Wilmot women step forward to help Afghan refugees adapt to Canadian life

New Hamburg’s Barb Bedford told recently-arrived Afghan refugee Sayed Salahuddin, “I want to do whatever I can to make sure that you have a good life.” (Photo Nigel Gordijk)

When the Afghanistan government fell to the resurgent Taliban four months ago, the ripples were felt over 10,800 kilometres away in Wilmot.

The federal government has vowed to accept 40,000 humanitarian refugees from Afghanistan, and hundreds have arrived in Waterloo region since September. Some of them are being supported by the Kitchener-Waterloo branch of the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW), a voluntary non-profit organization.

Anita Davis, who lives in Foxboro Green in Baden, is the group’s president. She said a winter clothing drive began after a CFUW member happened to meet some of the Afghan newcomers in a Waterloo park.

New Hamburg’s Barb Bedford collaborated with Davis in 2016 when CFUW assisted Syrian refugees in the region. “Barb immediately went into problem solving, looking strategically at what was happening, but also feet on the ground,” Davis said.

Bedford collected donations of furniture and winter clothes from neighbours in her Stonecroft subdivision. “The next step is school supplies. Lunch box, backpack, pencils, crayons, and so on,” said Davis.

When Bedford visited Comfort Inn in Waterloo, she met a group of Afghan men who are staying there temporarily. They were all interpreters who assisted the Canadian military in Afghanistan.

Canada’s armed forces contributed to the international coalition in the Afghanistan War that removed the Taliban from power in 2001, and also assisted in the aftermath. That mission ended in 2014, but in August 2021, the Taliban regained control of the country after U.S. troops withdrew. Canadian aircrews and military personnel returned to the capital, Kabul, to assist with emergency evacuations.

The interpreters who Bedford met described the living conditions at Comfort Inn, where rooms weren’t cleaned until recently. The refugees had no cleaning supplies to do it themselves, and there are no laundry amenities.

“They have no communal area,” she said. “They while away their day in a crowded room. Their children are banned from going in the hallways. There was no effort made to supply the children with activities at all.”

The newcomers receive an allowance of $20 per person, per day from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which is distributed by Reception House, a Kitchener-based organization whose mandate is to welcome government-assisted refugees. The stipend also covers the cost of personal hygiene products for women and children. As they don’t have access to a kitchen, the refugees were told to shop at Walmart.

“Unfortunately, you cannot buy prepared foods there for three meals a day. You’d be lucky if you could buy two,” Bedford said.

One of the refugees at the Comfort Inn is Sayed Salahuddin, who was formerly a journalist for The Washington Post and Reuters. More recently, he worked for The Arab News.

“They were kind enough to put my name on the list to be evacuated from Afghanistan,” he said.

After the Taliban government was toppled in 2001, he felt that life in Afghanistan improved dramatically, although it was far from perfect.

“You had freedom of choice. There were universities open for girls, women were allowed to work. At the same time, there was violence in parts of the country. In Kabul, crimes are high. There was fraud, corruption. There were positive and negative impacts on the life of people in the past 20 years.”

Two decades of progress disappeared in mid-August when the Taliban entered Kabul, and the government collapsed after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

“Most people lost their hope for the future of Afghanistan because of those events,” said Salahuddin.

He fears the Afghan people are facing severe poverty because the U.S. has frozen the country’s assets. “I spoke with a close friend of mine a while back, and he said that those who are well off are begging for one loaf of bread.”

Despite the dire situation in Afghanistan, choosing to leave was still distressing.

“It is tough for anyone to leave your country, to leave behind your home, your memories, your relatives, but we had to make that decision,” said Salahuddin.

Some families were split up during chaotic evacuations, but Salahuddin was joined by his wife, Marghalara Dorokhshan, two daughters, aged 21 and 19, and two sons, who are 15 and 3. They flew from Kabul to Qatar on a military plane, and 10 days later, Ottawa arranged a commercial flight to Toronto. The loan for those tickets has to be repaid to the government.

“The Government of Canada has done its best to provide whatever it can to the refugees. We are very lucky.”

He’s hoping to move to Mississauga, closer to family and friends. If that doesn’t pan out, he’ll remain in Waterloo region for now.

“I like this place because it’s less chaotic. You can find your way around,” Salahuddin said.

“We don’t want to be a burden,” he added. “My plan is to see if I can learn some skilled profession, like plumbing, electrician, or carpentry. That way you will be able to establish a life where you don’t have to rely on the government for social welfare. I will be able to work, wherever I move.”

Bedford said, “I think I’m grateful every single day that I’m here. My parents came (to Canada) from Poland. In the Second World War, they were taken as slave labourers into Germany. When the war finished, they stayed in a refugee camp for almost three years.”

She told Salahuddin, “I really understand, and I want to do whatever I can to make sure that you have a good life.”

“People like you, and others, have done more than enough,” he replied.