Abdul Qayum Hemat, who once worked as a driver for Canada’s embassy in Kabul, has settled into his new life in Toronto and jokes that working for Uber now, he knows the city better than the locals.
A lot has changed for his family in the past year. Mr. Hemat first reached out to The Globe and Mail in July, 2021, terrified that Canada would leave him and a group of drivers behind as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan. A month later, he and his family were brought to Toronto. Now he’s living in an apartment complex with other Afghans who worked for Canada’s embassy as his neighbours, his kids are happy in school, and he and his wife recently welcomed a baby boy.
“Everyone is doing well,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s the best country and the best culture because every religion, every culture, has its freedom here in Canada.”
It’s been almost a year and a half since the federal government announced its special immigration measures for Afghans who worked for Canada and an accompanying humanitarian resettlement program for other Afghans vulnerable to Taliban persecution. Ottawa promised to bring in at least 40,000 Afghans. So far, 27,215 have arrived. Some who have made it safely to Canada spoke to The Globe about how happy they are to be here.
Mr. Hemat said the support he’s received as a government-sponsored refugee helped his family adjust during their first year.
During that time, he’s been busy. Firstly, he navigated the challenge of finding a place to live and furniture for the new home. He worked at a COVID-19 vaccination centre helping with lineups in the bitter cold. And he worked for hotels, providing valet service and as a receptionist. But being an Uber driver allows the flexibility he needs for school drop off and pick up with his two young kids. It’s also helped him get to know his new home.
“Uber is the best thing here for newcomers because you get to know things and people, different cultures, different areas … everything.” He said, laughing, “Now I think I know more than Canadians here because everywhere I can go, and I can find it without using map.”
Initially, his wife and children were a bit nervous not knowing English. His four-year-old boy, who is in kindergarten, and six-year-old daughter, who is in Grade 1, were shy about going to school, particularly his daughter. “She was not going, she was crying all the time,” he said. But after practising English, she wanted to go, and now she doesn’t miss a day.
“She’s so happy going to school and that’s why she’s helping her mom as well.” His little boy also practises his language skills, so he can make friends, he said.
But as life carries on in Toronto, he still worries about his family in Afghanistan and wants Ottawa to expand its immigration program so more Afghans with ties to Canada can make it here.
“Their future is really dark,” he said of his relatives. Meanwhile, he added, “Canada also needs people. It’s a very big country. It’s a great country. ... So they should help the people in Afghanistan because they are in a very bad situation.”
In Saskatoon, Maryam Masoomi has also established a new life. She arrived last October and remembers how surprised she was by the diversity.
“The thing that I really find so good is the multiculturalism in Canada, because we are Muslim and we are wearing hijabs,” she said, “I see many other Muslim people here and they wear hijabs, too, and they had the same culture like us and I feel so good.”
“I was so surprised and felt so happy, and I belong,” she said.
Ms. Masoomi escaped to Pakistan last September as part of a group that had visas arranged by the charity Prince’s Trust Canada. They were primarily members of the Hazara minority and included students who went to Kabul’s Marefat High School, which champions women’s rights and democratic values. Ms. Masoomi, who had attended the school, was one of the first to cross into Pakistan and later helped others who followed behind.
When she first arrived in Saskatoon, she worked at Tim Hortons. It was a challenge, she said, because there are so many types of coffee. “Back home, we just used green tea and black tea.” She also had to quickly familiarize herself with the currency.
Now, she is as an associate producer for CBC Radio. And she works part time as a youth program facilitator at the Saskatoon Open Door Society, a refugee and immigrant welcoming centre. She also has her own radio show on Saturday mornings called Kabul Jan – which means Dear Kabul – on which she plays music from home.
Ms. Masoomi also helps run a musical group, Sound of Afghanistan, which performs at festivals.
“Our goal is to perform in Toronto, in Ottawa, in B.C., in many different cities in Canada. And after Canada, our goal is to perform in different countries,” she said.
An emotional performance to date was Canada Day in Saskatoon, she said, adding that friends, families and members of the group were in tears. “They were crying because they were so emotional,” she said. “It was a big day for us.”
She said since arriving, all of the high-school-aged girls in her group who left Afghanistan together have gained new skills they couldn’t have developed back home, such as skateboarding, swimming and ice skating. “When I see them, they’re so excited about everything. They have so much energy.”
Back in Toronto, Zaher Noori spoke to The Globe from his new home. Mr. Noori was a journalist in Afghanistan and arrived in Canada this past November. Journalists for Human Rights helped him and his family escape to Pakistan and supported them while they were there for 13 months.
Now, Mr. Noori, his wife and three children, who are 12, 10 and 4, are supported by a private sponsorship group for the next year. “We are happy, especially my children. They are very happy. It’s a warm home,” he said.
Mr. Noori said this year he will focus on learning English and finding a job. Two of his children are already going to school, and he and his wife are studying English. He is hoping to find work as a journalist, or in Wushu, a type of martial art. Mr. Noori is an international referee and coach in Wushu.
Still, he worries about his family in Afghanistan. “I’m anxious about them and they’re anxious about me.”