For many refugees fleeing Afghanistan, getting out of country last year was a matter of life and death.
“When I moved from Kabul to the airport, the airport was too dangerous because it was surrounded by the Taliban and the Canadian army was inside the airport,” said Abdul Wali Ahmadi, who now calls Calgary home.
Ahmadi is a former interpreter for the Canadian military and is now employed with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS).
“Of course the Taliban were looking for me and still they are looking.”
Ahmadi now helps new refugees at a Calgary hotel that is currently home to more than 300 refugees from Afghanistan.
Before he got permanent housing, Ahmadi and his family were in a hotel for nearly two and half months — in Toronto and Calgary — when he first arrived in Canada in August 2021.
“The length of staying in temporary accommodation is longer than usual,” said Fariborz Birjandian, chief executive officer at Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. “We don’t want to do that because that’s not good for anybody to keep them more than four or five weeks.”
He said the extended hotel stays are a result of paperwork that needs to be done before newcomers can get permanent homes.
“The challenge we have is that it’s different from other cohorts.
“For instance, when the Syrians arrived, they were ready to move out. With this group from Afghanistan, most of the immigration paperwork and health examinations have not been done.
“They are staying more an average of about six weeks now and we are trying to shorten that time,” Birjandian said.
CCIS currently has 1,270 clients in four hotels and two CCIS buildings, including Afghan and non-Afghan refugees. About 330 are not from Afghanistan, the organization said.
CCIS has received almost 4,000 government-assisted and privately-sponsored Afghan refugees in Calgary since August and approximately 2,500 have remained in Calgary.
“We should be happy about what Canada has done. I think we should be celebrating what we have been able to do,” Birjandian said.
Staff at the Centre for Newcomers say the surge in the number of people coming to Canada fleeing dangerous situations has put a strain on services.
“We’ve heard horror stories where people are stuck in a hotel for eight weeks or longer to just wait for particular services to come through,” said Kelly Ernst with the Centre for Newcomers.
“Sticking people in hotels and not getting them into market housing is probably the most expensive way that we can support people.
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“It’s much better when we can flow people through quickly and make sure that people have their own homes and are self-sufficient as quickly as possible,” Ernst said.
Hila Jabarkhel came to Calgary in 2012 from Afghanistan.
She works for Calgary Catholic Immigration Society helping other refugees. She’s worried about her sister, who still lives in Afghanistan, and wants her to be able to come to Canada.
“It’s hard for them because they had hope to have peace and to have a job and get their education. They had hope to have a bright future for their kids. But now when I am talking to them, they are hopeless,” said Jabarkhel.
“My sister used to be a teacher but now she is at home. She doesn’t have a job and she’s scared because all the schools closed. All the females are at home and life is very hard for them.”
Ahmadi says grateful for the support he’s received from the government, Calgary Catholic Immigration Society and local churches.
“Their support is unforgettable,” Ahmadi said. “Something that was very effective and helpful for me was a group of Canadian volunteers. They were eight people working for two churches.
“Calgary Catholic Immigration Society has played a vital role for settling refugees here. They prepared the house for us and they prepared clothes and food, everything,” Ahmadi said.
Over 16,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in Canada since last August and many more are waiting to come.
The Canadian government has pledged to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada.