'We will be their family': Refugees arrive in time for 1st Thanksgiving dinner

When Farrukh Mushtaq first met Shakeeb and his family in Sri Lanka in 2014, Mushtaq didn't think he would one day be the one sponsoring that same family to come to Canada. At the time, they were all refugees who had fled from Pakistan.

Five years later, Mushtaq, who is now the executive director of the non-profit Refugees 4 Refugees, helped Shakeeb, his wife Nazia Aslam, and his sister Sajel Romana come to Toronto in time for their first Thanksgiving dinner.

"[Thanksgiving] is new for us ... it's all new for us," Shakeeb told CBC Toronto. "It's a peaceful country, so we are happy here."  

Shakeeb and his family are still adjusting to their new home after arriving in Canada on Sept. 18.

Though happy to be here, there are still hurdles. Shakeeb's first name appears twice on some of his Canadian documents, as opposed a first name and different last name. He says he has been going by one name for years, but now plans to go through the process to be issued a last name.

We feel safe here, we feel happy here...it's good to be in a country like Canada. - Shakeeb, Refugee who fled Pakistan in 2014 

Helping the family handle issues like these, as well as their overall transition to Canada, is Refugees 4 Refugees, which has helped around a dozen families from around the world come to Canada, and helped countless others with their documentation. 

"I am very happy that I was the person who welcomed them at Colombo International Airport [in Sri Lanka] when they came from Pakistan, and I was the first person to welcome them at Pearson International Airport also," Mushtaq said of Shakeeb and his family. 

Farrukh Mushtaq/Submitted

Mushtaq and his team are now helping the family host their first potluck meal, which will be held Monday at Shakeeb's Markham apartment. They will also welcome several other refugee families living in the area.

Shakeeb's family prepared a traditional Pakistani dish as their contribution — offering a small taste of home. 

"When new immigrants or refugees come to Canada, they don't have family over here ... sometimes they feel lonely and it becomes a sad day," Mushtaq said of Thanksgiving. 

"We decided we will be their family, we are their family." 

Angelina King/CBC

Death threats followed marriage 

Shakeeb first met his wife in Pakistan — he was Christian, while she was Muslim. 

After the two got married in 2014, they received death threats from a religious organization, and were forced to flee the country. 

"Because they got married, the family on [her] side was very angry about it ... they [received] really strong threats," said Mushtaq, who translated for Shakeeb in an interview with CBC Toronto on Sunday. 

Later that year in 2014, Shakeeb and his family arrived in Sri Lanka, where they met Mushtaq.

From Pakistan, to Vietnam, to Sri Lanka, then Canada 

Mushtaq, meanwhile, says he fled Pakistan in 2012, after he and his father, Mushtaq Gill, were falsely accused of blasphemy. 

The accusation landed them in police custody for 40 days — where Mushtaq says he was tortured. They received several death threats after their release, he said. 

"When you are accused of blasphemy, it doesn't matter if you are innocent or not," he said.  

"Police advised us not to go back to our house in the city because they thought we might not be safe anymore." 

Angelina King/CBC

Mushtaq said he and his father left that night and never went back. 

After months in hiding, they moved to Vietnam, and then made their way to Sri Lanka in 2013, where they met Shakeeb and his family in 2014. 

"They were living very close to where we were living, so we developed some very close relationships with them," Mushtaq said. 

Near the end of 2014, Mushtaq, his father, and other members of his family were accepted into Canada as refugees. They arrived in February 2015. 

"I still remember the day we left them in Sri Lanka," Mushtaq said. 

We know [what] it feels like to be a refugee. - Farrukh Mushtaq, executive director of Refugees 4 Refugees 

Before he left, Shakeeb asked Mushtaq for a favour: not to forget about him and his family. 

And he didn't. 

'Never forget them' 

After arriving to Canada, Mushtaq said his father told him that although they had moved to a new country, to start a new life, "'people from all walks of the world helped us, in many ways.'" 

"'Never forget them.'" 

Mushtaq said The Presbyterian Church of Canada co-sponsored him and his family, along with Refugees 4 Refugees, and also connected them with St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, where he is currently a member. 

Farrukh Mushtaq/Submitted

When they arrived in Canada, Mushtaq said the church made them feel welcome, and didn't leave them "alone for one second." 

"We know [what] it feels like to be a refugee," Mushtaq said. "We are lucky to be in Canada." 

Since coming to Canada, Mushtaq's father founded and registered Refugees 4 Refugees as a way of giving back for all the help they had received while on the run.

'I'm thankful he never forgot that promise'

"It's very rare, that people who are already struggling come forward and try to help other people," Shakeeb said on Sunday. 

"I'm thankful he never forgot that promise." 

Now, Shakeeb said he's also thankful he and his family are safe, and that they can celebrate their first Thanksgiving in their new home. 

"We feel safe here, we feel happy here, and it's good to be in a country like Canada," Shakeeb said.