'It's like my mission is over': Kandahar veteran helps Syrians come to Canada

Donna Collins always felt guilty about the people she left behind in Afghanistan. The Pictou, N.S., woman eased her burden by helping Syrians come to Canada.

Donna Collins thought she might never be free from guilt of having left people behind in Afghanistan

Bader Albarazi with Donna Collins at the Halifax airport shortly after his arrival. (Submitted by Donna MacKenzie)

In 2011, the Canada's military mission in Afghanistan was winding down. But, for Donna Collins, the mission was just beginning.

Collins worked as a clerk on the Canadian base in Kandahar. She interacted regularly with the Afghans — the plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen who had been hired by the military to carry out work on the base.

Working for the Canadians had put them at risk and they were looking for a route to safety.

"They would often ask, 'Can we come with you?,'" Collins said.

But, by that time, the visa program for Afghans who had helped the Canadian Forces had ended. Even while it was operational, only a third of applicants were successful.

"So we could do nothing," she said.

Donna Collins is shown at the Kandahar airfield in 2011 with Nova Scotia musician Dave Gunning. (Submitted by Donna Collins)

Four months after Collins returned from Afghanistan to her home in Pictou, N.S., one of her colleagues tried to follow up with the men they had left behind.

But they were gone.

"So I often thought that perhaps they were killed, that they didn't make it, which is hard," she said. "I've always felt bad.

"There's that sadness in having left them behind and not having looked after them, and it doesn't leave. It stays."

Several years later, in 2015, the Trudeau government announced its plan to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. Collins saw an opportunity for atonement.

"It was all these people, the same as Afghanistan ... and there was no way, with everything going on, that they were ever going to make it to safety."

'Call Bader'

Collins had left the military by that point. While she was in Kandahar, a rocket struck a distance away from the building where she was working. She was thrown to the floor, but initially thought she had escaped unscathed and she finished her deployment.

After returning home, though, it was clear that something was wrong. She was subsequently diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. While she was no longer able to work, she hadn't left behind her guilt.

So she pitched in to manage the finances of a group called Communities Assisting Refugees Now, or CAiRN, based out of the Pictou United Church.

The first family sponsored by the organization — Abdulkadir and Lema Casim and their two children — arrived in Pictou in 2016.

Soon after they arrived, Lema Casim asked if the group could help sponsor her sister, Nada, who was living in Algeria with her family.

CAiRN already had the funds. But Collins's brain injury made completing the paperwork difficult.

"It was just exhausting trying to get this done."

So Lema Casim suggested an assistant.

"She says to me, 'Call Bader.'"

Lema Casim, Ayah Albarazi and Rima Albarazi at the Halifax airport, shortly after the Albarazi family arrived. (Submitted by Donna Collins)

Bader Albarazi was more than 8,000 kilometres away in Turkey, where he'd fled after conflict broke out in Syria.

While in Turkey, Bader had done his best to help those still affected by the war, translating for wounded Syrians in Turkish hospitals.

Eventually he worked for the International Organization for Migration, which had partnered with the Canadian government to register, process and arrange travel for 26,000 Syrian refugees in late 2015 and early 2016.

Casim's family was one of them. Bader's assistance was invaluable in completing the paperwork for Nada and her family.

But, in talking to Bader, Collins realized he needed help, too.

"He asked me, very shyly … if I would, if our group, would sponsor him and his family," she said.

Donna's husband, Stephen MacKenzie, along with members of the Albarazi family and Lema Casim are shown at the Halifax airport. (Submitted by Donna Collins)

In Bader, Collins saw a reflection of her experience in Afghanistan. He was someone who had helped the Canadian government carry out its work abroad, and who was also left in a difficult situation.

There wasn't any money, but Collins vowed to try.

She pushed CAiRN to file the paperwork for a third family and secured the funding herself.

It took two years from start to finish.

In May 2018, Bader, his younger sister, Ayah, and their parents arrived at the Halifax airport. Ayah is now studying to become an architectural technologist and Bader is enrolled in development studies at St. FX.

"That will give me a field to help people in every part in the world," he said. "I understand the suffering of the people, because I lived this suffering. So I want to continue supporting and helping people all around the world."

'Running behind my dream'

Bader said he was thankful to all of CAiRN for the support.

"They were running behind my dream more than I ran."

But the experience had given him a particular bond with Collins.

"She is so close to me, and she understands me and she supports me, every time," he said. "Donna has the most part in my heart."

As for Collins, the arrival of Bader and his family brought about an unexpected opportunity for healing.

For years, Collins thought she might never be rid of the guilt of having left people behind in Afghanistan — that she'd always feel a compulsion to devote all her energy to sponsorships.

"Morally, I could not stop."

But with Bader and his family safely arrived in Canada, a burden lifted for Collins. Finally, years after leaving Kandahar, she could rest. 

"It's like Afghanistan was always infringing in my life, and now it feels like that feeling of having left people behind, that I've made my peace with it, by getting Bader and family here.

"It's like my mission is over. It's like, you've been stood down."

This documentary makes use of tracks by The Blue Dot Sessions and Chris Zabriskie.