p.m. on February 12, 2012, with $600 in my pocket. The first thing I noticed was the snow. I grew up in provinces where, even in the winter, it was 15 degrees.

Stephen: Sangeen joked with me, “I thought we were brothers. Why would you tell me to come to a country where it’s minus 15 degrees?”

Sangeen: A settlement worker took us to a welcome centre at College and Spadina, where we stayed for a couple of weeks. They helped us open a bank account and get health cards. The government gave us some furniture, as well as $5,000 to buy essentials and pay first and last month’s rent on an apartment in Thorncliffe Park. I missed my family back home, but at the same time, I was so happy. It was an amazing moment.

Rangeen: After Sangeen left, I was upset for a while. All of his responsibilities fell onto my shoulders, with no one to help me. I knew Sangeen was still getting settled, and he wasn’t making money yet, so he couldn’t help us financially. I missed him a lot.

Sangeen: A few months after I arrived, I started studying to get my Ontario high school diploma. After that, I did an electrician pre-apprenticeship program, delivering pizzas after class to make rent money and pay the bills. My instructor told me that electrical companies always ask to hire his best students, and that he’d put my name forward. I was hired before I even graduated. My first two weeks on the job, I wasn’t even sure how much I was getting paid—but I didn’t care. I enjoyed it so much. I love the electrical trade, and I’m really good at it. I’ve worked 36 hours non-stop before.

My boss, Andriy, became one of my best friends and mentors. After I’d worked for him for a while, he helped me start my own business as an electrician, even though it meant I’d be leaving his employment. He guided me through the steps: the master electrician’s exam, the contracting licence, the liability insurance, incorporating a company. He even gave me shifts on the days I was having trouble finding my own clients.

Stephen: When I got home from my second deployment to Afghanistan in the spring of 2013, I flew to Toronto and spent a couple of days catching up with Sangeen. It had been six years since we had seen each other in person, but it felt like no time had passed. You don’t get that too often with people. We kept in touch, sending pictures of our families to one another. I have five kids, and Sangeen now has four.

Sangeen: My kids ask me questions like, “Dad, did you have an iPad when you were growing up?” It makes me laugh. I’m like, “Are you serious? I was close to 18 the first time I saw a TV!” They don’t believe me. Sometimes I tell them that I wish Afghanistan was safe right now, so that I could take them there and show them the way people live.

Richard: I lost touch with Sangeen for a few years, but we reconnected through a mutual friend. I invited him and his wife to Edmonton so that we could celebrate his arrival with a handful of veterans. It was a lovely dinner. I told Mena that this would be the honeymoon they never got, because Sangeen was immediately called out on operations after their wedding. I showed them some of the sites in Edmonton, brought them to the Fairmont Hotel for a nice breakfast and made sure they had some time together as a couple.

Sangeen: In 2016, I bought an old house in Oshawa. I would work during the days, renovate until midnight and then sleep for a few hours. It took years, and it was hard work, but when everything was finished in 2021, it felt like my life had started again. I told my wife, “Now we can take it easy and enjoy ourselves.” Then Afghanistan collapsed.

Stephen: As soon as President Biden announced that the American troops would leave Afghanistan by September 2021, I knew the country would come tumbling down. By the summer, it was painfully obvious. The Taliban had already overtaken half of the provincial capitals and set up checkpoints all over the country. It was a tough pill to swallow. I have spent a considerable portion of my 28-year military career over there or supporting operations from abroad, and I’ve lost not just comrades but close friends. We were there to build a better future for Afghanistan. As a veteran, I can’t express how difficult it was to watch the country tear itself apart.

Rangeen: When the government collapsed, our family was in a dangerous position. The Taliban knew we had worked with coalition forces, and they had told us, “You have to die. You have to be killed.”

Sangeen: I was distressed by how fast the country fell. It bothered me so much that I couldn’t work or sleep. I felt responsible for my family. I needed to get them out. I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror and feel shame—that I had an opportunity and did nothing. I wrote an email to all the veterans I knew. I told them that I had once helped them with honesty and a pure heart, with the hope of doing good and saving lives. Now, I needed their help getting my family to Canada.

“For the Taliban, it’s payback time. They’ve been living in caves for 20 years, and they’re pissed off”

Stephen: At that point, I started talking to Sangeen almost daily. His family was in danger. His father served in the Afghan army at the senior level; in 2020, one of the Afghan officers that I mentored was beaten to death in his home. For the Taliban, it’s payback time. They’ve been living in caves for 20 years, and they’re pissed off.

