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In new book, Carol Off exposes refugee’s trials with a personal lens

Carol Off, centre, speaks with members of Asad Aryubwal’s family.

Lana Slezic

It was honesty that got Asad Aryubwal in trouble with one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords. It was honesty that prevented him from coming to Canada sooner. But it was adhering to his principles that made him a friend: Canadian journalist Carol Off.

The first time Off met Aryubwal, in 2002, she was looking for someone to tell the story of what life was really like under General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who ruled in northern Afghanistan. He was willing to say what nobody else would and got access to a prison where they filmed the aftermath of an alleged massacre of Taliban fighters.

The second time Off met him, in 2006, she was back in Afghanistan, reporting an update to her earlier documentary, which went on to win a Gemini Award.

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Again, he was willing to go on camera despite knowing he might face the wrath of Dostum.

But when she found out what happened to him and his family in the interim, she could not leave them behind as she had done with sources from other stories.

Off's fourth book, All We Leave Behind, tells the story of the Aryubwal family as they experience war, shunning by their extended family and the convoluted, almost hopeless process of gaining refugee status.

It also shows the lengths to which Off went to help a source, the deep friendship that developed between them over the years and the delicate balance Off faced with the practice and ethics of journalism.

In an interview at the downtown Toronto office of her publisher, Off and Robina, Aryubwal's eldest daughter, talked about the story that brought them together. Off, who has been the co-host of CBC's As It Happens since 2006, said seeing the Aryubwals make new lives in Canada was like some "magic" coming into her life.

"I can't tell you how happy and proud you feel of your country, of your society, when you see the possibilities and you see people have the opportunity to grow and live in your country. Something very powerful happens, and ultimately what I would like people to take away from this book is that same feeling."

Growing up, Aryubwal's family owned a movie theatre in Kabul. His father was arrested after the Saur Revolution in 1978 and never seen again. Asad married Mobina, a woman from a different clan, which did not go over well with his conservative family. Once, when he had fled to Pakistan, she had to travel back to Kabul and stayed with his family. The men of the family verbally and physically abused her until she was able to travel back to her home in northern Afghanistan.

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Asad and Mobina have five children, all of whom are now in Canada. In the 1990s, they lived in northern Afghanistan, where he became a general for Dostum – a job less powerful than the title suggests. He never carried a weapon and mainly did logistics and supervised construction sites. It was that experience that made him a credible witness to the lives of ordinary Afghanis under Dostum's U.S.-funded rule.

After he talked to Off in 2002, he was on vacation in northern Afghanistan when he was approached by one of Dostum's commanders and warned that his whole family would be "destroyed" if he kept it up. He quickly packed up his family and drove back to Kabul. He later learned that a car full of gunmen arrived just after his departure looking for him.

When Dostum found out Aryubwal had again been interviewed by the CBC in 2006, he was given an ultimatum: leave Afghanistan or be killed, possibly along with his sons. He fled to Pakistan, and the rest of the family joined him when he saw there was no hope of ever going back. (As for Dostum, he is now Afghanistan's vice-president.)

But Off didn't know any of that. In fact, she might never have learned of the family's fate in the normal course of her work. But in 2008, she was in Pakistan, reporting on the aftermath of the Benazir Bhutto assassination, when she again met Aryubwal and his family. There she learned the cost of his interviews with her.

So why did he talk to her again in 2006 if he knew the dangers? "Because if I had not spoken up, if I had not told you the truth of what was happening, I would never be able to look into the eyes of my children again." It was then that Off knew the predicament he was in, the convictions he so steadfastly held in a place where they were not welcome, and she knew she had to help his family.

It took more than seven harrowing years to get the Aryubwals to Canada, despite having funding and a private sponsor ready to take them in. They lived in limbo in Pakistan for years, moving several times when danger seemed near. Navigating the Byzantine and corrupt United Nations refugee process and then facing an increasingly hostile federal government put Off over the edge, compelling her to tell their story once they had gotten to the safety of Canada.

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"Everyone is calling her the angel of our family," Robina said. "We were very broken, but [Carol] was always beside us. She was giving us hope."

Off says the moment she knew the story would become a book was when Robina was telling her about an encounter her father had after being rejected for refugee status. A man told him that for $50,000, wired to a Moscow bank account, he could get the family's refugee application approved. "I was thinking: Okay, we just have to figure this out. We're not filling out the right form or we're not talking to the right person or we're not going to the right office. What is it that I have to do?" Off said. "No, I have to send $50,000 to Moscow? That's how it happens – how this works?

"And that for me was, like, we're going to expose this. We can't do it now because you're caught in this. We can't upset this apple cart while we're sitting in it, but we're going to expose this."

The book may be about the Aryubwals, but Off's evolution as a journalist is also present. She got her first big break in 1986 in Pakistan, where she reported on an airplane hijacking and landed an interview with Bhutto. What she doesn't mention in the book is how she got to Pakistan: by selling all her belongings and travelling alone, with just the promise of CBC airing an interview with Bhutto that Off had no idea how to actually get. She had quite literally given up everything for journalism but, two decades later, was left wondering what the point of it all was if her profession dictated that she could not help this family – a family who was not only suffering because of her, but who represented an ideal the Western powers in Afghanistan wanted to promote.

Looking back on that time with the knowledge of what Off was going through to get the Aryubwals to Canada, her 2014 interview with Canada's then-immigration minister, Chris Alexander, comes off as even more urgent. Off pressed Alexander for answers on just how many Syrian refugees were being welcomed to Canada, and Alexander fumbled for answers before hanging up on her.

"I had to separate these two worlds. I was fighting to get them into Canada as an individual and I was, as a journalist, covering the very story that I was trying to get them out of. So it was a mental juggling act and an ethical juggling act, but I believe I found the right balance," Off said.

"But it was hard. There were many times, yes, when I thought: 'I'll just use my profile as a journalist to declare this is what's going on,' but I couldn't do that. I have to go through the same channels that everyone else went through."

Off is still critical of the government's treatment of refugees. She said government-sponsored refugees are left to their own devices and "there's so little help for them" compared with privately sponsored refugees.

Now 29, Robina is enrolled at the University of Toronto and hopes to go to law school. She talked about the importance of education in her family's lives; how she learned English on her own and taught others; how her mother ran an underground school for girls while the Taliban ruled; and how Off sent the family money so they could go to university in Pakistan.

Her father is a dishwasher at a Toronto restaurant. Her mother sells homemade food at a local market. Her brothers and sisters are all in school or have jobs. The family follows the news back home, anxiously watching the same mistakes being made in the long-suffering country as fighting still rages, with the Taliban ruling again in large parts of the country and the educated either fleeing or being imprisoned or killed. Despite all he has been through, Robina says, her father still misses Afghanistan.

As Off left to record the audio version of her book, she began to make plans with Robina for the weekend and said they would text each other. "Oh, by the way, I have your charger," Robina said. A hug and a kiss on the cheek, and Off was gone, the exchange like that of a loving mother and daughter.

"I can't thank her enough," Robina said. "She's like a miracle in our life."

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