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Sahar Sarwary using the iMac computer she received from the Afghan Women’s Organization on Jan. 21.Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

Sahar Sarwary and her family arrived in Toronto in August after fleeing Afghanistan and they quickly set about establishing their lives here, finding housing, looking for work and enrolling in school.

Last month, they were able to get something else just as essential to their lives as newcomers: a computer.

The iMac has been life-changing. Ms. Sarwary received it for free, through a program established by a Toronto tech company in partnership with the Afghan Women’s Organization Refugee and Immigrant Services.

“I was using my phone whenever I had Zoom calls, which was not fun,” the 25-year-old says. “And I couldn’t do my resumé on my phone.”

Not having a computer or a cellphone can be a major barrier for Afghan newcomers to Canada, especially during the pandemic when so much of life, from attending school to accessing social programs, can only be done online. To help those dealing with that barrier, the tech firm First Class Conferencing Facilitation partnered with the Afghan Women’s Organization to collect devices donated from across Ontario.

“In today’s world, under the current circumstances, everything is online. Everything is offered virtually,” says Fahima Fatah, program manager at the Afghan Women’s Organization.

Shortly after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last summer, Maddy Hearne and McKenzie Day, co-founders of First Class Conferencing Facilitation, a company that hosts and manages online meetings, contacted the Afghan Women’s Organization to ask what it needed most to help with the influx of refugees coming to Toronto.

The answer: devices.

“Everything is device-related,” Ms. Fatah says of life in the pandemic. The program called Empowered by Devices: A Technology Drive for Afghan Refugees, has collected nearly 70 computers, tablets and cellphones donated by companies such as Wattpad, as well as private individuals from across Ontario.

Every donated device is cleaned, reset to its factory settings, and delivered to the Afghan Women’s Organization, which distributes them to newcomers, both male and female.

Every single computer or phone collected can be life-changing, Ms. Hearne says of the donation drive, which is wrapping up at the end of this month.

“Even by donating one device, that person is going to be creating huge positive changes in these Afghan refugees’ lives,” she says.

Hamidullah Noori, a 33-year-old Afghan refugee who arrived in Toronto in the fall, recently received a laptop and iPhone through the program.

He will use the computer to attend English classes, something that would be impossible without it.

“With the lockdown, I can’t go to classes in person,” Mr. Noori says.

In Afghanistan, he worked as an office assistant and is looking for a similar job here, a task he says would likely be difficult without the computer.

The same is true for Ms. Sarwary, her four sisters, brother and mother, she says. Ms. Sarwary is taking English and other classes online, hoping to pursue a career in business management. In the meantime, she is using her computer to look for an after-school job.

By getting more devices to newcomers, it gives them better opportunities to access online classes and other virtual resources, Ms. Fatah says.

“Often there is only one device that is shared by the entire family,” she says.

And in a time of lockdowns and social isolation brought on by the pandemic, devices can be a lifeline for newcomers who need to connect with friends and family.

“It’s the best way to connect, not just for socialization but for mental-health purposes,” Ms. Fatah says.

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