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Volunteers who supported Syrian refugees reconnecting to help Afghan newcomers

Canada has welcomed more than 2,500 Afghan refugees since the Taliban took over
Refugees from Afghanistan and Canadian Citizens board a bus after being processed at Pearson Airport in Toronto, Tuesday, Aug 17, 2021, after arriving indirectly from Afghanistan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Volunteers who helped Syrian refugees settle in Canada six years ago are coming together once more to help Afghans who’ve recently arrived in the country.

Their efforts – which range from securing weather-appropriate clothing to helping the newcomers access medical services – are expected to ramp up as the federal government delivers on its commitment to settle 40,000 Afghan refugees.

Wendy Cukier, who previously founded a group to support Syrian refugees, said she was inundated with inquiries as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan this summer.

“We started getting calls from people saying, ‘What are you going to do?’ … Because we had, you know, done the work before,” she said in an interview.

“I reconnected with some of the founders of the work we did around Syria … essentially what we’re trying to do is match people, particularly Afghan refugees, with resources that they need.”

Canada has welcomed more than 2,500 Afghan refugees since the Taliban took over, according to government statistics. Cukier and other volunteers are now awaiting government details on how a private sponsorship program for thousands more will work.

In the meantime, volunteers are focused on helping Afghan newcomers who have made it to Canada.

Cukier co-founded a group called Lifeline Afghanistan to organize the efforts of those who want to help Afghan refugees in the Greater Toronto Area. The group has been fundraising and collecting donations while preparing to expand its efforts in the future.

Just last week, Cukier said she helped collect shoes for a group that arrived with footwear unsuitable for the cooler weather.

“I said I need 50 people to give me 10 pairs of shoes because there are 1,000 people at the airport, most of them have slippers and sandals. By Monday, I had 600 shoes, and now I’m sitting with another 600 in my living room,” said Cukier, who is also a professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

Syrian refugees who were once helped by groups like Cukier’s are also among those volunteering to help Afghan newcomers.

Rani Ibrahim, who became a Canadian citizen last year after arriving as a Syrian refugee four years ago, is working with the New Canadian Centre in Peterborough, Ont., to help nine Afghan families in the area.

“When I first came to Canada, other people, they welcomed me, they invited me to be a member of their community and they helped me. And when I do the same for different refugees, I feel like I really started to belong to this community,” he said.

“That makes me feel better. When I help an Afghan family, I actually feel like I’m helping myself at the same time.”

Mona Elshayal, co-founder of a volunteer group called Canadian Connections, has also been helping Afghan newcomers after offering similar supports to Syrian refugees.

Her group is currently supporting Afghan interpreters who worked with Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. She’s said she’s been helping refugees staying in hotels access medical services and navigate the requirements of settling in Canada.

“They (usually) have medical checks, biometrics and those kind of things taken care of in their home country or wherever they were coming from,” she said.

“That didn’t happen and there’s been people in the hotels for quite a long time. They haven’t had anything done, they don’t know what’s happening, what’s next.”

Stephen Watt, the co-founder of Northern Lights Canada, a non-profit that’s been helping Afghan refugees in Toronto, said some newcomers have also faced issues with amenities in hotels where they’re quarantining.

“They were given food that was really, really atrociously bad,” he said. “They were given trays, metal trays of cold pasta, which they couldn’t heat up in the microwave, so they were using a clothing iron to heat their cold pasta.”

Watt, who also worked with Syrian refugees, said the government needs to address the challenges faced by the first wave of Afghan refugees to better serve the groups expected in the coming months.

Cukier said the federal government should apply much of the same criteria it used for Syrian refugees to the Afghans it plans to bring in.

That includes considering any Afghan outside Afghanistan to be a refugee regardless of whether they’re registered with the United Nations refugee agency, and relaxing requirements around documentation to account for the reality that many may not have passports or may have lost important documents, she said.

The government should also allow private sponsors to sponsor Afghans from inside Afghanistan and make it easier for Afghans to apply for work permits and student visas, she added.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said the government is still working out the details of its resettlement efforts for Afghan refugees but noted they will largely be individuals who’ve already left Afghanistan and are in other countries.

“We’re working with the referral partners right now to figure out some of the criteria,” Alexander Cohen said.

“We’re going to focus on targeted minorities, so what neighbouring countries has a larger population of those that have fled there? … There’s also, where do we have capacity? The ability of Canada to have consular services is different in places like Pakistan from places like Iran.”

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan following the withdrawal of American military forces ended two decades of western military and political engagement with the country.

—Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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