The Current

Within days, this Afghan lawyer went from helping refugees, to becoming one himself

Harvard-trained lawyer Saeeq Shajjan lost everything when he and his family fled Kabul and the Taliban in August. He says one of the hardest things is not being able to help people left behind.

After fleeing to Canada, Saeeq Shajjan regrets that he can't help those left behind

Saeeq Shajjan was educated at Harvard and ran one of Afghanistan’s most successful law firms. (John Chipman/CBC)

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After years at the head of one of Afghanistan's most successful law firms, Saeeq Shajjan went from helping others to being in desperate need himself when the Taliban captured Kabul.

"On Saturday, which was August 14, we were doing a charity drive for refugees that had recently come from other provinces to Kabul city. We donated some money, we donated some food and clothes," Shajjan told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"Same week — later, around Wednesday, Thursday — we were refugees ourselves." 

Shajjan and his family left Kabul on Aug. 17, two days after it fell to the Taliban. They first flew to Qatar, with little money or clothing, and relied on donations, he said. 

The family then came to Toronto under the federal government's resettlement program (Shajjan's law firm has provided the Canadian embassy with legal services since 2013). They have been living in hotel accommodation since early September, trying to keep their three children — aged 13, 11 and 9 — active and occupied in the hotel's pool and squash court.

"It was a bittersweet moment because you feel good that you are out, but then at the same time, you're feeling for so many others who are left behind," he said.

Shajjan in his office in Kabul, before the Taliban's takeover that prompted him to flee to Canada with his family. (Submitted by Saeeq Shajjan)

Shajjan studied law at Harvard in 2010, before he returned to Afghanistan to build his practice, a process that took "years of hard work, day and night, seven days a week," he said.

The firm provided legal services to companies operating in the country. He's helped to secure funding for young Afghans to train as lawyers abroad, in the hopes that they too would return to help build a stronger Afghanistan.

"It was a very good life. There was nothing that I could ask for more. And all of a sudden, we have lost everything," he said.

That sudden shift has been a difficult transition, in particular because he feels many people left behind in Afghanistan are still looking to him for help.

"There was a time that I was a helping hand for so many people — financially, emotionally ... I would be able to make phone calls and get things done," he told Galloway.

"Now all of a sudden, I'm no one," he said. "I'm in a position that I'm asking for help myself." 

Shajjan has been trying to keep his kids occupied and active using the sports facilities at the hotel they're staying at. (Matt Galloway/CBC)

Taliban 'pointed the gun at me' during escape

Shajjan decided to leave Kabul out of fears for his family's safety, as well as his belief that the Taliban had neither the intention or ability to uphold the country's judicial system.

"Their judicial system is on the streets … they would do whatever they can to just spread fear among the people," he said. 

He left with his wife and three children, as well as his elderly parents and two of his sisters. But it took several attempts to reach the airport, including a confrontation with Taliban fighters on the street.

"One pointed the gun at me and said that he will shoot me," Shajjan remembered. 

He smiled at the fighter, telling him that if he shot him, he would be punished by god. 

"I was trying to somehow pressure that guy and make him listen to me. It didn't work. I had to come back again," he said.

Afghans chase U.S. air force plane in desperate attempt to escape country

1 year ago
Duration 0:39
Thousands of people are trying to flee Afghanistan as the Taliban strengthens its grip on the country. Some people chased a U.S. air force plane down the tarmac, while others tried to force their way onto planes at the Kabul airport.

But when their seats on a flight were confirmed, it was another Taliban fighter who helped them navigate the huge crowds that were flocking to the airport.  Shajjan remembered it as "a rare example of nicety" among the fighters he encountered on the streets.

Shajjan said his family was lucky, but the situation was still chaotic and scary. A week later, he was able to help more of his extended family escape, but he still worries about relatives still there.

"Believe it or not, I'm not really enjoying the moment ... until I make sure that everyone else who's in danger is out of the country also," he said.

Missing the hope Kabul held

Now that he's in Toronto, Shajjan wants to find a good job, and get his kids back in school. It's not clear when they will move to more permanent housing, but he's thankful to be out of danger.

He misses everything about his country — his friends and colleagues, and the work he was doing — and said what he loved most about Kabul was the hope that he felt.

Taliban enters Kabul as Afghan president flees

1 year ago
Duration 2:32
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as Taliban forces swept into of Kabul, which appeared to signal the end of the 20-year effort by Western powers to foster democracy in the country.

"I always had hope, especially during the last 20 years. We were doing so many good things that would give us hope for the future of the country."

Part of that was made possible through support and funding from Canada, he said.

He also asked that Canadians continue to "stand by the people of Afghanistan."

"Make sure that the government of Canada is doing the right things by [pressuring] the government of Taliban, that they need to somehow show a little bit of respect to human rights," he said.

Shajjan said he will return to Afghanistan when he can, but will leave his family to stay in Canada if going back would put them at risk.

"I would go back to do the little things that I was doing to help, and help everyone have a better life in Afghanistan," he said.

"Even if there is a danger, I would take that risk." 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Arianne Robinson, Liz Hoath and John Chipman.

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