Afghanistan refugee family 'in survival mode' but happy, grateful after arriving in Winnipeg

Surrounded by garbage bags containing the only clothes they could grab, an Afghan family of 10 arrived in Winnipeg with tired but smiling, relieved faces, says a woman who was there to welcome them.

'Being able to speak with them in their language, and connect with us, it was really powerful'

In this image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, families board a U.S. Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 24. (Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps/The Associated Press)

Surrounded by garbage bags containing only the clothes they could grab, an Afghan family of 10 arrived in Winnipeg Thursday night with tired but smiling, relieved faces, says a woman who was there to welcome them. 

"It was a very heartfelt moment, just seeing them. They were in survival mode," said Seeba Wahabi, who works with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba, or IRCOM. "Being able to speak with them in their language, and connect with us, it was really powerful."

Wahabi was part of a small group that welcomed them at the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, which included youth leaders from the community organization and one or two Afghan-Canadian families.

The family, with several young children, is among the thousands airlifted out of their home country in the past few weeks as the Taliban regained control of the country. Canada was part of a coalition airlifting some of those seeking refuge.

"They were excited, they were grateful to the government of Canada; they told us how grateful they are," said Ariana Yaftali, co-founder of the Afghan-Canadian Women's Organization in Winnipeg, who was also there to greet them.

"They just feel and they smell the freedom in this country and they look forward to their new house, new life."

Yaftali said the family left Kabul 18 days ago and spent two weeks in quarantine in Canada. It will take time for them to process what they went through, she said. 

"They are carrying some trauma with them because they escaped the persecution and chaos."

The family of 10 was greeted outside the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport as they were shuttled to a temporary place to stay. (Accueil Francophone)

Their arrival also created flashbacks for Wahabi, who came to Canada as a refugee in 2008. When she was young and her brother had just been born, the Wahabi family fled the Taliban and became refugees in Pakistan.

They lived there for a decade before coming to Canada. She said she felt traumatized earlier this month when she heard the Taliban, who had been pushed into hiding during the two-decade-long war in Afghanistan, had begun to take over again.

"I just had all my memories come back to life. It was like 1:30 a.m. when we got to Winnipeg and we were so tired, but just so relieved with my mom and my sister and brother," Wahabi said.

"We just needed that familiar voice to just say, 'Hey, I'm an Afghan,' and you know, 'Welcome' in our language. So just being able to provide that for them last night was so powerful.

"You could see it in their eyes. They were like relieved, just knowing that we were there."

There are groups now helping the family find temporary housing.

They will be busy over the next while, with two more families expected Friday night, Wahabi said.

"What we did basically last night was just going and building those connections, providing our numbers and just offering our support and being around them. So that's the hope for the next families as well," she said.

In her role with IRCOM, Wahabi is usually a homework education teacher helping newcomer families, not someone who helps with resettlement.

But she was moved to help in whatever way she could with families from her homeland.

The family is seen here after arriving at the James Armstrong Richardson International Airport Thursday night. (Accueil Francophone )

She's hoping to take that effort to Toronto as well.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada sent an email to agencies like IRCOM, asking for volunteers to fly to Toronto to support the many refugees arriving from Afghanistan.

"I didn't even take a second. I responded right away expressing I'm willing to volunteer and help out," Wahabi said. "That's been approved, and soon they'll know when they'll need us."

Boris Ntambwe is with Accueil Francophone, a Winnipeg organization funded by the federal government to help refugees and immigrants settle in Canada.

The immediate priority is to help the family get settled into temporary housing and connected to a community who can support them, said Ntambwe.

"There is so many things to be done for the resettlement," he said.

The list includes providing them with a health screening, Manitoba Health cards, getting the kids registered for school and the parents signed up for English or French classes.

Ntambwe said the father in the family speaks English and was an interpreter with the Canadian Forces. The rest of the family speaks only Pashto.

In this picture obtained from social media, crowds of people wait outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 25. (David Martinon/Twitter/Reuters)

Canada has previously said it intends to bring in 20,000 refugees. Those are over and above the former interpreters who helped Canada in its military mission in Afghanistan and their family members, who now fear retribution at the hands of the Taliban.

Wahabi wants to see much more than that. Afghanistan's population is approximately 38 million and "bringing 20,000 is not anything — basically drinking the ocean with a straw," she said. 

"There's a lot of family members, a lot of, you know, family, friends that are stuck at the moment, like everywhere. Just knowing that there were a few that were able to make it was really a relief."


Darren Bernhardt


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Renee Lilley and Julien Sahuquillo