How a Canadian Veterans Group Evacuated Over 3000 At-Risk Civilians from Afghanistan and Ukraine
By: Anvesh Jain
Crowds thronging haphazardly with their belongings at Kabul International Airport. Taliban militants—marching triumphant—shawled spectres emerging into scraggly daylight. The last of the Western forces escorting fleeing diplomats towards temporary order. Afghans clinging to the wings of departing C-17s, as flight after flight vanishes amongst the sempiternal mountain peaks of the Hindu Kush.
Such were the scenes of desperation that greeted Canadian news audiences last August. While most watched the fall of Kabul with a distant sense of shock and lingering dismay, for those involved in Canada’s twenty-year humanitarian effort in Afghanistan, the consequences of a Taliban takeover were profoundly personal. In the face of governmental paralysis, a group of veterans, former interpreters, and volunteers banded together and took immediate action. In the early days of the Kabul airlift, they established direct lines of communication with evacuees and guided them to secure safehouses before arranging flights out of the embattled country. From these initial efforts, Aman Lara (meaning “sheltered path” in Pashto), was formed as its own NGO.
One year on, the Policy Insights Forum is grateful for the opportunity to interview with Aman Lara’s Executive Director, Brian Macdonald. Brian is a former Army Officer with tours to Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan decorating his 15-year military tenure. He went on to hold senior executive positions in the corporate and political worlds, including two terms as a New Brunswick MLA where he was appointed the province’s first Legislative Secretary for Military Affairs. His previous experiences supporting veterans in their transition to civilian life has guided him in his current role at Aman Lara.
The speed and alacrity of Afghanistan’s collapse defied even the expectations of Canada’s highest intelligence agencies. As Brian described: “When Kabul fell, veterans were impacted personally… in August of last year, veterans rallied. There wasn’t a lot of leadership from the Government of Canada at that time. That was symptomatic of the problem. All the Allies struggled to provide leadership.”
The first, inchoate Aman Lara volunteers recognized the advantages enjoyed by an NGO over the federal government. They had the ability to be more nimble, direct, and discrete in their operations on the ground, while still enjoying communication and support from Canadian government agencies. Their contacts could operate in Dari, Pashto, Urdu, and other local languages whenever and wherever needed. Canadian veterans and former interpreters were motivated by their deep connection to Afghanistan and its beleaguered population. “I served in a lot of places and Afghanistan was one of them. For a lot of Canadians, Afghanistan was the shaping experience of their military service. Many of my friends and people I know were impacted by the War. It was a huge cost to Canada. [The Taliban victory] cannot be described as anything other than a loss.”
Though Brian emphasized “the story of Afghanistan is not over,” the Taliban takeover did force Aman Lara to pursue new avenues in accomplishing its goals. The NGO turned to rescuing those in the country who had previously partaken in the Canadian military mission, and to additionally support the Government of Canada in its stated goals of resettling 40,000 refugees and vulnerable Afghans. Through its efforts, Aman Lara is keeping alive the dreams of education and empowerment fostered by Canada’s twenty-year involvement in Central Asia. “Where do we find redemption in it? That’s why bringing these people to Canada is important for veterans. That’s how veterans find some redemption in this story. That’s the core of Aman Lara—finding some redemption in this terrible story that is Afghanistan.”
Aman Lara is a veteran-oriented organization. Brian himself has spent much time in veterans’ spaces, and by his own admission, the majority of his friends and contacts are military or ex-military. He took over the leadership of Aman Lara at the height of the COVID pandemic and has enjoyed the challenges of coordinating a national organization with members from Halifax to Victoria. “There’s a lot of trust between Canadian veterans, we’re all a product of the same system. It’s good quality product, and these people are professionals.”
These close relationships have also assisted Aman Lara in achieving successful results in its interactions with Government of Canada ministries and departments. “Aman Lara is a partner of the Government. They fund us and we rely on them for coordination. We don’t move anyone who is not approved by the Government to move.” Though the bulk of Aman Lara’s communications have been with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and Global Affairs Canada (GAC), the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Public Safety Canada (PSC), and the various Provincial governments have also been crucial partners throughout the process.
