The Current

'Decades of grief': Carol Off's long journey to save Afghan man who risked his life to talk to her

What happens when a journalist used to keeping herself out of the story realizes her reporting has put an entire family in danger? For the CBC's Carol Off, it would be life-changing.
Carol Off hugs Robina Aryubwal with her father Asad looking on - an embrace that took nine years to happen. (Submitted by Penguin Random House)

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"When the Russians entered an area, they destroyed the whole village — children, elders, innocent or guilty people. [Abdul Rashid] Dostum's forces would do the same thing. There was always looting and killing."

That's Asad Aryubwal, a father of five from Afghanistan, speaking to CBC journalist Carol Off in 2002, about Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan warlord who was working with American forces at the time.

Aryubwal's interview appeared in Off's documentary In the Company of Warlords. The program earned Off awards and acclaim.

For the Aryubwal family, it brought death threats from Dostum's forces that eventually forced them to flee their country.

The interview also sent Off and the Aryubwals on a long journey to find safety for the family in Canada — a story she shares in the book, All We Leave Behind: A Reporter's Journey Into The Lives of Others.

RelatedWhy the CBC's Carol Off just couldn't leave this Afghan family behind

Asad Aryubwal had spoken to Off about Dostum because he thought American and Canadian forces fighting in the country should know the violent past of the man they were working with.

"He was shocked that Americans — people he admired — and Canadians, because we were also there by then, would not see through who this man is," Off, the host of CBC's As It Happens tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"He believed that if we knew that, if our government knew that, if Washington knew that, they wouldn't include him as their partner."

Robina Aryubwal, Asad's oldest daughter

Off didn't find out that her work had brought trouble for the family until four years after the documentary aired. But when she did, she felt compelled to cross the line that usually keeps journalists from getting personally involved with their subjects.

"I told [the Aryubwals] that I was going to get them out of this mess that I'd put them in," she says.

Carol Off with the Aryubwals family, taken when they settled in Hamilton, Ont. (Brian Kelly)

At the beginning of the process, Off believed it was just a matter of getting the ball rolling on the refugee process.

"It was just a matter of time," she thought.

"It was logical. These were absolutely the most deserving refugees you could imagine. They should come to Canada. They had risked their lives in order, they believed, to warn the Canadians about the danger they were getting into."

It's okay now, you're home.- Carol Off to Asad Aryubwal at Toronto's Pearson airport

The reality turned out very differently. The Aryubwals spent nine years in Pakistan, facing bureaucratic mix-ups and corruption in the refugee process — as well as continued threats to their lives.

"It was pretty scary and very, very tough for our family members," Robina Aryubwal, Asad's oldest daughter, tells Tremonti.

Carol Off hugs Hossai Aryubwal, Asad's daughter, as the Aryubwal family arrives at the Toronto airport, Nov. 15, 2015. (Lana Šlezić)

"The only hope that we had was Carol."

The Aryubwals didn't fully believe that they would finally make it to Canada until the wheels of their plane touched down on Toronto's Pearson airport tarmac on Nov. 15, 2015.

The meeting between Asad and Off in the arrivals lounge was emotional.

"This is a man who completely broke down into uncontrollable sobs," says Off.

Carol Off embraces Hossna, the youngest daughter in the Aryubwal family. (Lana Šlezić)

"It wasn't just the nine years. It was decades of grief ... I was just saying to him, 'It's okay now, you're home.'"

The family has now settled in Toronto and, Robina says, they are thriving.

She is in university with her sights set on law school. Her siblings have found jobs or are also going to school, and her mother has started a small business selling mantoo, a type of dumpling from Afghanistan.

Despite the difficulties of the journey, Robina and her family don't regret that her father spoke to the Canadian journalist.

Carol Off with Muhammad and Mujeeb, Asad's sons. (Lana Šlezić)

"We knew about the consequences — that this interview is going to be very dangerous for our family," says Robina.

"But as a human, we should stand for our own right. We cannot live in a society which is unjust."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.