‘I’m free to learn’: 17-year-old Afghan refugee excited for future in Edmonton

After coming to Edmonton from Afghanistan as a refugee in January 2021, Nargis is pursuing her education in Canada. Global News

Nargis and six of her family members arrived in Edmonton in January 2022. The 17-year-old fled Kabul with her three brothers, sister in law and parents when Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021.

“I was writing my last exam,” Nargis recalled. “It was Tuesday and Wednesday would be the last day of my exams. On Tuesday, we all were writing our exam and the teacher (said): ‘We’re leaving. No matter how many questions you already answered, just leave it and go home safe.'”

It was chaos, Nargis said. Everything happened so fast.

“We actually couldn’t believe that Taliban might have taken over Kabul, because no one believed that they might take over the capital of the country.”

Click to play video: 'Thousands of Afghans who helped Canada still stuck under Taliban rule'
Thousands of Afghans who helped Canada still stuck under Taliban rule

As she left school that day, Nargis couldn’t help but think about her education and her future.

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“My mother told me that about 20 years ago, in the time of Taliban, girls were not allowed to go to school. But I never could believe that because I thought: ‘This is the 21st Century!’

“When I went home, it was the last day I saw my school. It was the last day I saw my friends.”

In just hours, Nargis and some of her family packed essentials and left.

“Nothing was normal,” she said. “People were wandering around the city, but there was nowhere to escape.”

Her family took a bus and then walked to cross the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As part of the Hazara ethnic minority, the family felt particularly at risk.

Nargis’ older sibling is also a prominent human rights defender.

“For the first 20 days (in Pakistan) I didn’t talk, I only cried,” Nargis said. “We had nowhere to go and no hope. I was so afraid. When we found out we were accepted to come to Canada, it was the first time I had hope again.”

Click to play video: 'Afghan women face bleak future under Taliban rule'
Afghan women face bleak future under Taliban rule

After five months of hiding, she and her brothers were accepted into Canada under the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada human rights defenders’ immigration stream.

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Because Nargis has family still at risk in Afghanistan, Global News is only identifying her using her first name.

Catholic Social Services helped the family find accommodations, offered settlement support, counselling and orientation sessions to adjust to life in Canada.

Nargis was part of a group of 170 Afghan refugees — about half of which were under 18 years old — that came to Edmonton. So far this year, CSS has helped resettle 800 Afghan refugees in Edmonton and Red Deer.

The organization is seeing a surge in demand.

“What we are experiencing right now is unlike anything we have seen before,” CEO Troy Davies said. “The blend of environmental disaster, war and the re-openings of Canada’s borders has created a surge of needs.”

Canada has pledged to bring in 40,000 Afghan refugees, about 18,000 of whom have already arrived. CSS expects at least 1,000 more will arrive in the central Alberta area. Several hundred are also expected to come through the private sponsorship program.

CSS says it’s set up to serve about 500 government-assisted refugees per year. Right now, it’s serving more than 1,200.

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“And it’s continuing to grow,” said Kathryn Friesen, director of immigration and settlement for CSS.

CSS receives government funding for basic needs like housing and food, but offers other services and programs — which are funded through donations — that help with the transition.

“In order to equip people and set them up to be successful in Canada, we need these additional supports through funding such as Sign of Hope,” Friesen explained.

This year, CSS is hoping to raise $2.6 million.

Click to play video: 'Dozens of Afghan refugee children finally free to play with peers in Edmonton'
Dozens of Afghan refugee children finally free to play with peers in Edmonton

Nargis said the supports from CSS helped her a lot, especially the school supplies like her tablet and the mental health counselling.

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“There are a lot of people struggling with mental health, like myself. When I came to Canada, besides leaving my country, I had a lot of issues. Two weeks before coming to Canada, I lost my mother.

“When I came here, I was struggling a lot with mental health, (but I) got a psychologist, a doctor, to help me get through.”

Nargis started Grade 12 this fall. The difference between school in Afghanistan and school in Canada is night and day.

“When I came to Canada, I realized that… there are a lot of opportunities and you’re not afraid to learn. You have a future. You’re able to go to university, you’re following your dreams. It wasn’t the same back in my home.

“Everyday we were all leaving home with the fear: if we (will get) home alive or not. Every week there were two or three bomb explosions in different parts of Kabul and Afghanistan, especially in educational places. But here, instead of hearing sounds of bombs, sounds of gunfire, I’m hearing sounds of birdsongs, sounds of birds. And I’m free to learn.”

She also appreciates the diversity here.

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“One of the very interesting that I discovered about schools in Canada: you see an image of the world. There are people from every country, you see everyone from different parts of the world. You can learn about their cultures and you can also learn their language. I have my friends speaking Somali or Arabic, and I learn about their language a little bit and we can communicate in each other’s language.”

Nargis speaks Persian and English, and is using her tablet to learn French. Her big interest, however, is science — specifically medicine.

Click to play video: 'How people can help as Canada ends Kabul evacuation effort'
How people can help as Canada ends Kabul evacuation effort

While she’s excited about what her future could look like, she thinks a lot about the girls and women still living in Afghanistan, including her three sisters.

“After being in Edmonton, Canada, everything has changed in my life. I started school, I met new friends. Outside school, I do some volunteer work… I started learning skating and hockey. This is my life in Canada,” Nargis said.

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“There are still thousands of girls in Afghanistan who cannot go to school. Last night I talked to one of my friends and she said: ‘We wonder if we will be able to go to school again in the time of Taliban.’ Their dreams are being destroyed… They want to be doctors, they want to be engineers, but they are at home. They cannot go to school.

“I really want the world to hear our voice and are not only feeling pity for us but also helping us.”

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