On an October afternoon, a yellow school bus pulls up outside a mid-sized hotel near Pearson International Airport.
Middle and high school students pour out, giggling and chatting, clutching books and bags. It’s well into the semester, but for these students the school year has just begun.
All are refugees from Afghanistan who arrived in Toronto in the past two months, having fled after the Taliban’s takeover of their country. About 100 or so are staying in this hotel, but hundreds more are spread across other hotels in the GTA, awaiting permanent accommodation.
These are the first days some of these kids have been able to go to class since fleeing Afghanistan, one parent tells a reporter.
Hundreds of refugees are waiting, getting their bearings, registering their children for school and trying to plan for a what they hope is a safer — but unknown — future in a new country.
The Star has come to talk to the women who have left behind a Taliban regime that would limit their rights.
One 27-year-old woman wears a light, long sleeved blouse — the weather has only just turned, and she hasn’t gotten hold of a proper jacket yet. She offers two journalists tea and coffee from the lobby. She and her family don’t have their own space to host guests yet, she explains.
“I’m very, very happy because in Canada our kids’ future is bright. They can go to school, they can study,” and they can make their own choices, she says.
“My husband and I can continue our education here,” she adds, explaining she’s hoping to pursue a master’s degree in economics.
But that’s in the future. For now, she and her husband need a home. And she’s eager to get the rest of her family out of Afghanistan. Since the Taliban took Kabul, the women in her family — seven sisters who have daughters of their own —. Women have been forbidden from leaving their homes without a male escort.
The Star sat down with women who have recently arrived in Toronto about what they left behind, their fears for the women and girls still in Afghanistan, and the mix of relief and uncertainty they feel about their future.
They emphasized one point, again and again — every decision they’ve made revolves around wanting their daughters to be in school, to have the chance to get onto those yellow buses.
Some of the women were not willing to be identified. In Canada, many still fear the Taliban and the brutality that might yet face members of their family back home, should they be identified as critics of the regime.
Here are their stories …
‘How should I start from the beginning, from zero?’
Farida Nekzad arrives to the interview wearing bright purple eyeshadow, matching her lilac scarf. Having left Afghanistan as the director for the Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists, and a former managing editor of Pajhwok Afghan News, the country’s largest independent news agency, she speaks with an authority that comes with guiding a newsroom of 150 people — a warm confidence that conveys a sense that she’d know what to do, in any situation.
But underneath that aura is fear; a fear that she won’t be able to navigate a new life in Canada; a fear for the women still in Afghanistan, those she says she wakes up every morning thinking about; a fear for her 12-year-old daughter she brought with her.
The other day, Nekzad’s 12-year-old daughter wanted advice. She needed to figure out what to wear on her first day of school in the Toronto area. She said her backpack wasn’t matching.
“Late at night, she said ‘Mama, I don’t have a lunchbox, I don’t think this bag is matching me,’” Nekzad says. Her daughter was also concerned the exams might be different than the ones she’d been used to back home.
She told her daughter she’ll get her a good lunchbox, and that she’d have no problem managing the classes. Such worries Nekzad can manage. It’s comfort she didn’t know how to provide months ago when fleeing the Taliban.
On Aug. 15, as the Taliban took the Afghan capital of Kabul, she remembers placing her daughter’s head in her lap trying to create a cocoon of safety.
“She was very scared,” says Nekzad. “I was thinking: ‘What will happen?’ I tried to give her courage.”
It had started out like any other day for their family. Nekzad prepared to go in to her office and her husband, himself a journalist, drove their daughter to school on his way to work.
“Everything was normal, we didn’t think something would happen,” she says. “Of course, the situation in the provinces was very bad.”
In early July, the Taliban had taken over several districts across the country, but the majority were still under government control. That had changed by August.
In the early hours of Aug 15., the atmosphere in Kabul was business as usual, she says.
Later that morning, Nekzad heard crowds were rushing to take out money out of the bank, so she went to get some herself. While there, she received a call from her daughter’s school, stating they needed to pick her up immediately — Taliban insurgents were entering Kabul.
It was around 1:30 p.m. by the time mother and daughter made it home, due to the panic in the streets. Then they heard the first gunshots.
“Firing just started,” Nekzad recalled. “When I looked out the window, everyone was running and shouting ‘Taliban is here! Run away!’” A neighbour knocked on the door, telling them they needed to leave immediately. Her brother-in-law was also with them, and Nekzad’s husband recommended they drive to his mother’s house outside the city core.
As they fled, her daughter was in the back seat of the car, gasping for breath, like she couldn’t find the air.
“My daughter just started crying,” she says. “Oh my God, she was not good. … She was not able to talk.”
They dodged explosions and bullets to get to her mother-in-law’s, the usual 20-minute drive taking hours. They stayed for a week while trying to figure out what to do next. A few days into their stay, Nekzad says she still wasn’t looking to leave the country.
She had spent more than 25 years building a career as a journalist in Afghanistan and was hoping she could continue her reporting on the ground and fight for press freedoms. She was also holding out hope that her daughter would be able to still go to school.
But there were signs of what was to come. Just a week before the Taliban seized Kabul, Nekzad had been vocal on TV about the importance of press freedom and women’s rights in the country. The intelligence department within the government called her on Aug. 13 to let her know her name was on the Taliban’s list of “traitors” and that her life was in danger.