After the Russian Invasion of Ukraine earlier in 2022, Aman Lara expanded its focus and began including evacuations from Ukraine in its mandate. When Brian became Executive Director in January of this year, internal discussions had already been underway regarding Aman Lara’s role beyond Afghanistan. These questions, he suspects, have still not been fully answered as an organization. Brian believes that Canada requires an expeditionary arm like Aman Lara to coordinate across government and put trained individuals on the ground in dangerous parts of a crisis-stricken world. The skills learned by their team in Afghanistan, and now Ukraine, can provide these advanced capabilities. As Brian puts it, Aman Lara excels at getting “good people out of bad places.”
“We pivoted to Ukraine, and we’ve had tremendous success. Based on a referral from the Government of Canada, we’ve connected with SickKids and have moved a number of families through Poland to Canada to receive treatment at the SickKids Hospital in Toronto. We recently repatriated a Canadian veteran who was wounded in the fighting there. We got todo airlifts in Ukraine, which we never got to do in Afghanistan. It has its own challenges, but it’s easier than driving overland. If we can do that in Afghanistan and Ukraine, I can confidently say we can do that everywhere.”
Though Aman Lara has already evacuated nearly 3,300 at-risk civilians from both Afghanistan and Ukraine, the NGO has identified a further 10,290 others that are still waiting to be rescued and resettled in Canada. Brian has made it clear that he and his team are driven to help each one of them. Seeing evacuees lead happy, safe, and fulfilling lives in Canada with their families has been a source of personal joy for Brian. “I love bringing people to Canada, and they love being here. You can imagine the trauma they’ve been through. When they show up, life’s not easy. First off, the weather—they’re not used to that. Often they lack language skills, and it’s a different culture. But these people are resilient, they’re lovely people. Bringing them to Canada is the first battle. I have tremendous compassion for these people and the struggles they face.”
While evacuations form the major nexus of Aman Lara’s operations, the organization also works with local governments to provide resettled evacuees with the resources they need to thrive in their new homes. There are challenges in finding suitable jobs, transferring academic and educational credentials, and learning new languages in order to adjust to Canadian society. “If they don’t speak English well and can’t get their credential transferred, what does a former Afghan National Army General do when he's driving a cab in Canada? It’s tough, I can’t imagine it.”
“We’re working on a couple projects now in Ukraine to bring people to Canada. Those are still ongoing. We’re in the middle of a project in Afghanistan where we hope to move a couple thousand people this year. It’s not straight-forward; you have to negotiate with three governments [Canada, Pakistan, Afghanistan]. It’s tricky, but we’ve got a project to move 3,000 people out of Afghanistan. We need funding to move people. It costs about $1000 CAD to get someone out of Afghanistan, and about $3000 CAD to get someone from Ukraine to Canada.”
The work can come frustratingly slow, or at times too rapidly. Funds are perpetually lacking. The life-saving necessity of their exertions are not lost on volunteers, and this knowledge takes its toll. Brian and the Aman Lara team have their hands full with daily pleas from new evacuees and never-ending consultations with domestic and foreign officials. Still, they recognize the importance of taking a moment to celebrate their impressive efforts from the past year.
To mark the one-year anniversary of the Kabul airlift, Aman Lara will be hosting a reception with Afghan evacuees and those who were there on the very first day of the NGO’s operations. The event will take place between 5pm and 7pm on Wednesday, August3, at the Army Officers Mess in Ottawa (149 Somerset St. West). There is no cost to attend the event, and as Brian has assured, all are welcome to join.
To further support Brian Macdonald and the rest of the Aman Lara team, please consider making a donation at evacuations.ca.
In addition to his NGO work with Aman Lara, Brian Macdonald is a Senior Political Associate with Samuel Associates. The Samuel Group of Companies, including the Policy Insights Forum and Samuel Associates, strongly supports Brian in his charitable endeavors. The Samuel Group is a proud advocate for deeper civic engagement and private sector leadership to advance Canada’s national agenda.
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