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‘We are lucky’: First group of Afghan refugees touch down in Vancouver to start new lives

September 12, 2021

By Vancouver Sun |

In recent days, seven-year-old Ali has often tugged on his father’s shirt.

“Let’s go home, Dad,” he will say, according to his father, Mohammad.

The pair are among the newest guests at three Vancouver hotels housing 37 Afghan refugees, among the first to arrive in Canada after fleeing the Taliban resurgence. Others who worked as interpreters alongside the Canadian government or diplomats arrived in the country with no belongings to show of their former life. Some came to the country completely alone.

“We are the lucky ones,” said Mohammad, a former worker at the Canadian embassy in Kabul. He spoke on the condition Postmedia News not use his family’s real names, fearing reprisal.

Although the refugees have been set up with social insurance numbers, vaccinations and bank accounts, a majority of them still cannot speak English. Mohammad is the only member of his family who is fluent.

“This is just the beginning of Afghans arriving in B.C.,” said COO Chris Friesen of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., a government-funded agency responsible for the refugee resettlement.

The next group of 35 are expected to arrive in Toronto this week, Friesen said. Some will end up in B.C. as Mohammad and his son did. From there, more refugees are expected to land in Canada every few days this month.

Immigrant Services is working day and night to prepare dozens more accommodations since the federal government made a promise to resettle 20,000 Afghans fleeing Taliban rule by 2024.

Mohammad boarded one of the first Turkish Airlines charter flights out of Kabul airport on Aug. 8 along with his wife, son and two other children. Seven days later, the capital city he once called home fell to the Taliban.

“Nobody could believe what happened,” Mohammad said from his hotel room. “We didn’t think the Taliban would start to take the city. We left a lot of things back home, including our house and our car.”

Because of how quickly the situation evolved, not all those who arrived in Canada landed as permanent residents. Friesen led staff to file the immigration papers for them while they were in pandemic quarantine.

For Mohammad, his family’s request for residency was processed in just two days. What has taken a lot longer for many Afghan refugees like him, though, is for the shellshock of war to wear off.

“These individuals are quite traumatized,” Friesen said. “They’re trying to figure out exactly what happened and trying to support their family left behind.”

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