“The Taliban have made it known that members of the group who return will suffer the consequences.”
After helping hundreds of dogs and cats get to Canada and the United States, staff at an animal shelter in Kabul, Afghanistan, seek to follow in their footsteps as they face persecution, beatings and potentially death in their country of origin.
In Vancouver, a group of animal lovers is raise tens of thousands of dollars for that to happen.
In early 2022, 286 cats and dogs fled Afghanistan, landing in Vancouver on February 1 after an international effort.
The animals were a mix of pets and stray dogs cared for by the Kabul Small Animal Rescue (KSAR), an animal rescue organization in the country’s capital.
Many pets were left behind as families fled when the Taliban took over the city in the summer of 2021, leaving them with friends and family who stayed behind. KSAR has connected with animal rescue organizations across North America to reunite many of these pets with their families.
At the same time, other cats and dogs were sent to Canada to find a better life after living on the streets of Kabul.
While the animals were able to escape the Taliban regime, the veterinarians, assistants and other KSAR staff who remained behind to care for the animals were unable to leave.
There is now an international group, including several Canadians, seeking to help them get to Canada and the United States safely and legally, which could see several refugees end up in Vancouver.
Persecution for helping
The situation is dire for those left behind and their families, says Owen Laukkanen, who worked as a shelter manager in Vancouver for the flight full of pets.
“It is important to note that the members who are still in Afghanistan have been targeted by the Taliban,” he said. “Many of them have stories of being beaten.”
Over the August long weekend, Dr. Mohammed Iqbal was stabbed to death in the streets of Kabul.
“He was one of the vets who worked at KSAR while transporting the animals to Vancouver,” says Holly Legere, who has also been involved in animal rescue and refugees. “He was one of those who stayed to help the animals.”
Although his death was not officially linked to the Taliban, those involved with the KSAR believe he was targeted for his work with the organization.
“It’s most likely in response to his actions and his connection to working with animals,” adds Laukkanen.
He explains that there are several reasons why those who have worked with KSAR are the targets of violence and intimidation.
The most direct reason is the fact that KSAR is an NGO linked to Western countries like Canada and the United States. This connection alone, he says, puts targets on KSAR personnel and their families.
In addition to this, many people working with KSAR are educated women; the Taliban have a long and brutal history when it comes to women’s rights, and they have returned to these practices.
Many staff members are also Hazara, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan discriminated against by the Taliban. When the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, many Hazara communities allied with the international force that arrived.
“In retaliation, many members of their (staff) circle were attacked,” Laukkanen says. “Family members or people close to them have been ‘disappeared’ by the Taliban.”
The situation now
The situation has become urgent. In total, Laukkanen says about 170 personnel and their family members are part of the group seeking refuge outside Afghanistan.
The group that organizes the refugees are not immigration specialists, they are mostly animal rescue organizations. A woman from Long Island, New York, who runs a dog shelter, spearheaded the operation, with significant help from seven Vancouver volunteers, including Laukkanen and Legere. They learned about the refugee system in Canada and started working with immigration specialists.
While Vancouver, and Canada in general, is a likely final destination for many KSAR team members, the group’s primary focus is getting people out of Afghanistan legally to a third country.
“We’re trying to buy them time so Western governments can slowly process their requests,” Laukkannen says.
He notes that about 130 are currently in a third country, but the situation is unstable, as it costs around $20,000 to house and feed the group.
“If that $20,000 a month runs out and the money disappears, then those people will be deported to Afghanistan,” he says. “The Taliban have made it known that members of the group who return will suffer the consequences.”
There have been concrete threats of having their hands cut off, adds Laukkanen.
how to help
The whole process should cost around $600,000 to do legally in the end, an amount that volunteer-run dog shelters don’t have on hand.
“It’s a constant battle to raise and maintain that amount of money,” Laukkanen says.
So far, the Vancouver group has raised between $25,000 and $30,000. Laukkanen notes that Paws Unite People, the Long Island shelter, was at the forefront of the effort, but leveraged its resources.
In Vancouver, there are a variety of fundraising plans. A ticketed in-person auction at the Irish Heather has sold out. At a time, there is an online auction run with many locally made and donated items, ranging from books to BC Lions tickets to personalized cakes and luxury vacation packages.
“Everything comes from local traders, local designers, and so there’s dog training, ballet lessons, a will preparation kit,” says Laukkanen. “There is something for every taste.”
Notably, there is a bespoke cooking experience with an Afghan chef who will cook a three-course meal for four at home as an interactive cooking experience.
There are also other campaigns, under the name of Mission Possible 2: Rescue the Rescuers (pet theft has been dubbed Mission Possible). Paws Unite People Sell Shirts with all proceeds going towards Mission Possible 2. Laukkanen also set up a GoFundMe for direct giving to cause.
Do you like buying cool stuff and/or supporting good causes? Our volunteers are organizing an online auction to benefit @PawsUnitePeople and former Kabul vets.
Check out the auctions page. Land amazing deals on cool stuff without the guilt! https://t.co/VrF3mcOv4D
—Owen Laukkanen (@owenlaukkanen) October 6, 2022