Sangeen: I filled in the application forms to bring my family to Canada. There were a lot of documents, and they were complicated. I would email Stephen questions at 2 a.m. expecting him to reply in the morning, but he’d respond minutes later. Once, when I asked him why he was awake, he replied, “I said I’d do anything, and I will.”

Stephen: Sangeen’s family was told to follow the usual steps of immigrating to Canada: the paperwork, the medical screenings and so on, all in sequential order. It felt to me that the bureaucratic system was not taking necessary measures to speed up the process, despite what was going on in Afghanistan. Having spent more than 20 years working for the federal government, I understood the bureaucracy, the rules and the security screenings. I wrote to all the key decision makers—the Prime Minister’s Office, the minister of immigration and others—questioning their tactics and their approach. Soon enough, Sangeen’s family members went from number 1,000 in the queue up to number one. We don’t know who talked to whom, but it worked.

Rangeen: Once we had visas to come to Canada, the Canadian army tried to book us a flight out of Kandahar. We needed to get to Kabul, where the Americans were still guarding the airport. But we couldn’t fly—my wife was pregnant, just days away from delivering our fourth child—and we couldn’t drive because we would run into the Taliban along the way. We had no choice but to wait. Four days after my daughter was born, we got on a plane. Two weeks later, the city fell to the Taliban.

About a week after we arrived in Kabul, I took my family to the airport. There were thousands of people there, all trying to get on a plane and flee the country. For four days and nights, all of us—my parents, my wife and kids, my younger brothers and sisters—slept on the streets. It was extremely hot and dusty. The airport was surrounded by high fences and barbed wire. Every day, I walked the perimeter, trying to find a way in. My feet hurt so much that I could hardly stand. But I knew that if I didn’t find a way, we would die. My father was so sick he had to go to the hospital, and my mom, who has diabetes, was in bad condition. One of my sons felt sick, too. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to lose my family. I didn’t want to lose my children. My daughter was just 15 days old.

Sangeen: At that time, the Taliban had decreed that all communications in Afghanistan had to shut down between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. That’s daytime in Canada. So, during my waking hours, I had no way to reach my family. I had to stay awake all night to talk to them.

Rangeen: On our fifth morning living outside the airport, I spotted some members of the Canadian army by one of the entrances. There was a sewage canal leading to where they were, so I jumped into the dirty water and waded through it to reach them. Once they spotted me and saw that I had a visa, they took my hand and helped me out. They said, “Don’t worry, you’re with us now. You will make your flight.” To get my family into the airport, I had to make 12 trips through that filthy water, carrying my relatives on my shoulders, one by one. The Canadians gave us water, food and medical attention. I have no words to explain how good they were to us. They didn’t even complain when my children were crying. I will never forget the way they helped us.

Sangeen: My family landed in Toronto at 2 a.m. on August 27, 2021. A friend of mine who volunteers with new arrivals to Canada called me right away and said, “I have your family in the bus with me.” The moment I heard that, I cried. I hadn’t seen them face-to-face in a decade. The first person I wrote to was Stephen. I told all the veterans who helped me, “Without you, this would never have happened.”

It wouldn’t be a full family reunion, though. One of my brothers is still in the neighbouring country of Tajikistan. His wife is an activist who teaches girls and young women about the dangers of forced marriages. The Taliban once came to their house, faces covered, and started banging on their door while they escaped through the back garden. His wife was six months pregnant and lost the baby. I helped them flee the country in early 2021, but now they’re stuck.

Sangeen: Because of Covid restrictions, my family had to isolate in a hotel for 14 days. When I was finally able to see them, everybody had changed. My brothers were just kids when I left them, and they’re taller than me now. My dad looks much older. The difference in my mom’s face made me cry. But everybody told me I hadn’t changed.

Rangeen: That was the happiest moment of my life. Sangeen was so happy to see us alive. He couldn’t believe we’d made it. Neither could I.

