As the 30 graduate students went around the lecture hall introducing themselves on the first day of class, Mohammad intentionally kept his story brief because he’s worried – just a month after fleeing Kabul with his family – that he won’t secure the funding needed to attend the Vancouver-based university.
“I just said, ‘I’m a new refugee from Afghanistan,’” the 39-year-old father of three recalled shortly after class ended Wednesday. “They looked quite shocked.”
If he gets the scholarships and bursaries to continue his master’s degree, then he will no doubt tell his classmates more about his past life in Afghanistan. About how he spent five years helping the Canadian embassy co-ordinate a slew of education projects to help some of the country’s millions of children sketch the contours of their world and beyond. About how he was one of the first Afghans to return from exile in Pakistan when the Taliban fell two decades ago, arriving in the capital eager to rebuild his country with the help of an international community earnest to support these efforts. And about how that hope dissipated this spring when U.S. President Joe Biden announced plans for an American withdrawal from the country and fundamentalist forces began reasserting their stranglehold on daily life.
For now, Mohammad, whom The Globe and Mail is referring to by a pseudonym so as not to endanger his extended family still hiding in Afghanistan, is focused on more immediate matters: moving out of a small hotel room to a home in Metro Vancouver’s confounding rental market, then enrolling his children in Canadian school.
“That’s a very important ray of hope – that at least their future is going to be safeguarded,” he said.
Mohammad is one of the roughly 3,700 people the federal government says it airlifted out of Afghanistan to come to Canada before the Taliban dammed that flow of evacuees. As of Monday, 2,200 of this first wave of refugees, including Mohammad and other Afghans who worked with the Canadian government and military, have landed at Pearson International Airport. Many carried as much as they could in one large piece of luggage.
Ottawa says it plans to welcome a further 20,000 Afghans over the next year and a half, a group consisting of those endangered under new Taliban rule: human-rights campaigners, female leaders, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and immediate and extended families of those already in Canada.
Mohammad says the guilt is crushing when he thinks of those stranded in a multiethnic country now run by an all-male interim government, nearly all its members of Pashtun backgrounds.
“It’s the same Taliban, that’s what we’ve been screaming, saying ‘They haven’t changed.’ But, unfortunately, the international community didn’t listen to Afghans,” he said, adding that he feels numb thinking about the challenges facing his compatriots. “I do hope that [my children] are able to benefit from the opportunities available in Vancouver, but at the same time they will be raised in a way to know that they have to do something good in the world, not only for those back in Afghanistan – but for humanity.”
He has applied to get his sister and her family out of the country and sent to Canada – an evacuation that became imperative after neighbours noticed his family’s absence and connected it to his work for a foreign power.
“Word travelled fast: ‘Well, these people worked with Canada; they were taken to Canada.’ That triggers some kind of reaction from those who are either super conservative or want to settle a score,” he said, referring to the threats now faced by his sister and her family.
Sharifi, a former driver at the Canadian embassy, has been living with his wife and three young children in a Surrey, B.C., motel after an Aug. 11 airlift that saw them quarantine in Toronto. He said he is just happy to finally get an e-mail response from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. He had been asking how Ottawa can help evacuate his mother, sister, three brothers and their families from Afghanistan now that his 13-year stint working for the Canadian government has put them in real danger.
“It says ‘If you or your family are in Afghanistan, you keep yourself in safe place,’ but it doesn’t have any good news,” said Sharifi, whom The Globe is only identifying by his surname to protect his family in hiding.
Chris Friesen, chief operating officer at the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., Ottawa’s designated partner to settle Afghan evacuees on the West Coast, said eight staff from his and other B.C.-based organizations are now in Toronto helping prepare incoming evacuees for life in the Western Hemisphere. The immigration processing, orientation and English-language sessions have all been complicated by the pandemic, he said, which also means evacuees often only escape their hotel quarantine for escorted walks outside.
Since the first flight landed in B.C. a week and a half ago, 10 families (totalling 38 people) of government-assisted refugees had decided to travel to Metro Vancouver, Mr. Friesen said on Tuesday. A further 51 people were expected to land by the end of the week, but the majority of this wave of Afghan workers affiliated with Canada are expected to stay closer to Toronto, where there is a stronger connection to veterans and other groups linked to the military, he said.
Melanie Lauber, a volunteer and board member with New Circles, a Toronto non-profit tapped to help deliver clothes to these refugees, said she shared a bittersweet moment with a group of quarantined children two weeks ago while dropping off close to 50 bags of new and nearly new clothing.
“One of the windows was open and they were just yelling ‘Hi’ and waving out the window to me,” she said. “I just waved up and we had a nice smile and an exchange, but it’s heartbreaking to see what they’ve gone through.”
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