A PLACE TO CALL HOME
When journalist Carol Off became part of the story, it ended with an Afghan family taking refuge in 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.