Inside a high-stakes flight from a crumbling country
The brothers at Sangeen’s home in Oshawa. Photograph by Vanessa Heins

Sangeen: For 45 days, there were 19 people in my house. Our neighbours asked us what was going on when they saw all the shoes on the porch. I joked that we started a daycare—there were eight kids in the house. I enrolled them all in school, took them to the malls, bought them clothes. They had arrived with nothing but the outfits they were wearing. I helped my siblings and parents sign up for bank accounts, get their health cards and sort out other paperwork. When the guy from the welcome centre visited us, he said I had already done most of his job. He told me that if I ever decide to stop working in electrical, he’d hire me. Eventually, I found homes for my family. My parents, three sisters and one brother live together in a townhouse just north of mine in Oshawa. Rangeen and his family live in a bungalow on my street.

Rangeen: I recently started working as a forklift operator at General Motors. It’s a great job. The other day, one of my co-workers, a guy from Turkey, asked me what I liked about Canada. I told him my favourite thing is that everyone is treated the same here. It doesn’t matter if you’re born in Canada or born in Afghanistan or another country, people respect you.

Sangeen: One evening shortly after my family arrived, I took one of my youngest sisters for a walk to Tim Hortons. She’s 18. When she came outside, her whole body was shaking. I asked her what was wrong, and she didn’t answer me. But I could tell she was scared. She’d never been outside in the dark without a burqa. I told her, “I’m with you. This is Canada. Nothing is going to happen.” On the way back, she cried. I told her I was sorry; I shouldn’t have brought her outside if she wasn’t comfortable. With time, she’ll get used to it—women driving, running businesses, teaching, owning houses. It’s all new to her. It’s a different world. My sisters are all taking English classes now. They’re so motivated, so energized. I can tell how much they love to learn. They just didn’t have the right opportunities before.

Rangeen: Our friends in Afghanistan are still in a terrible situation. They worked hard for the Canadian army. They submitted their documents, but they haven’t been approved to come to Canada yet. The poor guys are calling me, crying. I don’t know what can be done.

Sangeen: Even here in Canada, there are so many Afghan families still living in quarantine hotels. None of them can find homes. The rental market is so expensive, and no one is willing to be their guarantor. So, I signed up to be a guarantor for four families. Together, they have 30 kids. I asked my wealthier electrical customers if they’d be willing to donate any furniture, money or support. They gave carpets, dining tables, dishes, microwaves, vacuums, clothing. That was my job every night. I took all the seats out of my Dodge Caravan to pick up and drop off donations. I feel bad for the other Afghans who don’t have someone advocating for them. I know that other veterans are helping in various capacities, but there are not enough veterans to help all these people. And it really shouldn’t be veterans taking the lead anyway.

Richard: Sangeen is now serving a similar role to the one that he played for Canadian service men and women in Afghanistan. He used to help us acclimatize to Afghanistan; now he’s helping Afghans get accustomed to Canada.

Rangeen: I’m so proud to call Sangeen my brother. Without him, I wouldn’t have known how to get a job or driver’s licence.

Sangeen: My biggest concern right now is getting my other brother into Canada. In December, after the rest of my family arrived, Canada launched a program that fast-tracks immigration applications from the families of former interpreters. But the program requires the applicant to have been in Afghanistan on or after July 22, 2021. My brother’s family left for Tajikistan months before that because I told them to. When I found out, I was so upset. It’s like they’re punishing my brother for protecting his family. I will not send my brother back to Afghanistan to make him eligible for this program. How can I take that risk?

Stephen: July 22 is a grossly unfair date that is based on no logic. Why in the hell would anybody who is actively wanted dead by the Taliban travel back into that country? Just so they can fall under this special sponsorship? It’s crazy. I sent a letter to the ministry, and I’ve talked to a couple of MPs about it. I really hold the whole government of Canada to task on this one.

Richard: The hundreds of Afghans that worked with Canadians were more than just contractors or interpreters. They were our cultural advisers. They were our friends. They were our guarantors of continuity. We owe them an awful lot.

Stephen: Sangeen is making Canada a better place. I’m confident that his family is going to transition into our society. They want to build a new life here. This is not the kind of success story that I thought I was I signing up for when I joined the military. But at least they’re getting a bright future, even if it’s not the one that we envisioned for Afghanistan. We haven’t completely broken our promise.

Sangeen: I got rid of most of my pictures from the war. For a long time after Fitzpatrick died, I kept a picture of him with me. But every time I saw it, it reminded me of the pain, so I decided to leave it behind. I have to focus on another life now.

With files from Inori Roy


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