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World From Kitchener to the front line in Iraq against Islamic State

Friends of Farhang Afandi say he travelled to Iraq to visit family and did not intend to join the war when he left Canada.

This time last year, Farhang Afandi was living in the Kitchener, Ont., area, riding his Suzuki motorcycle with friends and counting down the days until his citizenship came through. Then last summer, friends say, he visited his family in Iraqi Kurdistan – a trip that has resulted in him serving as a key bridge between the military forces of both his native and adopted homeland.

As fighters with the Islamic State rubbed up against the borders of the autonomous region controlled by the area's Kurdish people, Mr. Afandi decided to stay. He began working as an interpreter for Canadian forces once the federal government voted to join the fight against Islamic State militants in the fall.

It was in this capacity that Mr. Afandi encountered a Globe and Mail reporter who was en route to Bashiq Mountain, where last month Canadian Sergeant Andrew Doiron was killed in a friendly fire incident. The reporter, who was given approval to visit the site by both Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, was blocked by Mr. Afandi. He told the journalist the local commander did not want media at the scene.

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Mr. Afandi is straddling two worlds: the loosely organized Kurdish militia known as the peshmerga and the Canadian military's special forces.

According to Canada's Department of National Defence, Mr. Afandi is working as an interpreter for Canadian troops. He is being used on an "as required basis" and does not hold any rank or status in the Canadian military, the department spokesperson said. However, he also appears to hold some authority through the Kurdish government.

Mr. Afandi "often represents the peshmerga sector commander when not acting as a part-time … interpreter," the spokesperson said. "Canadian troops do not control access to locations, and the decision to grant access rests solely with the Kurdish Regional Government and the Ministry of the Peshmerga. As such, we cannot speculate on why access was restricted as numerous factors including the reporter's personal safety and ongoing operations may have impacted that decision."

So the question is: How is it that someone goes from Kitchener to the front lines in the war against IS?

His father, Hamid Afandi, is the former minister who oversees the region's militia, known as the peshmerga. He currently serves as commander of 10,000 men battling Islamic State fighters. But according to those who knew the younger Mr. Afandi in Canada, he never expressed interest in getting involved with the military.

"He knows a lot about the area and the risks. He has also good connections with the Kurdish President," Anna Meulman, an associate of Mr. Afandi, said in an e-mail.

One long-time friend of Mr. Afandi, who agreed to answer questions and asked not to be identified by name, said Mr. Afandi had been in Canada for a little more than a decade. He moved to the Kitchener area because several friends settled there. He is in his mid-thirties and has spent the past 10 years working odd jobs in the auto industry, heating and cooling business, even a stint at Tim Hortons.

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Nick Karamishev knew Mr. Afandi for about a year before he left. They were part of a group from Kitchener-Waterloo that would occasionally ride motorcycles on back roads. Mr. Afandi was always cautious, wearing full protective gear right down to a back plate, Mr. Karamishev said.

"He's a really solid guy," he said, adding he only learned what Mr. Afandi was doing after his friend posted a photo of himself in army fatigues on Facebook.

Mr. Karamishev was surprised and sent him a message. Mr. Afandi explained he was now "fighting evil ISIS."

The long-time friend of Mr. Afandi said he didn't intend to join the war when he left. He was merely going on a trip to visit family. Mr. Afandi was born in the area, but went to Iran as a child along with a wave of refugees. He returned to Iraqi Kurdistan before coming to Canada around 2002.

Mr. Afandi has applied for citizenship, his friend says, though it keeps getting delayed because he has left the country to visit family in the past. It does not appear he has relatives here.

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