Grassroots support helps fill gap in services for Afghan newcomers in Waterloo region

Many Afghan families are being supported by grassroots community initiatives — but a lead volunteer says they can’t keep doing it alone and more support is required.

Immigration group says pandemic responsible for service delays, staffing challenges

Sayed Salahuddin Dorokhshan, left, and his son Sayed Sulaiman Dorokhshan, 15, fled from Kabul to Canada in September and moved to Waterloo region mid-October. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

For many Afghan newcomers to Waterloo region, what they miss most about their beloved home country is the family they were forced to leave behind.

As they work to rebuild their lives by resettling into unfamiliar spaces, navigating social services, learning a new language and replacing essential items — they hold on firmly to the memories of lovers, parents, children and now abandoned homes.

But what helps mend their broken hearts and fill a gap in services is compassionate neighbours who have since become like family.

"They have come out and helped refugees like close family members," said Sayed Salahuddin Dorokhshan about a Lincoln Heights neighbourhood group aimed at supporting newcomers.

Dorokhshan's family is among more than a dozen others being supported by the group, but a lead volunteer says they can't keep doing it alone and more help is needed.


Dorokhshan, a former journalist and cameraman, fled Kabul with his wife, four children and nephew after the Taliban captured the city and rest of the country in August. The family moved to Waterloo region in mid-October and have since resided in two rooms at the Comfort Inn, where many other newcomers are temporarily housed.

Dorokhshan sitting in one of the rooms his family is staying in at the Comfort Inn. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

He welcomes the community support because his family has faced a series of challenges in their attempt to move forward.

Up until last week, Dorokhshan's children were unable to enrol in local schools due to issues with registration. He said his family, which is part of a resettlement initiative through Reception House, wasn't adequately set up with English Second Language programs or services for youth engagement.

"It's been tough. It's been challenging," he said, but repeatedly emphasized that his family is grateful for the sense of safety and hope they have in Canada.

Dorokhshan's son Sayed Sulaiman Dorokhshan said though he too is eager for a more prosperous future, his experience so far has left him with more questions than answers.

"It has been a little bit depressing," the 15-year-old said. "I don't know when my school will start. How would it be? When will [we] go to school and have a home? How can I arrange my timetable? What should I do?"

Hajera Amir Karimi moved from Kabul to Waterloo region with her two daughters. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Hajera Amir Karimi and her two daughters arrived in Waterloo region around the same time as the Dorokhshan family.

Karimi is also a former journalist who worked as a radio host and newscaster in Kabul. Karimi and Dorokhshan were able to come to the country after the government expanded its resettlement program to take in as many as 20,000 additional refugees.

Karimi said she is happy she left Afghanistan, though navigating the new world here has been challenging. Her husband fled Afghanistan several years ago and moved to Germany. She's in a lengthy process to try to bring him to Canada.

"I miss my family. It's the first time I am alone. It is very difficult for me ... New country, new city, new life, new culture and new people," she said.

A spokesperson with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the government has added more resources over the past couple of months to process applications faster.

"We've streamlined processes, introduced flexibility and tailored documents," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The government has committed to resettling 40,000 Afghan refugees over the next two years.

Local support

In times of hardship, both families have turned to local volunteers for help including Linda Drouin, who is part of the Lincoln Heights neighbourhood support group.

The retired educator said she first got involved when Afghan newcomers started arriving to the region several months ago.

She started out by giving away presents from picnics that never happened as a result of the pandemic. Once she recognized the crucial need for essentials, she drew up a form to give to families to check off what they needed. She then collected items from the community, packed them in boxes and sent them to the families.

Linda Drouin is pictured in her living room surrounded by boxes full of donations for Afghan families new to the region. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Her whole house has now been transformed into a storage space of donated items, where newcomers can come and "shop around" for whatever they need.

"My small bedroom upstairs was the kitchen items and my family room downstairs was linen and towels. [The] island … in the kitchen became the sorting place," Drouin said.

"They become like my children and grandchildren. They're like family," she said.

"It's pleasant … to see smiles on their faces and that also keeps me going ... it gave more purpose to my life … I know I'm doing it for myself, because my body and brain needs to do it, but I am also doing it to make other people's lives more comfortable and that is so, so important," she added.

Karimi said she has been able to secure furniture, household items, carpets and kitchen appliances, among other items through Drouin's grassroots initiative.

"A lot of ladies in the city like Linda ... They are very kind. They are very good," she said. "I want to say … thank you."

"They have been of enormous help to refugees here," said Dorokhshan. "They even have stepped up and raised their voices with regards to the difficulties that we have faced."

Afghan family building new life in Waterloo region

8 months ago
Duration 0:46
Many Afghan families are resettling in Waterloo region amid challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Pandemic service delays 

Drouin said she's had conversations with local agencies and government officials about improving conditions for newcomers. She wants regional officials will step up in a co-ordinated effort to better support newcomers.

Tara Bedard is the executive director of Immigration Partnership, a group made up of about 60 organizations, including Region of Waterloo and Reception House, aimed at ensuring a smooth resettlement for newcomers. She said service providers and employees across the region care deeply about this mandate.

There is a lot of work happening behind-the-scenes to ensure a smooth reintegration, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on unexpected challenges that may be causing service delays, said Bedard.

"When we ask our service partners how they're doing, they're struggling because of the pandemic …  the mental health impact that the pandemic is having … on their staff … impacts ability to deliver services," she said. "Everybody's really struggling to fill roles and have full staff teams."

Tara Bedard is the executive director of Immigration Partnership in Waterloo region. (Submitted by Tara Bedard)

Though federal and provincial funding for settlement programs has remained stable, the need has increased dramatically.

"That has an impact on how quickly the refugees who are arriving in the community are able to get into the programs and services that are available, not because we don't have them and not because organizations aren't wanting to be able to provide people with the level of service that they would have been able to do pre-pandemic," said Bedard.

"It's really difficult for everybody to continue on trying to deliver services at the same level in the same way as they did pre-pandemic," she added.

The group launched a refugee task force last month aimed at overseeing the resettlement efforts across the region.

A request for comment from Reception House was not received in time for publication.

In the meantime, newcomers like Dorokhshan continue building their lives in Canada.

"I hope to be able to learn a skill and be able to stand on my feet so I can provide a better means for my family, for my children, and then be a means of service for Canada because we are already hoping that we are citizens of Canada," he said.