Afghan-Canadians try to help friends, family back home

Canadians with family and friends in Afghanistan say the latest developments  — and shocking images of people clinging to an American military plane leaving the Kabul airport — have left them with fresh worries about their loved ones.

Afghan-Canadian activists urge government to move quickly to accept 20,000 refugees it promised

Roya Shams, a master's student at the University of Ottawa, sponsored the education of girls in Afghanistan before the Taliban's recent resurgence. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Canadians with family and friends in Afghanistan say the latest developments  — and shocking images of people clinging to an American military plane leaving the Kabul airport — have left them with fresh worries about their loved ones.

Roya Shams came to Canada from Afghanistan when she was a teenager after her father, a local police officer who worked with Canadian soldiers, was killed in a counter-insurgency operation.

Her family has advocated for equal education for girls and boys back home and Shams continues that work sponsoring girls' education through her small non-profit Andisha.

"For me it's not just personal in terms of family. It's personal in terms of the line of the work I was doing there and I can't be there physically to help these people," said Shams, who is currently a Master's student at the University of Ottawa.

Beyond schools potentially being shut down by the Taliban, Shams remains concerned about the safety of her family still in Afghanistan who have gone into hiding.

She said those fleeting moments of contact underline the urgency of the humanitarian crisis.

"Lives are taken by minutes or seconds, as we are speaking we might be losing a life," Shams said.

When she saw images of Afghan civilians clinging to the outside of an American military plane as it took off from the Kabul airport, she could imagine one of her loved ones making that attempt to escape.

Protesters held signs and chanted for peace in Afghanistan as they gathered in front of the peacekeeping monument in Ottawa on Saturday. (Celeste Decaire/CBC)

Taliban has not changed

Ali Mirzad, a volunteer with Canadian-Hazara Humanitarian Services, said those same images shocked him and showed how people fear the return of the Taliban.

"That's how desperate people are for getting out of Afghanistan," he said.

"The Taliban has put on a face that they are kinder, they have changed, but we have seen enough of their past history that we know better."

Mirzad said he spends sleepless nights trying to get information to people in Afghanistan who have heard Canada will accept 20,000 Afghan refugees. He hopes groups like the Hazara — a minority group that experienced persecution under Taliban rule — will meet the government's definition of a vulnerable population.

"The Taliban is an enemy to all Afghans, but moreso to the minorities," said Mirzad, who worries most Afghans don't know how to take advantage of the Canadian program.

He urges Canadians to keep this humanitarian crisis in their minds as the election campaign ramps up, and he encourages the Canadian government to loosen immigration rules around family sponsorship so relatives can be reunited.

Veteran's phone buzzing with people trying to escape

Brian McKenna, a retired warrant officer based in Delta, B.C., served two tours in Afghanistan. He said Canada must support interpreters who helped keep soldiers safe.

"The faces of people I wish were on an aircraft right now, those are not blurry at all," he said.

"When my phone stops buzzing with people that are trying to get out, then we're done."

Military men in Afghanistan
Brian McKenna, seen in a blue vest at centre, is shown serving in 2012 in Mazār-e-Sharīf, Afghanistan. (Submitted by Brian McKenna)

McKenna, who is also a veteran adviser for the Centre of Excellence on PTSD based at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, said the 40,000 Canadian veterans of the Afghan war face difficult memories of their time overseas.

"You can get to a place where you feel some sense of calmness — not necessarily closure — about how things went, but as situations unfold and deteriorate, it can throw some of that progress in the garbage and make you start over again," McKenna said.

He referenced "moral injury," a type of post-traumatic stress that comes from feeling betrayal or futility in a complex situation, as a key danger for many vets.

Canada has a responsibility to help veterans, he added, while encouraging veterans to seek help if they need it.

Shams holds on to hope recent days are just a setback in Afghanistan, and says her continued advocacy may be proof to Canadian veterans and their families their sacrifices were not in vain.

"I stand with their families. They should understand they have made a huge difference in people's lives," she said.

"It might not seem like this right now, given the situation, but thank you to all of them."