Afghan interpreter flees Taliban with Peterborough veteran’s help

·5 min read

Ahmad Sajad Kazimi has a dream.

Three months after fleeing his home in Afghanistan — targeted with threats from the Taliban for working alongside Canadian and U.S. armed forces as an interpreter — Kazimi longs to start a new life in Canada, far from the bloodshed and turmoil that drove him away from his mother, father and younger brother.

“I wish I was in Canada,” said Kazimi, known as Alex by his friends in the Canadian military. Speaking with the Peterborough Examiner via Zoom from his temporary residence in Texas — where he sought refuge in May — Kazimi cradles his two-year-old son Modaser. Kazimi’s pregnant wife, Bi Bi Azita, is in the U.S. with them.

For a moment, the thought of stepping foot in Canada washes away the worry. Kazimi lights up as he talks about Canadian weather, culture and the “leaf on the flag.”

For weeks, Kazimi has been consumed with concern. His parents and brother are still in Kabul. Last week, Afghanistan’s capital, Kazimi’s former home, fell to the Taliban. In a resurgence amid the U.S. military’s exit — marking the end of a 20-year war — the militia has taken control of the country as scores of civilians attempt to flee.

Relaying messages from his family, Kazimi said the Taliban has been carrying out nighttime raids, harassing and attacking interpreters and government workers. Some locals have been assaulted; others have vanished — even executed, according to Kazimi.

After working as an interpreter for more than a decade, assisting Canadian, American, Australian and Polish forces, Kazimi worries his family will become a target.

“It’s a matter of life and death,” he said.

Kazimi has been doing “everything” he can to get his family out of Afghanistan, applying for special immigrant visas and trying to get them on flights to North America. Ultimately, he wants to bring his parents and brother to Canada to live with him and his immediate family.

Rob Burns, an Afghanistan war veteran who recently moved to Peterborough, has stepped up to help.

Burns, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, launched a GoFundMe fundraising campaign called Left Behind Alex last month to help Kazimi afford the bare essentials — food, clothing and rent — while he’s in Texas.

So far, the online fundraiser has collected nearly half of its $10,000 goal.

It’s Burns’s latest attempt to help Kazimi. In 2019, Burns and several other veterans, including servicemen who worked with Kazimi in Afghanistan, contacted dozens of MPs and government officials in an effort to get Kazimi, the focus of increasing hostility from the Taliban, out of Afghanistan. According to Burns, their efforts were met with bureaucratic red tape and their calls were ignored.

While Burns has not yet met Kazimi in person, he knows soldiers who worked alongside the interpreter. They’ve praised Kazimi for his dedication and bravery.

“I’ve heard stories about Alex risking his life to help Canadians, Americans, Polish and Australians. I have letters from his chain of command thanking him for his service. It’s impressive what this man has done. It’s not an easy job,” said Burns.

Kazimi’s fondness for Canada grew on the front lines, where he dodged enemy fire and, on one occasion, narrowly avoided being hit by an improvised explosive device (IED).

“We were like brothers. I never felt alone. We were all together,” remembered Kazimi.

Burns said the GoFundMe campaign is one small act in recognition of Kazimi — and all those who served.

“I just felt like maybe there’s something I can do. It could change something for someone. I’m only one man. But I can help this one man,” said Burns.

Burns trained with Peterborough’s Cpl. Mark McLaren, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2008.

“Mark was very courageous and brave. He risked his life for an Afghan, pushing forward under enemy fire. If Mark can do that, the least I can do is this,” Burns said.

Following the Taliban takeover, the Canadian government has received criticism from some who say officials were too slow to act on getting vulnerable Afghans, including interpreters, out of the country.

Burns believes the government “dropped the ball.”

“It’s upsetting because for years there’s been a lot of Canadians, a lot of them being soldiers, trying to get these interpreters over here, warning that this kind of thing was going to happen.

Good people, people who served Canada, like interpreters, are going to die,” Burns said.

Burns said it’s hard to express how disappointed he is seeing the Taliban retake Afghanistan after decades of sacrifice.

“I think a lot of soldiers feel the same. They feel like when the Taliban took over and we allowed them to do this, all the sacrifice that every soldier made became worthless. That’s how it feels.”

Kazimi’s message to the Canadian government is clear: “please help.”

“I feel for my family and my fellow interpreters left behind,” he said. “Please evacuate the interpreters who risked their lives. They are asking for help.”

The Canadian government said Friday it will accelerate processing the families of interpreters and others who supported its mission in Afghanistan to quickly evacuate as many approved people as possible. The main obstacle remains the Taliban checkpoints that Afghans have to go through to reach the Kabul airport.

The Department of National Defence has deployed two C-17 transport aircraft to conduct regular flights out of Kabul. The first plane full of Afghan refugees took off from Kabul on Thursday night.

About 1,000 Afghan refugees have already arrived in Canada. Canada has committed to take in 20,000 refugees.

Donations can be made online at gofundme.com/f/left-behind-alex

— with files from The Canadian Press

Brendan Burke is a staff reporter at the Examiner, based in Peterborough. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner

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