A PLACE TO CALL HOME

When jour­nal­ist Carol Off be­came part of the story, it ended with an Afghan family tak­ing refuge in Canada

ZOOMER Magazine - - MY CANADA -

IWATCHEDASHERAN his hand down the list of names carved in stone. As ad Aryub­walh ad been in Canada for all of 72 hours, hav­ing spent years in ex­ile, fear­ing for his life ev­ery day. Now he was safe, and we were walk­ing around Hamil­ton, the city that ac­cepted him and his family as refugees.

We came across a mon­u­ment ded­i­cated to Cana­di­ans who had died in war. That’s where we found a com­mem­o­ra­tion to sol­diers who had been killed in Afghanistan. Asad was deeply touched by the sac­ri­fice that com­plete strangers had been will­ing to make for his coun­try. He wept as he thought about their fam­i­lies.

Canada is my birth­place, my home, but it has al­ways been my refuge as well. As I trav­elled the world as a jour­nal­ist, re­port­ing on peo­ple who strug­gle to sur­vive in the midst of con­flict and up­heaval, I was al­ways so re­lieved to be back. I would metaphor­i­cally kiss the ground as soon as we landed. Most peo­ple who live in Canada know we are blessed, but it’s only when you see what others en­dure in their own coun­tries that you truly appreciate what we have.

I first met Asad, along with his wife and five chil­dren, in 2002, when I was cov­er­ing the U.S.-led in­va­sion of Afghanistan. Asad agreed to be fea­tured in a CBC TV doc­u­men­tary about his coun­try’s war­lords. The U.S. was bankrolling what amounted to a net­work of thugs, hop­ing th­ese war­lords would help them to de­feat the Tal­iban. He was very happy to see the Tal­iban de­part but he was deeply alarmed about the ris­ing power of the war lords, some of whom he knew. Asad’s courage in speak­ing out was re­warded only with calamity when, in re­sponse to the doc­u­men­tary, Afghanistan’s most pow­er­ful war­lord sent a death squad to kill him. He fled for his life, and I even­tu­ally found him in Pak­istan with his wife and chil­dren. They were broke, liv­ing in fear and had no one to turn to ex­cept me.

The eth­i­cal codes of jour­nal­ism dic­tate that you don’t get in­volved in your stories. You do your best to cover events ac­cu­rately and en­sure that you’re not put­ting peo­ple’s lives at risk. You main­tain dis­tance; you should be dis­in­ter­ested. But with Asad and his family, I couldn’t do that. I was the one who had got them into this trouble and I de­cided that it was my job to get them out of it. For eight years, we bat­tled bu­reau­cra­cies and near in­sur­mount­able bar­ri­ers. At times we al­most gave up. But in November of 2015, the Aryub­wal family ar­rived in Canada. They were now en­joy­ing the se­cu­rity that Cana­dian sol­diers had lost their lives try­ing to cre­ate in Afghanistan but had never achieved.

I was see­ing Canada through their eyes. Asad dis­cov­ered Tim Hor­tons dou­ble dou­bles – cream- and sug­ar­laden bev­er­ages that he hoped would help him to quit smok­ing, a habit he had de­vel­oped dur­ing his years as a refugee in Pak­istan. His old­est son, 25-year-old Muham­mad, was wideeyed with cu­rios­ity as he ex­plored neigh­bour­hoods and struck up con­ver­sa­tions with strangers; and 27-year-old Ruby (Robina), Asad’s old­est daugh­ter, was anx­ious to show me how much she al­ready knew about Canada. When we came across a bronze statue near the war memo­rial, she de­clared :“I know who that is! It’s Johnny MacDon­ald!” She didn’t re­al­ize it was John A.

On our first walk, we stopped to watch the Santa Claus pa­rade as it snaked through down­town Hamil­ton. So many gen­er­a­tions of im­mi­grants and refugees had made Hamil­ton their home over the years, com­ing to the Golden Horse­shoe for the man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs that didn’t re­quire lan­guage skills. Peo­ple at the pa­rade were de­scen­dants of those new­com­ers, still liv­ing here, long after the work had had gone to other coun­tries with cheaper wages. But The Ham­mer, as they call Hamil­ton, is re­silient, as is the rest of Canada, drawing its strength from a gene pool that’s ever ex­pand­ing with peo­ple from other coun­tries. As they watched the pa­rade of clowns and cars and waved to the jolly fat man, I knew the Aryub­wals would be just fine.

Some­times they en­counter the big­otry and prej­u­dice that has freely bub­bled to the sur­face, es­pe­cially since Don­ald Trump be­came pres­i­dent. In Tim Hor­tons one day, Asad was told by an an­gry woman that he should go home. He an­swered very sim­ply: “I am home.” But for the most part, the family has felt wel­comed, as they made friends and con­nec­tions and felt peace for the first time in years, maybe even decades. The chil­dren had never known any­thing but war and ex­ile.

The Aryub­wals soon re­lo­cated in Toronto, where they found jobs wash­ing dishes, bussing ta­bles and driv­ing de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles. The youngest girl, Hossna, is in grade 10; Ruby is at­tend­ing the Univer­sity of Toronto and the other three are en­rolling in univer­sity and col­lege pro­grams.

And the coun­try that has pro­vided refuge to so many, including a weary reporter re­turn­ing from dis­tant lands, is now theirs as well.

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