Afghan refugees embrace new home
By JANE ARMSTRONG
Tuesday, September 25, 2001
VANCOUVER -- They are a family of 14, three generations, living in a two-bedroom immigrant-reception house in downtown Vancouver, their suitcases stacked like oversized bricks halfway up the living room wall.
But this tiny, sparsely furnished unit looks like a palace to the Amiris, who arrived in Canada last Wednesday after fleeing Afghanistan almost a decade ago. The family spent nine years in India as stateless refugees, unable to work legally and unable to afford a continuous education for their children. The family slept in rows of mats on the floor of a one-bedroom apartment in Delhi.
Finally accepted as refugees to Canada last March, the final leg of their flight from Afghanistan has been bumpy and anxious, punctuated by terrorist attacks on the United States and the uncertain ramifications of holding passports from a country that harbours suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Fardin Amiri, 25, said his family now fears for relatives stuck in Afghanistan. Talk in the United States of a war on terrorism is even more alarming, he said. They worry that Afghan civilians will be killed, especially if the U.S. launches air strikes.
"I have three uncles, two aunts and a grandmother in Afghanistan," Mr. Amiri said in an interview at the reception house, two days after the family arrived in Canada. "I'm afraid for my people. For their whole lives, they've just seen fighting."
Mr. Amiri also worries about a backlash against Muslims. He and his father have been poring over newspaper reports of hate crimes in Canada and the United States.
Mr. Amiri said he wants Canadians to know that most Afghans are peaceful people. He said the country that the United States appears poised to attack has already been levelled by two decades of war.
"You can't even imagine what it is like there," Mr. Amiri said. "There is no business, no economy. People will do anything to feed their family. Most people just eat bread and tea."
Two weeks ago, the Amiris were caught again in the swirl of world events. They were scheduled to leave India on Sept. 12, the day after terrorist attacks on the United States. Their flight was delayed for a week when airports across North America shut down. They finally got out on Sept. 19, but Fardin Amiri was detained and questioned at a stopover in Hong Kong. Authorities delayed the plane eight hours while each family member, including the children, was required to identify each piece of luggage.
Mr. Amiri said he can't remember a time when his country lived in peace. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan when he was a child. Throughout the occupation his family lived a middle-class life in Kabul. His father designed furniture and operated a shop. The Amiris lived in a large house with olive and pomegranate trees. His mother is educated and his sisters went to school.
But after the Soviets left, civil war destroyed the country. Rocket attacks became a daily occurrence. Mr. Amiri saw civilians killed outside his father's shop. A cousin was killed in an attack on a village outside Kabul.
Mr. Amiri left Afghanistan before the Taliban seized power. Despite the daily dangers, he said he was reluctant to leave and he still misses his country. "I miss everything," he said. "The scenery, the food. It was home.
"When you're living like that, you have no options. You have to leave if you're going to survive."
Mr. Amiri left with his sister and brother-in-law for India. His sister was accepted as a refugee in Australia, but Mr. Amiri was rejected. His parents and six siblings followed several months later. Another brother fled to Iran, and the Amiris lost contact with him for seven years.
Mr. Amiri said his parents and siblings left Kabul with nothing but a few clothes. In India, father and son worked illegally selling carpets from Afghanistan to feed the family. He said they never felt at home there and were often subjected to racial taunts.
The Amiris aren't the only Afghans to start over in Canada. More than 11,000 have been selected since 1996 as refugees under Canada's overseas resettlement program. The program hand picks refugees from around the world, giving priority to the most needy. Last year, a quarter of all people selected were Afghans, making them the largest single group of refugees.
So far this year, 1,800 Afghans have arrived in Canada under the program, said Susan Scarlett, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
Despite the unsettling events surrounding his family's arrival, Mr. Amiri said they were honoured to be allowed into Canada.