Saskatchewan·First Person

Canada gave me a new outlook on life, but my heart aches for friends left behind in Afghanistan

Coming to Saskatoon from Afghanistan allowed Soomaya Javadi to breathe again and feel safe. But she can never forget that everyone she knew back in Afghanistan is still facing danger, suffering and pain.

Saskatoon has shown me a future for myself I didn't know I could have

A woman wearing a face mask takes a selfie at an airport. She stands next to a man, a girl and a woman.
Soomaya Javadi, left, and her family arrived at Saskatoon's airport in October 2021 after fleeing Afghanistan. (Photo submitted by Soomaya Javadi)

This First Person piece is by Soomaya Javadi who immigrated from Afghanistan to Saskatoon. Javadi is Hazara, an ethnic group that faces discrimination in Afghanistan. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I remember the night I arrived in Saskatoon: Oct. 15, 2021. On that cold night, I was welcomed with warm hugs from Saskatonians I'd never met before at the airport.

I couldn't stop my tears when a reporter asked me how I felt about being in Canada. 

After months of constant pain, I was feeling alive. I was breathing air in my lungs. I was crying. I was happy that my family — my parents and my lovely two siblings — were finally safe. But I was sad also that everyone I knew from my previous life was still in danger, suffering and pain.

A view of a football field and open skies.
Soomaya Javadi looked at this view of the football field at the University of Saskatchewan during her two-week isolation. (Photo submitted by Soomaya Javadi)

Soon after landing, I moved into a hotel to complete the mandatory two-week isolation period. The view from my hotel window is the first image in my mind of Saskatoon — the never-ending land full of air to breathe. I wanted to go out of my room so badly, to remember how to breath without fear.

At last, we were allowed leave. We met Andrew, a volunteer with Saskatoon Open Door Society volunteer, who took us for a walk.

Five people in jackets and masks pose for a photo on a sunny, fall day.
Soomaya Javadi, second from the right, and her family met up with Saskatoon Open Door Society volunteer Andrew Ireson, right, for a walk around Saskatoon. (Photo submitted by Soomaya Javadi)

Afghanistan was full of mountains. I could never see behind them.

If I went behind one mountain, there was always another and another behind that. Maybe it was a metaphor about life and how the future was a mystery I could never know.

A woman smiles with Afghanistan's mountains behind her.
Soomaya Javadi says she could never see beyond the mountains of Afghanistan, perhaps a fitting metaphor for her life there. (Submitted by Soomaya Javadi)

Now I live in a place with an unending horizon that lets me see and see and see into a future in the peaceful Prairies.

When I went out of Saskatoon for the first time, I had this feeling that I had been blind all my life and this was the first time my eyes were seeing. I was amazed by the beauty of the nature.

A man and a woman walk on a boardwalk on a sunny day.
Saskatoon's wide open nature is a contrast to Soomaya Javadi's life and world in Afghanistan. (Submitted by Soomaya Javadi)

I had this same feeling of amazement once in Afghanistan during a visit to Yakawlang. In my home country, the ethnic Hazara population is often persecuted. But on that trip, I was briefly in an area that is mostly populated by other Hazara people like myself. 

I stayed in that small flat land surrounded by mountains for two hours. They were the most precious moments in my life. It was the first time in my life I had felt at home. The peaceful friendly rural Hazaragi life ran through that land's veins. It was the only time I could ride a bicycle in Afghanistan without any fear about terrorists.

A woman rides a bike on a field with mountains in the distance.
Soomaya Javadi rides a bike in Afghanistan — a rare moment of freedom. (Submitted by Soomaya Javadi)

Before the Taliban came back into power in 2021, I was an ordinary girl in my 20s — studying at university, going on vacations with my family, having birthdays, having a room of my own.

When I was 10, my Grade 5 teacher asked me to write about my dreams. Mine was to have a personal bookcase full of books, but it was a far-off dream, with us being poor and books too expensive for us to buy. It makes me sad to think of how inaccessible my dream of a small library was, even though it was so small. Eventually, in my 20s, I had a library of my own for a while.

A poster shows world famous leaders and thinkers from Martin Luther King Jr. to Mother Teresa to Oprah Winfrey.
A poster of Soomaya Javadi's favourite poets, writers and politicians hung up in her bedroom in Afghanistan. (Submitted by Soomaya Javadi)

The night of Aug. 15, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, my 15-year-old brother and I put our books in bags and buried them in our backyard. We had to burn our Hazaragi books and magazines from 20 and 30 years ago. 

A shelf filled with books and personal items.
Soomaya Javadi dreamed of having a small personal library. She achieved that dream in her 20s. These were her books, which she burned or buried when the Taliban came back into power in 2021. (Submitted by Soomaya Javadi)

I remember trying not to cry as I reluctantly put my books about feminism away. There was no electricity, but we stayed up packing, burying and burning books with a charging lamp until 4 a.m. 

After that, I lay in the dark in my bed beside my empty bookcase. I imagined my life with the Taliban. I felt that I was not yet dead, but that they were pouring soil on me. I couldn't breathe. There was pain and pressure in my head.

I had studied five-and-a-half years of a six-year dentistry program at the Kabul University of Medical Science. I made friends with other Hazara girls who were studying together despite all the gender and racial discrimination we faced in Aghanistan.

A group of female students wearing white lab coats pose together.
This picture shows Soomaya Javadi, fifth from the right, and other Hazara girls at university in December 2020. (Submitted by Soomaya Javadi)

Today, they cannot study. They cannot work. They cannot go out of their homes without a man accompanying them. They are deprived of living as independent, thinking humans.

I, too, could be living in Yakawlang, where my soul belongs, if there was no war or cruelty in this world. 

But now, I am blessed to live among the kindest people in the world. The kindness, affection and compassion of the people in Saskatoon are as endless as the prairie horizon.

A large group of women smile for the camera.
Soomaya Javadi considers herself fortunate to work alongside kind and supportive people in the early childhood educators' team at the Saskatoon Open Door Society. (Submitted by Soomaya Javadi)

For a while now, I have been working with Afghan children who are also newcomers. I am honoured to give them love and knowledge, and help them forget about the cruelty the Taliban showed them.

I see how brilliant they are and how enthusiastic they are about learning. These little children brighten my soul and give me hope that one day, this whole world could become a better place for humans. 

Then, I think of the girls who are still in Afghanistan, deprived of learning just because they are female. Some of them are killed simply because they are Hazara.

Five women link their arms around each other while standing in front of a fountain.
Soomaya Javadi, second from left, considers it is her responsibility to tell the stories of her friends left behind in Afghanistan. (Submitted by Soomaya Javadi)

I will never forget my friends and those still living under Taliban authority, deprived of freedom. My thoughts and prayers are with them, and I think it is my responsibility to tell their stories and to never let them be forgotten.

But the other half of me is here in this country now. I have plenty of friends from Saskatoon who are so passionate and warm-hearted that it makes me believe in good and fairness again. Saskatoon, with its nature and its people, helps my wounds heal.

I dare to dream about my people in Hazarajat. May they too someday know the love, peace and freedom my new life here has given me.

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Soomaya Javadi

Freelance contributor

Soomaya Javadi was a student of the dentistry program at Kabul University of Medical Science. She works as an interpreter for Afghan children and as an early childhood educator with the Saskatoon Open Door Society. She is a freelance writer, human rights advocate, a women's rights defender and a passionate Hazara woman from Afghanistan.