The lights were off inside Mohammad Ismail’s third-storey Kabul hotel room, as he stealthily peered through the window at the street below. He caught a glimpse of Taliban officials walking into the hotel’s front entrance and towards the lobby.
Ismail held his breath. He knew if the next few moments didn’t go well, they could be his last.
In the lobby, Taliban members spoke briefly with the hotel manager and then left. Fortunately, they didn’t check the rooms upstairs, where Ismail was hiding with his family, along with a backpack full of his most prized possessions: photographs from his time working with the Canadian military.
“My window was close to the road, I looked out it all night,” Ismail recalled. “All night, I never sleep. I see (the Taliban) out there, I’m thinking they’re coming and looking for the people who worked with the Canadian Forces.”
From 2005 to 2011, Ismail was in charge of security at Camp Nathan Smith, a Canadian military base in Kandahar. The Canadian soldiers nicknamed Ismail ‘Captain Smiley,’ because of his perpetual grin.
“All the time, I’m smiling,” he said. “I’m a happy guy.”
But his was serious work.
Besides monitoring security, he also joined the Canadians on their patrols. They came under Taliban attack many times.
Once, Ismail’s vehicle was hit by a Taliban bomb. He survived, but his older brother, Abdul, was killed while on patrol.
“These guys were performing services at tremendous personal risk,” said Canadian veteran Randie Scott, who worked alongside Ismail in Kandahar.
“He and his security force were directly in the front line. They saved our bacon on more than one occasion.”
Ten years later, Scott and the other veterans would have a chance to return the favour.
As the Taliban advanced during summer of 2021, Ismail, his wife and his eight-year-old son received approval to move to Canada as refugees. He was told to leave his home in Kandahar and make the long journey to Kabul, where the Canadian government was sending a rescue flight.
But when they arrived at the airport in August, thousands of desperate Afghans were already gathered outside, standing between Ismail and his escape.
He stood for 12 hours knee-deep in a sewage-filled canal surrounding the airport, crying out to the Canadian soldiers inside the gates for help.
“Many times I called them: ‘Hey, hey! I’m Captain Smiley! Here is my visa.’ But they never looked at my side,” he said. “I was feeling very bad.”
Ismail planned to return to the airport with his family the following day. But that morning, he received a message from Canadian veterans warning about a possible terrorist attack targeting the airport.
So Ismail stayed away and was grateful he did. Within hours, ISIS-K suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the crowds outside the airport, killing dozens of civilians and 13 U.S. troops.
After the attack, international flights were mostly frozen. Ismail and his family hid inside a hotel room — part of a network of secret safe houses in Kabul that were urgently organized by Canadian veterans groups to provide shelter and food for nearly 2,000 Afghans who had supported Canada’s military (earlier this month, most of those safe houses were forced to close due to lack of funding).
As the weeks dragged on, Scott was in constant contact with Ismail, messaging over WhatsApp from his home near Vancouver — “just being in touch to understand what his circumstances were, to try and keep his spirits buoyed.”
“I know he was terribly concerned for his wife and his son,” Scott said.
“It was a very tense, very scary time.”
After three months in hiding, Ismail’s family finally saw a chance to escape.
A Canadian NGO, the Veterans Transition Network, hired a local team to drive Afghans with Canadian visas out of the country to Pakistan. The overnight treacherous trek through the mountains required them to pass more than a dozen Taliban checkpoints.
Ismail and his family sat anxiously in the back seat as their car was stopped by the Taliban. His backpack, containing photographs of Ismail with the Canadian military, was on the floor resting against his feet.
“There were so many checkpoints, I was becoming very nervous,” Ismail recalled. “(I was) thinking they can search my bag and they can find out everything.”
Fortunately, the Taliban didn’t question them or ask for identification, and allowed their vehicle to continue on its way. After six hours, they arrived at the border and crossed into Pakistan.
Upon arriving at their hotel in Islamabad, Ismail called Scott to inform him they had arrived safely.
“We talked on video and we cried together out of relief that he and his family were safe,” Scott said.
Ismail’s family spent a few weeks in Islamabad, completing paperwork, biometric scans and COVID-19 tests, before finally booking their ticket for a new life in Canada.
The family arrived in Toronto in October.
“It feels like a dream for me. I’m very happy, very happy to be here in Canada,” Ismail said.
His wife, Pahima, said she’d spent years living in fear that the Taliban would come and kill her husband. “Now I wake up feeling happy, knowing my family is in a safe country,” she said.
Following their two-week quarantine, Global News met Ismail and his son, Himat, outside their Toronto airport hotel and took them for a tour of their new home city. They also visited a veteran-run coffee shop, Arrowhead Coffee Company Ltd. in St. Catharines, south of Toronto, where Ismail reunited with former Canadian soldiers who worked with him in Kandahar.
“Guys like Smiley, they provided us a safe haven and directed us where to go, like for myself, to bring all my guys home,” said retired Warrant Officer Joe Lavoie.
“Captain Smiley coming and just reigniting those memories, just makes me happy as anything.”
After an hour sipping coffee and reminiscing, Ismail and his son continued on their tour, visiting the CN Tower and taking their first subway ride to Yonge-Dundas.
“I really enjoy Canada and Toronto,” Ismail said. “It’s a good city, a good place. Very clean and green. Everything is awesome.”
Before escaping to Canada, Ismail and his family had never left Afghanistan; never seen a skyscraper, a streetcar or even a squirrel, which provoked an excited reaction from Himat.
The eight-year-old’s early impressions of his new surroundings were both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
“Canada is a very beautiful country. Very safe. I don’t hear gunshots anymore,” Himat told Global News.
But the family’s new home also brings new challenges. Almost everything in Canada feels foreign and unfamiliar. Ismail can’t read English — he only learned to speak some during his time with the Canadian military.
Ismail’s wife, Pahima, grew up under the Taliban’s first rule in the 1990s, when women were robbed of their education. She’s illiterate and is now planning to go to school for the first time.
“I want to learn English, and make a safe home for my family,” she told Global News.
The family is temporarily living in a hotel and will receive government support to find an apartment and a school nearby for their son. They each received $50 upon arrival, which is currently all the money they have after leaving everything behind in Kandahar. Their housing costs will be covered for one year.
After that, they’ll likely face significant challenges as they work toward building a new life, according to fellow Afghan refugee Wahdat Weish.
Weish is a former Canadian military interpreter who moved to Toronto with his family in 2011 as part of Canada’s first resettlement program for Afghans who supported the military.
“Life was totally upside-down. Western life and Eastern life are totally different cultures; everything was different,” he said. “At that time when I arrived, there was no one to help me.”
For eight years he struggled to find steady work, like other Afghan refugees he met along the way, most of whom moved eventually back to Afghanistan.
“I was lost. I went into depression,” Weish said. “I was sitting all the time at home. I took a lot of pills, medication. I faced a lot of problems, a lot of troubles.”
But a couple of years ago, Weish got a full-time job and his situation improved. He’s now working to help Ismail’s family, after the two men were connected by their mutual friend and former colleague, Scott.
“There are services and there’s some funding available and things like that. But it takes a community to help welcome them and to help them to become established and to get back up on their feet,” Scott told Global News from outside his home in Abbotsford.
Statistics Canada data shows first-generation refugees typically struggle but their children are much more likely to thrive. For that reason, Ismail said, there’s no looking back.
“I try my best for my family. I try my best for this country.”
Veterans Transition Network is working to provide shelter and emergency support to interpreters and others who gave critical support to Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, as they await evacuation to Canada.