Photo: Pierre Fournier/CBC

A Desperate Search for Belonging: the struggles of newly arrived Afghan refugees in Canada

By Aziz Koshan

It was a chilly morning, with a blanket of snow covering everything in sight. I was waiting at the bus stop, when my phone rang. His voice was trembling as he told me he had arrived at the bus stop, but was unsure how to find the resettlement office from there. I told him to show someone the name and address of the office that I had messaged him the day before. There was no one around, except for crows and snow, he replied. I told him to stay put and that I would come and get him.

After half an hour, I spotted him at the bus stop shivering in cold. His face and hands had become red, and he was constantly rubbing his hands together. While waiting, he had paced around so much that he had flattened the snow that had fallen the night before. As I greeted him, he cleared his frozen eyebrows and managed to crack a smile.

As we walked towards the resettlement office, I couldn’t help but notice that he was wearing a thin raincoat that was no match for the weather. He shared with me that it was the only coat he had received from the IRCC upon his arrival. However, despite the inadequate coat, he found solace in its green color, which made him feel young despite his white hair. With a smile on his face, he said, “But I like its colour; despite my white hair, its green hue makes me feel young”.

Once we arrived at the office, the receptionist informed us that we were 20 minutes early and that we would have to wait for the intake officer to arrive. As we sat in the lobby waiting for the officer, I inquired about his resettlement experience and how he was adjusting to his new home. He gazed outside at the snow and began narrating a poem by Rumi:

From reed-flute hear what tale it tells;

What plaint it makes of absence’ ills.

From jungle-bed since me they tore,

Men’s, women’s, eyes have wept right sore.

My breast I tear and rend in twain,

To give, through sighs, vent to all my pain.

Who’s from his home snatched far away,

Longs to return some future day…

While he was reciting his poem, a young woman approached us and took us to her office. After a brief greeting, she started entering his details into her computer. She pushed her computer aside after listing his details and asked, “How can I help you?

As he began sharing his medical history, he revealed that he had been diagnosed with depression, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Taking notes, the woman asked if he had been prescribed medication for his conditions.  He responded by saying, “yes, but the medicine does not have any impact on me. The only thing that helps me is physical work, but the doctors are not giving that to me.” He then expressed his desperate need for physical work, saying, “My heart is about to explode. I have come to this office to request that you find me some physical work. I will come here every day and shovel the snow from your office or maybe your house. I don’t want money; I just want to work as your servant.”

The woman sipped her coffee and explained that her office contracts companies to shovel the snow and that she lives in an apartment. She then introduced different programs her office provides for senior new immigrants, such as online language classes, community service, and cooking sessions. She added, “In a month or two, after the snow is gone, we will have gardening as well.” She asked if he was interested in any of these programs.

Without even mentioning the other programmes, he excitedly inquired about the gardening. She briefly described the programme, took out her phone from her bag, and showed him a few pictures of the community garden from the previous year. He unzipped his green raincoat and took out his cell phone, going through its gallery and scrolling up to open pictures of his farm, goats, and muddy house. While he was showing the pictures, I noticed a smile on his face, calmness, and sweat began forming on his forehead as if his winter-long freeze had begun melting. He cleared the sweat from his forehead and said, “I have brought seeds of different vegetables from Afghanistan.”

The long cold winter

“Exile is a fascinating topic to think about, yet it is a dreadful experience to endure. It creates an unbearable gap between a person and their homeland, between the self and its true home, and its essential sadness is insurmountable.” This quote aptly captures the essence of exile, migration, and the loss of one’s homeland. I became acutely aware of this bond when my driving instructor scolded me for stopping at a green light and exclaimed, “Go, it’s a green light, don’t you understand?” After we passed the light, he turned to me and said, “This isn’t Afghanistan; you have to become a completely new driver here; forget your past.” I smiled at him, but felt a sense of grief deep down at the thought of erasing my past and becoming someone entirely different. I had grown accustomed to driving in Kabul, a city of seven million people without any traffic lights or signs. For me and many Afghans in Canada, the question of how to become a new person and adapt to a new way of life will linger for years to come.

As the Taliban were marching towards Kabul in August 2021, Canada opened its doors to Afghan refugees fleeing the country and has welcomed thousand of them up until now. However, the resettlement process for these refugees has not been without its challenges. The journey towards rebuilding their lives in Canada has been marked with a myriad of obstacles, including language barriers, lack of resources, and inadequate support systems.

I have lived in both Ontario and Alberta in the past 18 months, and have had interactions with many newcomers from Afghanistan. Like every other newcomer, Afghans are facing challenges in resettling in their new home. However, I have noticed distinct challenges unique to Afghans that other communities may experience less or not at the same magnitude.

