‘They’re in a battlefield’: Torontonians fear the worst for loved ones in Afghanistan

Firooz Mohammad is still going to work every day at his restaurant, Subhan Halal Pizza on the Danforth, but he admits his mind back in Afghanistan.

“We are mentally so stressed; we’re in a deep depression, feeling so bad about our family members left behind.”

Mohammad was an interpreter with the Canadian Armed Forces, a job that put him and his family in danger of reprisals from the Taliban, which Canadian soldiers fought for more than a decade. Taliban forces are now gaining momentum and putting pressure on key cities across Afghanistan as the United States withdraws its troops — raising fears that thousands of Afghans who worked with Canadian, U.S. and other NATO forces there are vulnerable to attack, including their loved ones. 

“They’re in a battlefield right now,” said Mohammed, who lost his father-in-law to a Taliban attack three years ago.

“My parents are there and it’s possible they could be killed in between the battle or they could be targeted because of our background or our job we had with the [Canadian Forces].”

Dozens attended a protest on Sunday Aug. 1 at Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto to raise awareness of the violence in Afghanistan. Dozens more took to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday calling on the government to expedite the process of resettling at-risk family members of interpreters who have already made it to Canada. (Submitted by @afghansoftoronto)

The federal government announced two weeks ago that it would expedite the resettlement of possibly thousands of Afghans who worked with Canada as interpreters, cultural advisers and support staff since 2001, as well as their families. The office of the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told CBC News its policy also includes cooks, drivers, cleaners, construction workers, security guards, women’s rights advocates and their family members. 

The effort has been criticized by people like Mohammed, who say the plan should include parents, siblings, adult children and all Afghans who have already fled the country. The government says it has broadened the definition of family to be more inclusive and compassionate and will continue to identify individuals who are eligible. But residents across the GTA with loved ones in Afghanistan say they’re growing increasingly worried about the safety of their relatives, and local groups are scrambling to mobilize all the help they can amid the Taliban resurgence.

Mohammed said his father-in-law was killed by the Taliban in 2018 after working for nine years in transportation and logistics for Canada and other NATO countries. Other members of his family fled to Madagascar, where he says they are struggling with their health and are not safe.

“These were just my personal stories. Overall, everyone has a story,” he said.

Local groups hold protests, organize support

Basir Ahmad, founder of Afghans of Toronto, said one of his group’s main goals is to educate people about the violence happening in the country and the innocent lives being lost as the Taliban takes over more of the country each day.

“I feel like the awareness in our community is being spread and at a very good pace, but in regards to communities outside of the Afghan communities, it’s not resonating.”

Ahmad said his group has been working to share information through social media and by supporting local protests, in addition to its other initiatives like building wells and an orphanage back in Afghanistan. He said Afghans of Toronto is focusing on getting funds to people on the ground in the country who need it most.

“The things going on in Afghanistan, we’re facing a humanitarian crisis right now,” he said, adding that he can barely focus on his own family’s safety due to the magnitude of the situation.

“I do have a lot of family there, but I’m not worried about only them, I’m worried about the country as a whole.”

Hena Noorzada runs a non profit called Make an Impact Organization and is the president of the Afghan Students Union at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. (Submitted by Hena Noorzada)

Hena Noorzada, who runs a non-profit called Make an Impact Organization and is the president of the Afghan Students Union at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, said efforts within her circle to help family and friends back home have been constant.

“I find what’s going on in Afghanistan highly disturbing,” she said. Noorzada knows of families who have had to flee their homes.

“They live their lives in constant fear no matter where they go; whether it’s work, coming back to their house or just spending time with their family.”

As Noorzada’s non-profit has raised thousands of dollars for educational facilities and students impacted by deadly bombings in Afghanistan, she’s reminded of the distance between herself and loved ones in the war-ravaged country.

“It’s very heartbreaking to hear it from them, whereas we’re so comforted and privileged to live safely here.”

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