One late January afternoon, my wife, our one-year-old daughter and I were standing in front of the window of a suburban Calgary hotel, just staring at the snow and freezing weather outside, when the phone rang.
It was my mother, calling from Islamabad. Even though she and my sister had just arrived in Pakistan themselves, after weeks of trying to get out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, she was consoling us for what we had left behind.
Our memories. Our friends. Our life together. And the entire generation to which my wife and I belong.
“My son,” she said as I could feel her broken tone on the phone, “I buried all your documents and published articles and photos.”
At the time — early 2022 — the Taliban were conducting house-to-house searches.
“I also buried your colourful socks,” she said, unsure of whether brightly coloured clothes brought in from the U.S., Europe and Dubai would raise suspicions among the Taliban. It had only been a few months since the extremist fighters had arrived and toppled the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
She’s only in her 50s, but my mother was once again fleeing regime change in Afghanistan. Only five decades on this earth, but once again displaced and having to restart her life for a third time.
We were a big family, and for a time we all lived under one roof, but now, we are more dispersed than ever. Nine of us on four continents.
It would take years for us to reunite. It may not be possible.
I was too young to remember the first time my family had to start their lives over across the Durand Line in Quetta, Pakistan. My family struggled to survive in that country in the 1990s, where they had little support from the government or humanitarian agencies.
To make ends meet, my four siblings and I became child labourers, working for years as tailors and carpet weavers.
Looking at my daughter, who was mesmerized by the sun peering out against the gloomy winter sky, I was happy that she wouldn’t have to spend her childhood working, or living through a war.
In Canada she would have health and education, and most importantly, peace.
The country’s population has just reached the 40-million mark. With growing immigration targets in the next few years, the debate over how to make sure newcomers are housed, employed and integrated has taken on new urgency.
As one of the new arrivals, I was mostly worried about basic needs at first. But despite struggles, and knowing that other immigrants are facing difficult roads ahead, I’ve come to quickly feel that Canada is my home.
I eventually hung up the phone with my mother, and thought about our future in Canada. I didn’t know anybody in Calgary.
But a former colleague introduced me to his classmate, Monica Kidd, who had been a journalism fellow at the University of Toronto and who is an author and physician in the city.
Immediately after the colleague passed my number to her, my phone rang. This wasn’t a consoling call but an enthusiastic message: “Welcome to Canada!” she wrote me. “I am so glad you and your family are here.”
While we were spending our two weeks of travel quarantine at the hotel, she bought us a baby carseat, warm clothes and boots for my daughter, and of course, warm but colourful socks for me. She left them all in the lobby as she wasn’t allowed to meet us. The hotel administration wouldn’t allow her to bring in the cookies she brought.
When we moved to another hotel for further processing of our immigration papers and house-hunting, she visited us.
The hotel, on the outskirts of Calgary, housed hundreds of new immigrants from Afghanistan, with staff from a local resettlement NGO caring for them, funded by the Canadian government.
At the hotel, filled with all Afghans who recently fled the Taliban, the local NGO delivering services for newcomers was given offices on the first floor. Although easily accessible, it was short-staffed. For processing a settlement paper, we had to wait for days to meet our caseworker.
The food was Afghan cuisine, but poorly cooked, and the menu didn’t change. My daughter lost her appetite at the hotel, and we struggled for months to make her eat rice — her favourite meal — as we were not allowed to cook for ourselves. After 5 p.m. the hotel gates were locked and migrants weren’t allowed to leave.
Looking for a flat in Toronto from Calgary was a nightmare, with rent of $1,500 for a tiny one-bedroom. Convincing the landlord to rent to a newcomer was also difficult.
During the two months of our stay in Calgary, Monica’s family took tremendous care of us, and every weekend we were taken to Banff and the Rocky Mountains — which I read about in school and never thought I would actually see.
The treatment and care that we got from our new friends in Calgary and immigration officials further healed our pain.
Though Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada assigned us to live in Calgary, after two months, we moved to Toronto because my employer’s main office was in the city. More importantly, my wife, a former multimedia journalist for the BBC in Afghanistan, wanted to explore work and study opportunities in the city.
Monica’s teenage daughter, Emma, was searching for houses online around the Calgary neighbourhood where she lives to encourage us to stay.
That connection still exists, and we regularly check in on each other. “I was thinking about you guys yesterday,” Monica wrote us last winter when the family visited the Rockies.
We’ve now lived in Toronto for more than a year. I parted ways with my employer, the Wall Street Journal, after nearly a decade of covering the NATO-led war in Afghanistan for the paper. Then I secured a one-year contract with the Star through a fellowship program sponsored by Journalists for Human Rights.
My wife began a prestigious journalism fellowship at U of T’s Massey College last year and completed it last month. She will start a new role in the Canadian media, this time as an associate editor and journalist for Chatelaine magazine.
As new migrants, my wife and I are privileged to have a job and source of income in one of the world’s most expensive cities. We both worried about failing to find work in journalism — a career we built in Afghanistan at great risk.
Even though other friends of mine and I are grateful to the Canadian government for accepting us and helping us start a new life, let’s not forget that many of us aren’t working in our chosen field and our talents are being wasted. Many Afghan journalists — some with over 20 years of experience — are in Canada working in construction, driving Ubers or waiting tables.
With high inflation and life becoming more expensive day by day, tenancy is another challenge that a newcomer faces. Earlier this month, I met an Afghan friend who recently arrived in Canada and said he had to pay six months’ rent in advance for a house in a suburb of Toronto. He said the landlord put in that condition because he does not have a credit history. He accepted the deal — he knew the request wasn’t legal but had no other option.
Canada is known overseas as “heaven for immigrants.” The country is heaven, not just for immigrants, but because of its beautiful nature and landscape and the diversity we can see. The different colours, cultures and communities are the beauties of this land. I know many have experienced racism here, but I have not faced it. That’s one of the major reasons I feel it is home, a home that I have to work to build, again and again like my parents.
With the skills and knowledge my wife and I are carrying, we are grateful to be able to raise the voice of voiceless Afghans in Canadian media, and spread awareness of the atrocities they have been suffering.
Despite the trauma of losing our home in Afghanistan, we are both living in peace with our daughter, now two and half. I believe everyone deserves to have a peaceful life, whether they’re from Ukraine or South America or the Middle East, and Canada is paving the way toward a brighter future. The more immigrants come in, the more contribution we will make to Canada.