Many of the newcomers from Afghanistan had been working in NGOs, media, or support workers for the Canadian military and diplomatic mission in Kabul. They are not fluent in English and lack experience in industries, operating machinery, or production equipment in factories. They are unskilled labor in the Canadian job market. They must start everything from scratch in Canada, while simultaneously supporting family members in Afghanistan. Increasing poverty back home, coupled with the dire circumstances of the newcomers push them to frantically search for employment opportunities.

Based on the accounts of many Afghans, accessing language classes is very difficult and time-consuming process. For instance, in the city of Edmonton, the wait time for language classes can be up to six months, and sometimes even longer. A newcomer in northern Ontario told me that she only managed to get a half-hour language class via telephone each week where and she hardly learned anything. This is happening while the federal government’s Resettlement Assistance Programme (RAP) ends after 12 months of a newcomer’s arrival in Canada.

Upon the arrival of Afghans to Canada, resettlement organizations begun hiring Afghans who had themselves recently arrived to assist with the resettlement process. But due to the urgent nature of the hiring process, these new staff members have not received sufficient training or skill development to effectively help their fellow Afghans. Compared to other communities in Canada, Afghans may also lack the necessary skills and networks in Canadian society and government to effectively share their concerns, participate in policymaking, or influence policies that meet their needs.

“We do not know these people.”

After working at the local hospital in the city of Thunder Bay, I met an exceptionally curious and talented young man. Very soon we became good friends and talked for hours in the 15-minute work break. I invited him for dinner. It was a very stormy winter night, and we stayed very late. We talked about many topics, ranging from how his grandfather came to Canada from Finland, the time he spent in Thailand, comparing prices of fruit in Afghanistan and Canada, my stories from Afghanistan, and of course, complaining about our job and the supervisors at the hospital. It was around one o’clock when I heard as if someone was knocking on the door. 

When I opened the door, I was surprised to see my friend’s mother was standing there, tears streaming down her face and a look of fear in her eyes. After giving me a cold greeting, she hugged her son and asked, “Where are you? I have been trying to call you several times; it’s foggy and stormy outside, and I was worried you might have been in an accident.” As she continued to cry, she said, “We do not know these people.” Her words sent a wave of unease through me, and I felt as though I had done something wrong. All we had done was become engrossed in our conversation and stories that my friend had forgotten to check his phone. I offered her some tea to calm her down, but she declined, saying that it was too late and she had to work early the next morning.

Although my friend’s mother got to know me more after that and started offering me rides from the hospital to my place, it became clear to me that Afghans remain strangers in Canada. The government, academia and media have made very little effort to ‘know’ the newcomers from Afghanistan, their challenges, their opinions on the resettlement process, and their potential contributions to Canada.

It has been almost two years since the Canadian government announced its plan to resettle Afghan refugees in Canada. But the Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has only recently sent out a survey to gather information from the newcomers from Afghansitan. Although the survey is comprehensive and available in Farsi, Pashto, and English, it is too late and not Afghan-specific. Furthermore, the survey has been sent via email, which has caused several limitations, particularly for Afghans who are illiterate, seniors, children, and women who do not have access to the email account.

The survey ended at the end of April, so it is too soon for the IRCC to have produced any reports from it. Currently, the government of Canada and the Canadian people do not know much about the newcomers from Afghanistan beyond their basic individual information recorded by the IRCC.

Where to cultivate the seeds?

It was very unfortunate that a few months after the fall of Kabul, Russia invaded Ukraine, causing thousands of Ukrainians to flee their homes and run for their lives. Canada, like many other counties, rushed to their rescue. While Canada has been focused on the urgent situation in Ukraine, the resettlement of Afghans has reached a critical point where many serious questions should be asked and key step should be taken before it is too late.

The resettlement process should be re-evaluated and should be tailored in a way to meet the unique requirements of the Afghans. The current process needs to be redesigned to be more suitable for their distinct background, realities, and cultural norms, which are vastly different from those of Canadian society. For example, many Afghans may not know their date of birth, have never been to a bank, and have never had a signature, let alone initials. They have suddenly found themselves in a society with highly advanced systems of governance, technology, banking, and more, which can be overwhelming and confusing.

The current situation suggests a challenging future for the newcomers from Afghanistan. The lack of job opportunities, skills, and social networks will lead to poverty, unemployment, and mental health issues, ultimately resulting in family violence, crime, and reliance on government financial aid. It is essential for the Canadian government to cultivate a supportive environment where these newcomers can thrive and prosper. After all, these individuals have traveled thousands of miles with a great deal of hope to establish themselves and put down strong roots in Canada.