Nova Scotia

'The difference is the freedom': Family who supported Afghan mission flee to Canada

An Afghan family who worked with Canadians during their mission in Afghanistan is finally on the way to Canada. 

Qais Hassan Zada, his wife and 4 children had been in hiding in Pakistan after escaping the Taliban

Qais Hassan Zada (left), his 4 children and his wife have been living in hiding. (Submitted by Qais Hassan Zada)

Qais Hassan Zada felt relief course through his body Monday when he, his wife and their four children landed at Heathrow Airport in London after a long flight from Islamabad, Pakistan.

Hassan Zada is among the thousands of Afghans who worked with Canadians during the military mission in Afghanistan. He and his family are being resettled in Canada amid fear of reprisal from the Taliban.

"The difference is the freedom," Qais Hassan Zada told CBC News in a brief interview during the family's stopover in London.

"You're not scared from people calling you, they're trying to find you. So there's a big difference.... I'm so happy."

Across the Atlantic Ocean, in Windsor, N.S., Nicole Wood could breathe a sigh of relief, too.

"He's on his way. It's amazing," said Wood, who met Hassan Zada when they worked together at a company that leased armoured vehicles to foreigners in Kabul, including the Canadian Embassy. 

Wood has been critical of the Canadian government's efforts to process Hassan Zada's refugee claim, saying the family has been continually let down by Canadian immigration officials and by Canadian diplomats in Pakistan, where they fled after selling everything and going into hiding.

The family had been living in hiding in Pakistan since a dangerous escape across the Afghan border in December.

To keep their tourist visa valid, they were supposed to leave and re-enter the country every 30 days. But that would mean near-certain capture by the Taliban. 

So Wood said the family stayed in a rental apartment in Islamabad, surviving on little money while fearing deportation by Pakistani authorities or being found out by the Taliban.

Wood said the Canadian Embassy arranged for biometric scans in mid-January — the first stage of the immigration permitting process — but the family heard nothing after that.

Finally, following a month of silence, the call came from the embassy: it was time to go.

Two of Qais Hassan Zada's children are shown in Afghanistan. (Submitted by Qais Hassan Zada)

"To be honest, it's been super stressful. I didn't realize how stressed out I was about the whole thing," Wood said. "I've been a little edgy, I guess, is one way of putting it."

Thousands more Afghans in line

Joe Alteen served two tours of duty with a Canadian infantry unit and now volunteers in St. John's with Aman Lara, an NGO formed by Canadian veterans to help Afghans escape after the Taliban takeover.

Helping Afghans directly "became the only way to still try to give them the peace that we promised them," said Alteen.

Aman Lara is tracking roughly 10,000 Afghans, including 2,000 primary applicants still stuck in Afghanistan, and the roughly 8,000 family members they want to bring with them. 

Alteen said all types of people are in hiding with no means of support, from translators who worked with Canadian forces, to lawyers and judges who tried and sentenced Taliban members. 

A main challenge is a lack of travel documents, he said, because a visit to a Taliban government office to pick up a passport is too dangerous. 

"The Taliban now have access to all the databases, all the biometric data that the Americans collected over the years," Alteen said. 

"I'm talking daily to families that have been in legitimate hiding for months now, not able to leave their house for fear of getting kidnapped or disappeared."

A move to Nova Scotia? 

Wood said she doesn't know where Hassan Zada and his family will be placed in Canada, but she dearly hopes they will find their way to Nova Scotia.

"I would love them to be right here in Windsor, but that's not going to be practical for them. There's no mosque here, there's no Afghan community. There's a considerable Afghan community in Halifax," Wood said. 

Nicole Wood is shown with her husband, Mark, and son, Oliver. The family's dogs were rescued from the streets of Afghanistan. (Submitted by Nicole Wood)

Wherever their landing place, Wood is conscious of the many Afghan people looking to escape the Taliban.

"Qais is on his way, so life is good in our little bubble. But ... there's an awful lot of people left behind," she said.

"I want our government to do the right thing here."

'We are almost there'

Hassan Zada said his family's departure from the airport in Islamabad was almost derailed over a fine of $342 US for breaking the terms of their tourist visas. It was money the family didn't have. 

But they were permitted on their way after a call to the Canadian Embassy.

At Heathrow, a relieved Hassan Zada was off to buy a meal for his family with £22 — about $38. It was the very last of the family's money he was able to exchange from a handful of Pakistani rupees. 

Soon the family would be en route to Canada's West Coast.

"We are almost there, almost there," said Hassan Zada. "When I land in Vancouver, then I know I'm home."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jack Julian

Reporter

Jack Julian joined CBC Nova Scotia as an arts reporter in 1997. His news career began on the morning of Sept. 3, 1998 following the crash of Swissair 111. He is now a data journalist in Halifax, and you can reach him at (902) 456-9180, by email at jack.julian@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @jackjulian

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