The images and words are seared in our minds and hearts forever. Afghan civilians, driven by sheer desperation, risking their lives to escape life under the Taliban hurtling to their deaths from the wings of a C-17 US aircraft on Aug. 15, shortly after the city surrendered to the dreaded tyrants.
Since then, Canada promised to re-settle 40,000 Afghans in this country, but the road to the promised land is riddled with delays, frustrations, fears and logistical nightmares.
A fortunate few — 3,730 as of time of writing — have actually landed in this country under Canada’s special immigration program for Afghans who assisted the government, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Another 1,755 have arrived through government-assisted and privately refugee streams under the humanitarian program
Yet, many are facing steep challenges as they take their first steps towards rebuilding their lives.
On Oct. 1, a young Afghan woman journalist, Aziza Ahmad and her brother Abdulla (not their real names as they requested anonymity for security reasons) stepped gingerly off their flight at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
Ahmad’s story, with some variations for individual circumstances, is typical of the experiences of Canada’s newly arrived Afghan refugees.
“It was a dream come true, the end of a long, long nightmare,” she told New Canadian Media in a telephone interview.
The relief in her voice is audible even two months later, as she relives those first few moments of her new life.
“When we landed, I had a great sense of stress relief. It was the end of a long, long journey of anxiety and countless sleepless nights as my brother and I stayed up every night to check messages about the status of our visa application,” she said.
“I had no choice but to leave Afghanistan, because the Taliban were targeting women, journalists, those who had worked for the government and others they were determined to punish.”
It was a harrowing journey that began in Kabul, took her to Pakistan, and finally brought her to Canada, her dream destination.
All this happened because of her successful visa application to the Canadian High Commission (embassy) in Islamabad, Pakistan. It was a stressful, confusing process, complicated even further by COVID protocols, she says.
But now, though Afghanistan has faded from the media spotlight, she and other Afghan refugees like her are at the centre of another story.
Just clothes on their backs
They are facing enormous hurdles as they navigate the challenges of rebuilding their lives in a new country.
Having fled with nothing much but the clothes on their backs, and leaving behind families, friends, jobs — and, in many cases, their indispensable personal identification documents — the process of starting fresh is daunting.
“Our bank accounts in Afghanistan were frozen, so I could not even bring much money,” Ahmad said.
But she considers herself more fortunate than most of her compatriots who have neither her education nor her skills in dealing with bureaucracies.
“I speak English and several other languages, and was the editor of an English language news site in Kabul,” Ahmad told NCM.
“I can’t even imagine what it’s like for others who don’t have the language skills or the resources to get the necessary papers, and then go through all the processes for settlement.”
On arrival in Canada, finding affordable housing is the first step — another mountainous challenge.
Ahmad and her brother are lucky. Her persistent search for a guarantor to co-sign the lease paid off, and this week the pair were able to move to a one-bedroom apartment close to public transportation in Toronto.
Most of the others she came with are not so fortunate and are still living in hotels.
“Our monthly allowance is $1,100 a month, and even a one-bedroom costs $1,400 to $1,600 a month to rent,” she says. “We also need to pay the first and last month’s rent. Most of the refugees don’t know anyone who is prepared to back them financially. I was lucky I found someone in the settled Afghan community.”
Determined to be independent and to bring the rest of her family — her aged parents and siblings who are still in Afghanistan — Ahmad is diligently searching for a job.
This is, at the best of times, a struggle for newcomers, with many employers being wary of non-Canadian qualifications.
Ahmad constantly worries about her family in Afghanistan, and the job search is now her foremost priority.
But she is upbeat and deeply appreciative of Canadians who welcomed her people.
“I am so grateful for their kindness and generosity,” she says.