Toronto police officers giving hope to Afghan refugees with donation drive

There is a high-priority mission underway at 51 Division in downtown Toronto, and it’s being led by two city police officers who are determined to make a difference.

Const. Farzad Ghotbi and Det. Const. Mustafa Popalzai both came to Canada as refugees. Ghotbi moved to Canada from Iran while Popalzai came from Afghanistan more than 20 years ago.

They watched in 2021 as the final U.S. military troops withdrew from Afghanistan. Chaotic and tragic images were circulated worldwide, as families desperately sought refuge from the Taliban.

Since then, 26,735 Afghan refugees have arrived in Canada, according to the federal government.

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

“When we saw the Afghan refugees coming in the military airplanes and landing here, just like everybody else who watched them around the world, we were compelled to go and find out where they are and to see what we can do,” said Ghotbi.

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Struck deeply by the plight of the refugees, the two officers launched Project Hope in 2021. Thanks to the generosity of the community, they have been able to deliver truckloads of supplies to Afghan newcomers.

The donation drive aims to collect toys for children, as well as necessities for families. Some of the items they need most include school supplies, diapers, strollers, and baby formula, as well as hygiene products and gift cards.

“This is not just a police duty, but a duty of just being a good citizen and being a good human being,” Ghotbi told Global News.

Click to play video: '1 year under Taliban rule: What has changed in Afghanistan?'

1 year under Taliban rule: What has changed in Afghanistan?

Along the way, the officers have met with many families who were forced to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs.

However, the officers are providing more than supplies, they are also offering information sessions to address questions and concerns about Canadian laws and the role of the police.

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In fact, one barrier the officers had to overcome early on was the perception of police among newcomers.

“Most of them that we have spoken to, they are quite shocked to see how police interact with members of the public,” said Popalzai. “Some of them even asked us a few times if we were real police officers because their interactions with police were not the same.”

Read more: Unblocking Afghanistan aid could come in spring, minister says amid calls for urgency

It’s been 22 years since Popalzai and his family fled Kabul in pursuit of a better future. He says he was just 14 years old when he boarded a plane with about 300 other Afghan refugees.

He recalls hope coupled with anxiety en route to Toronto Pearson Airport. There was no certainty about what they would face in Canada; the only certainty was that they were leaving everything behind.

“It took me back. It was almost like déjà vu,” Popalzai said of the wave of refugees fleeing to Canada. “I saw myself in the face of those children.”

Click to play video: 'Uncertainty remains for Afghan women and children amid Taliban takeover'

Uncertainty remains for Afghan women and children amid Taliban takeover

Both officers say the support of the community and the police force has been crucial to the success of Project Hope. That includes mosques, synagogues and churches, as well as businesses like Starbucks and Canadian Tire.

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Donations can be dropped off at 53, 51, 43, and 31 divisions, as well as Toronto police headquarters until Dec. 31.

&© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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