Afghan refugees, 'very resilient' human rights workers arrive in Edmonton

More than 100 refugees from Afghanistan — many of whom are human rights workers — arrived in Edmonton on Friday. Morgan Black has more on the challenges they now face.

On Friday, 170 refugees from Afghanistan  — dozens of whom are human rights workers — arrived in Edmonton.

The group landed in Calgary earlier this week and travelled to Edmonton by bus. Agencies have been working for months to bring them to Edmonton, Catholic Social Services (CSS) said.

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“Finally we received confirmation that yes, in fact, they are coming, they can all come to Edmonton and they will arrive today,” said Kathryn Friesen, a director of immigration for CSS.

The refugees fled Afghanistan during the Taliban uprising in August 2021 and had been in hiding until earlier this week, when a flight could be booked, CSS said.

“They are human rights workers, human rights defenders,” Friesen said. “They were doing that work in Afghanistan, which did put them in a very precarious situation when the Taliban took over the country, and they had to immediately exit into Pakistan.

“They were flagged as a very at-risk group and Canada took on the challenge of agreeing to bring them here.”

The Liberal government initially committed to resettling 20,000 Afghan refugees but upped that pledge during the federal election campaign to 40,000.

“Edmonton and our agency, CSS, our sector colleagues in the community have all been excited and willing and wanting to welcome this very resilient, very resourceful group that’s really been doing some amazing work on the ground in Afghanistan,” Friesen said.

“Many of those arriving worked for decades documenting human rights abuses and war crimes in Afghanistan and intend to continue their work, once settled, with the assistance of Canadian and international non-governmental organizations,” CSS added in a news release.

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Friesen said these particular refugees have a high level of English and are highly educated. Forty per cent of them are children, she said.

Many are choosing to keep a lower profile and not speak about their resettlement publicly for safety reasons, Friesen explained.

“It can be very risky situation. Because if they have family members or friends at home, and they have a high profile in the community, they could have people in their home country targeted due to what’s happening here.”

Fariborz Birjaneian, CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS), said the agencies greeting the newcomers want to make the best first impression possible.

“One of the things that happens with the refugees is you lose trust. You lose trust in humanity, you lose trust in institutions because the same institutions that are responsible for helping you are harassing you, they’re killing you,” he said.

“We want to make sure they get the message loud and clear that every Canadian wants you to succeed because, if you succeed, Canada succeeds.”

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Birjaneian immigrated from Iran in 1988 with his family. Now, he works with new immigrants with CCIS and as co-chair of the national Afghan resettlement project.

“We want them to come here… to love this country, be part of this great country and build on the success we have.”

He said these refugees are bringing an immense amount of potential. In fact, eight newcomers who arrived from Afghanistan six weeks ago were hired by CCIS to help greet other new arrivals.

“We went to the airport, we had 10 recent arrivals as volunteers and some of them as our staff. We hired eight of those newcomers who came to Calgary six weeks ago — because they are educated, they speak the language, they have experience, so we hired them,” Birjaneaian told Global News.

“When you go to the airport and people are coming in and someone says to them, in their own language, ‘Welcome. Thank you for coming to Canada, Calgary,’ and they ask, ‘When did you come?’ They say, ‘Six weeks ago.’ That changes the whole thing. They say, ‘Wow.’

“They see they look like other people around them… I think that is the key.”

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Once they arrive, the newcomers will complete their quarantine in Edmonton.

CSS will them resettle in the city, providing accommodation, orientation, language assessment, and other resources, as needed.

CSS supports between 10,000 and 15,000 newcomers to Canada each year and has helped resettle 118 Afghan refugees in Edmonton and Red Deer since August.

Travel for them was supported by Front Line Defenders and and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

Friesen expects Edmonton will welcome more Afghan refugees in the months to come.

“People like human rights defenders and people who worked with Canada in Afghanistan and now are targeted because of the work they did with our country.

“This is a good opportunity for Edmonton to show how we can welcome people into our community and hopefully do this well so that we can continue bringing newcomers into our community and really have a society that focuses on the social inclusion of refugees.”

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She said the community response over the past few months has been “overwhelming and heartwarming.”

To support the welcoming and resettlement work, visit the CSS refugee appeal page or partner agencies: Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, Islamic Family Social Services Association, and Action for Healthy Communities.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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