Threats from the Taliban forced family to flee
Family of six finds safety in Calgary
#yycRefugee is a CBC Calgary online project that captures the stories of people who fled danger — and found a home in Calgary. Their stories can be both harrowing and uplifting. Their ordeals can also help shed light on the refugee experience.
Victoria Ayanee remembers just how excited her sons were when the family arrived in Canada.
"Mom, we are safe now, we are in Canada," she recalls her eldest son telling her at the airport. "We can go outside, we can go to school, we can play with other people."
"I hugged him and told him, yes my son, you can go to school now and play with other children."
Victoria, her husband Naseer and their four young sons arrived in Canada in June, 2013. They had fled Afghanistan via Pakistan as refugees.
Targeted by the Taliban
The trouble started for the family in 2009.
Naseer was an employee at the United States embassy in Kabul. He worked as an intermediary with the Afghan government.
Naseer's work drew the attention of the Taliban. Though the Taliban was no longer in control of the country — they were still a formidable presence in Afghanistan.
"They said they would punish him because of his support, work and association with the infidels and foreigners, particularly with Americans."
Naseer's job often took him out into rural areas. On one such trip to an allegedly safe province, he was attacked in the middle of night. He managed to escape.
Soon after came threatening phone calls saying Naseer would be killed by the Taliban or al-Qaeda members. They also saw suspicious vehicles outside their home. Strangers would show up at relatives' homes demanding to know Naseer's whereabouts.
The ongoing threats eventually became too much. Victoria and Naseer decided to take their sons and leave Afghanistan.
"It is too hard to forget that situation," says Victoria.
Safe house in Pakistan
With the help of the United Nations' refugee agency, the family moved to a safe house in Islamabad, Pakistan. They stayed there for two years in what Victoria describes as difficult conditions.
The house had one room, no electricity or clean water. They were not even allowed to leave the property.
"We had a kitchen in that room, storage in that room, living room, bedroom, everything in that small room. No play in the yard. Outside, nothing."
Victoria was also pregnant with their youngest at the time. She says being stuck inside with the stifling heat was almost unbearable.
Victoria says life in the safe house was also hard on her young sons.
"My second son was scared, so scared." says Victoria.
She recalls the boy asking 'What should we do if someone killed my Dad, or someone killed you. What should we do?' These kinds of questions all the time."
As soon as they arrived in Pakistan, Victoria and Naseer applied for refugee status in Canada.
They waited nine months before their first interview. Then came the medical tests. But eventually, their application was accepted.
"When we were told that your case had been approved for Canada, we were so happy that I cannot explain!"
Arrived in Calgary just before the flood
When they arrived in June of 2013, Victoria says the family had nothing. They were housed at a shelter for 19 days — just as floodwaters hit Calgary.
Despite the civic emergency, Victoria says Calgarians were there to help her and her family find a place to live. The federal government also provided financial support for one year.
Victoria barely spoke English at the time so she immediately enrolled in language classes.
Three years later, Victoria now has a good command of the language. Naseer has a full time job. The family rents the main floor of a house in northeast Calgary.
The couple's four boys now range in age from four to 12 years old. Victoria says she is amazed how well they've adapted — considering what they went through before coming to Calgary.
"My kids are doing great in school. My youngest one – he just turned four. He's completely talking in English. My son doesn't understand Dari anymore already," says Victoria. "I'm continuing my language classes."
"It's cold here but that's okay. At least we are safe. Cold and warm does not matter for us. At least we are living safe in this country."
Anxiety for those left behind
One thing that continues to worry Victoria is the fate of family members back in her home country.
She says the Taliban will try to intimidate — or hurt — relatives of those they have targeted.
Victoria remains in constant contact with her family.
"Some of them are still in Afghanistan. Some have left. They are OK. But [it's] not safe."
"If one person is a target, then nobody is safe in that family."
Will apply for citizenship
Victoria Ayanee and her family now have landed immigrant status in Canada.
In a year from now, they can apply for citizenship — something they very much intend to do.
Victoria and Naseer would like to make Calgary their permanent home.
"I really appreciate it from the Canadian taxpayer and the Canadian government that gave us this opportunity to live in a safe country with all my kids".
With files from Ellis Choe