'Today is a fantastic day': Manitoba welcomes more than 320 Afghan refugees

·5 min read
'Today is a fantastic day': Manitoba welcomes more than 320 Afghan refugees

Tears welled up in Sayed Najib Amin's eyes and his voice cracked between sobs as he waited for his young nephews to arrive at Winnipeg's international airport on Friday, exactly a year after the boys' parents were killed in Kabul.

After months of anticipation and delays, a charter plane from Pakistan carrying 324 Afghanistan refugees — including 120 children — landed in Winnipeg.

Among the arrivals were two boys, age 2½ and four. They are Amin's orphaned nephews.

"We suffered a lot, so today is a fantastic day. It's the happiest day of my life," Amin said. "I can't wait to hold my nephews in my arms.

"Can't wait to see them. Can't wait to hug them. Can't wait to share my feelings with them. Can't wait to love them."

Randall McKenzie/CBC
Randall McKenzie/CBC

The boys' parents — Amin's brother and sister-in-law — were killed by a suicide bomber near the Kabul airport exactly a year ago, on the day they were set to fly out of Afghanistan.

Following their parents' deaths, the boys went to live in Pakistan with another uncle and his wife, who also made the trip to Winnipeg on Friday.

Jaison Empson/CBC
Jaison Empson/CBC

Amin, who lives in Montreal, flew into Winnipeg on Thursday to greet them all and take them back Montreal to live with his family.

"We were counting every second of our life [to get them]. God gave me another life today," Amin said.

"I can't describe it, how happy and emotional I am."

Kabul, the capital and largest city of Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, 2021. The country has since faced a humanitarian crisis, with millions of people struggling to find food, while women and girls have lost basic rights.

Jaison Empson/CBC
Jaison Empson/CBC

Friday's flight is part of the government of Canada's commitment to resettle 40,000 Afghan people in Canada.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told CBC News that nearly 17,600 Afghans and their family members have arrived in Canada since August 2021. More charters with Afghan refugees are expected to arrive in Canada in the coming weeks.

Jaison Empson/CBC
Jaison Empson/CBC

Friday's flight also included more than 160 refugees who are former interpreters for the Canadian Armed Forces, said Shozub Hussain Butt, an operation assistant for the flight who works with the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency.

"They are happy, they are very much happy. Their hopes are very high now."

Canada withdrew its military presence from Afghanistan in 2014, after an international military coalition toppled the Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate in 2001 and eventually helped establish the Islamic Republic.

In 2021, a Taliban resurgence overthrew the Islamic Republic and re-established the Islamic Emirate. Insurgents then started targeting Afghans with ties to the former government, exacting revenge on interpreters who helped international forces.

Amin said his brother, killed by the suicide bomber, had been an interpreter for the U.S. military.

The flight on Friday was originally supposed to arrive last month but was delayed, which made the wait seem so much longer, Amin said.

Jaison Empson/CBC
Jaison Empson/CBC

But the day finally arrived "and I'm not living in the past anymore," Amin said. "I'm a present person."

Among the arrivals was a family of six led by a man name Ali, who had been an interpreter for the Canadian Forces in Kandahar.

When the Taliban started taking over parts of Afghanistan again, Ali and his family went into hiding.

"It was very difficult to survive. We were hidden in our homes," he said, not wanting to give his last name because he is part of a protected group. "And finally, thank God, we reached here."

He arrived with his wife and daughter, his two sisters and their mother.

Ali repeatedly said "thank you" to reporters and Canada as he spoke. He is now waiting to find out where exactly in his new country he will end up.

WATCH | Sayed Najib Amin reunites with his nephews from Afghanistan:

Boris Ntambwe, resettlement and housing manager for Accueil Francophone, a settlement service for Francophone newcomers, immigrants and refugees in Manitoba, said 115 of the refugees will go to Brandon, Winkler and Winnipeg, and the rest will settle in different parts of Canada.

"We are going to offer them, first of all, a place … [to] have food and relax a little bit and have an intake and have immediate assessment to see if there's any urgent needs that need to be addressed, any medical or health issues," he said.

The not-for-profit organization had people at the airport to welcome the refugees and has been anticipating their arrival since early July.

Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC
Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC

"It kept on being postponed and it hasn't been easy at this particular moment of time.… Hotels are booked all over the place. We are receiving Ukrainians, receiving Afghans, so it's all packed and full," said Ntambwe, who has been managing the many moving parts of Friday's arrival.

He has been collaborating with airlines, hotels, airports, catering services and health services so the Afghans have what they need, he said.

Jaison Empson/CBC
Jaison Empson/CBC

Westman Immigration Services is prepared to take 50 of the refugees to Brandon — the largest intake of refugees the organization has ever had at once.

They will then help sort out temporary and permanent accommodations and provide families with a needs assessment, a Westman Immigration Services spokesperson said.

The people moving on to other destinations within Canada will spend a few days in Winnipeg before continuing their journey.

Ariana Yaftali, who was born in Kabul and co-founded the Afghan Canadian Women's Organization, is one of the volunteers providing support to the newcomers.

She knows from personal experience how overwhelmed and emotional refugees can be when they arrive.

Karen Pauls/CBC
Karen Pauls/CBC

"We will provide that critical support, which is assuring them that now they are in a safe place, they are in Canada, where we have respect for human rights. They are free from any form of violence [and] persecution," Yaftali said.

She hopes she can be a role model and help them navigate things like preparing for the winter weather and enrolling kids for school — challenges Yaftali dealt with when she first arrived in Canada.

"If they see people like me and community members, or people who have been through this journey ... then they can see, oh, you know what? This person can make it, and I can make it too."