“Here, our life is getting a little better every day”, testifies an Afghan family in Canada

The welcome is always so warm from this young family of Afghans, a rare constant in a year marked by many changes.

Abdullah receives us with a smile. An assumed name chosen in the hope of protecting his relatives who remained in Afghanistan. Those loved ones for whom nothing has improved in one year.

Abdulah’s wife, Maheen (also an assumed name) joins us, glasses of lemonade in hand. The children are making noise in the next room, a bedroom where mattresses are on the floor.

The apartment isn’t really any more furnished than last winter: a small dining table, appliances, beds. Also, equipment purchased new, modest, thanks to the Quebec government.

Notable difference in the apartment, a television now keeps company on the couch. The family also has winter clothes and a few more toys than when they arrived in Canada.

For us, it’s good, Canada. Abdullah says he has no regrets, even though he is more than 10,000 kilometers from his parents, his friends, his culture. Even if he doesn’t know when he will take them in his arms again.

No regrets, even if a year after a leap into the unknown, the family somehow finds itself back at square one. She moved to Ontario, 700 kilometers from the Quebec city where she first intended to rebuild her life.

Why did we leave Sherbrooke? It’s for work Abdullah explains. A pragmatic choice, which he justifies in precise enough English to make himself understood.

Linguistic barriers…

The family of Abdullah, 32, and Maheen, 28, have come a long way since leaving Kabul with two backpacks. The couple fled, a 7-year-old girl in their hands, a 4-year-old toddler in their arms.

In twelve short months, the family was uprooted, had to learn to navigate the Canadian bureaucracy, to deal with the Quebec winter. The COVID has shaken up their plans, the isolation has sometimes weighed heavily.

Trying to understand why they left this Quebec that opened its arms to them means having to put yourself in the shoes of foreigners looking for landmarks in a society very different from their own.

Despite Abdullah’s wishes, learning French proved too difficult an obstacle to overcome. Before working as a cook, he first had to learn the language, but also the vocabulary specific to catering.

It would have taken me too long, launches the father of the family, eager to earn a living for his family without government aid. And then, there are not enough hotels and restaurants in Sherbrooke to hope for a job.

The couple was offered full-time francization classes last winter, but it was without the childcare required for the youngest. Abdullah therefore stayed at home with his 4-year-old son.

Maheen began a course session in Pavilion 2 of the Cégep de Sherbrooke, without an interpreter by her side, she who speaks practically no English.

She could not communicate with other studentslaments Abdullah. No one spoke Dari in class. She could only listen to French, without really knowing what we were talking about.

After a few absences related to COVID and the eldest’s appendicitis, Maheen was forced to drop out of class. Without mastering enough French to interact with foreigners.

… and cultural barriers

By choosing Ontario, Abdullah and Maheen have joined half of the Afghans who have settled in the country in the past year. About a quarter of these 17,200 arrivals preferred Alberta.

Quebec only welcomes 630, or about 3% of all those who have arrived in the past year. By e-mail, the ministry in charge of their reception points out that Quebec was ready to welcome more families.

Abdullah and Maheen also had difficulty forming friendships. Important relationships to better decipher the codes of society. Around them, there were mostly people who were also settling in Quebec.

Abdullah and Maheem were in good contact with the host organization designated by the province to accompany them. The first steps were useful, but the staff was overwhelmed to answer day-to-day questions.

The family considered moving to the suburbs of Montreal, where several Afghans have settled, but the suburbs of Toronto prevailed. A bit by chance. Thanks to an unexpected call from a childhood friend.

I show them the malls, the best parks. Kasim, this old found friend, takes care of the family as if it were his own. He offers them advice and explains the laws to them.

The list of questions is varied: how to get a first credit card? Insurance for a car? Which school to send the children to? When to register them?

Kasim does his best to respond, offers Abdullah a little job and even arranges Sunday family outings.

It’s to distract them, to make them forget a little about what they left behind. It’s hard to go to the airport and leave everything so suddenly. To leave your parents, brothers and sisters for a country you don’t knowexplains Kasim.

Do you like fish, Mr. Yanik? Discreetly for several minutes, Abdullah has been preparing a meal for the guests. His way of welcoming the journalist, but also of thanking his friend.

Abdullah prepared fish for the occasion.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Yanik Dumont Baron

“It will go very well for their children”

Maheen also made some friendships. Muslim women met in the neighborhood park, with whom she can talk in Farsi or Dari. The children play, the women support each other, help each other.

Sabina, in her fifties, moved to Ontario about ten years ago. Her children are grown. She took Maheen under her wing, much like this mother today too far.

First, the language. Without language, there will be no life here. Sabina was clear with her protege. She needs to quickly learn English, in order to manage without her husband, to be able to study.

The first years it is not easyshe admits, believing that it will take them ten years to learn English, to find a good job.

For the parents, it will not be easyshe continues. But it will be fine for their children. It’s much safer than Afghanistan. For that, it is Canada.

Women chat in a park near a children's playground.

The Canadian-Afghan community is tightly knit.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Yanik Dumont Baron

These friendships are of course a breath of fresh air for Maheen, who found himself isolated in Sherbrooke. In the suburbs of Toronto, it shines.

Children, too, are eager to make friends at school. The 8-year-old is particularly keen to invite friends over to play video games.

Abdullah is fluent enough in English to take the next step right away. He cherishes a dream, that of opening a good restaurant, mixing Afghan cuisine with local cuisine.

He didn’t think about the decor, I would take my wife’s advice he explains. This restaurant is my goal. I need a goal. Otherwise, I don’t really know what I would do with my days.

This project is also a way to forget this sometimes frustrating daily life. It’s a bit of balm on this wound opened by the absence of loved ones and the distance from his native land.

We are as bored as during the first dayssays Abdullah, who sends them a little money every month, often calls his parents or those of Maheen.

We decided that we were Canadians, that this was our country now. Here, our life is getting a little better every day, while in Afghanistan it is only getting worse.

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