The threat hung over her head, all the while hearing about male journalists being beaten.
“I was waiting on the official position of the Taliban, I was thinking maybe the Taliban changed,” she said. “But then after two days a number of violations and human crises happened, they took people at midnight and tortured people. Two journalists were beaten badly. Then I said, ‘No, they haven’t changed’.”
Unlike many others, Nekzad had options and knows she was fortunate. She received offers to go to Ireland and the U.S., as she has connections globally due to her work.
“All my international friends advised me: ‘Farida, you need to be out; you can be useful outside the country,’” she recalls. “I was just crying, it was a hard decision to make. … You have to leave with nothing in hand, all of my money was left in the bank.”
Her contacts at multiple embassies told her only she and her daughter could leave quickly, and that she would have to leave her husband behind. Ultimately, after talking to her husband, they decided she and her daughter should flee.
By Sept. 3, Nekzad and her daughter arrived at Pearson after spending a few weeks in Qatar, waiting for her status as a refugee to be approved in Canada. Of all the countries Nekzad has visited for various journalism conferences, Canada was where she felt most comfortable, which is why she wanted to land there rather than Ireland or another European country, she says.
She and her daughter are safe, and she has started school in the GTA. But they are still living out of a hotel, as they wait for housing to be sorted.
In pictures she shows the Star, Nekzad’s daughter wears trendy flared pants and chunky jewelry, and smiles at the camera with an arm above her head pointing toward the sky. Nekzad swipes through the photos, zooming in on her daughter’s face.
“To be honest, sometimes still I am not feeling good. Because, on one hand, I am very happy when I see my daughter is happy, and I am safe and my daughter is safe,” she says.
“But somehow, of course, when a person works for 25 years … it is not easy to leave behind everything, and you come with nothing. I worked very hard for a long time. How should I start from the beginning, from zero?” she says.
Having to rely on donations, and government support, is not easy. Nekzad is used to being the person donating the money, rather than receiving support.
But there’s little choice. The group Canadian Connections, who connect newcomers to housing, employment, and basic necessities like clothing, have been taking her and her daughter shopping for items they need, including sweaters and coats.
She is eager to be able to take care of her family herself again. But she’s concerned about how to find employment in journalism here.
“Here, I am nothing. It will take time — the terminology, the language. … I am thinking about how I should survive my life,” she says. “And how should it be for other expenses that we have, in case I am not ready to work for a while? I am not, physically and mentally.”
Her daughter’s safety was a big part of her decision to leave Afghanistan, Nekzad says, but there was more. She wanted to be vocal about how the Taliban treats women.
“It is a trauma for women,” she says. “They are really living a nightmare.”
“We were thinking there would be positive change and progress. We had women in Parliament, in the ministries. But unfortunately the things we see, now women are just sitting around the four walls of their homes.”
That’s why she’s been calling on international organizations to prioritize evacuating women who were in high positions of authority, including judges and former government officials, who are now the most at risk in Afghanistan, she says.
“Even before the Taliban came, I was wondering if there should be a possibility to have temporary visas for the neighbour countries,” she says. “I am asking and demanding from the international community, especially those countries.”
She is hoping those countries can pressure Taliban to allow women’s participation in school, the workforce and within journalism.
Nekzad speaks to her husband often via WhatsApp. Speaking so openly about the Taliban could put him in danger, she explained, but they have an understanding that she has to speak out for the greater good.
“For him, he is at risk, but I have to talk about it, because all the time as a woman’s right’s defender, as a senior journalist … I work for women and press freedom. It will be not good if I am silent.”
‘We didn’t know how we could live’
Life was perfect.
That’s how the 27-year-old woman describes things before the Taliban returned. She and her family, including her husband and two young children, would drive out from Kabul to rural areas and have picnics. They’d play a mix of Afghan music and songs from Bollywood movies.
Now, she’s a refugee, staying at a GTA hotel. Her husband, who had done work for the Canadian Forces as a translator, was able to get out of the country along with her and their two children plus his parents.
She has an economics degree from a university in Afghanistan and had worked for a business her father ran — he was thrilled to see her follow in his footsteps.
The morning of the invasion of Kabul, though, she knew that part of her life would be over.
“If Afghanistan’s situation was good, we would be able to have a good business and not go out of Afghanistan. Our life was great,” she says. “Right now, women cannot go outside without a man.”
Talking about that Sunday in August, the tears start falling and she begins speaking quickly, as though the panic from that day has returned. She pauses to breathe and then describes how a normal day devolved into the worst moments of her life.
“It was really hard. All people thinking about their futures, they don’t know about tomorrow, what’s going to happen,” she says quietly.
She and her family were hiding indoors; they were concerned her husband and their family would be targeted because he was known to have worked with Canadian troops. They contacted the Canadian government for help to get out. Four days later, on Aug. 19, they received an email confirming they were booked on a flight. That Friday, they rushed to gather their belongings and head to the airport.
But they could only reach. They could not get through, as Taliban guards were interfering.
“There was a rush, there was a security guard that killed a person,” she says. Her husband, who sits with her during the interview, shows a video he took from at the airport of ayoung man shot and bleeding to death in the crowd.
For two days, they waited with their children among the throngs, with no bathroom access or food. They tried walking around to another gate, and found a camp outside the airport for British troops. Those troops were able to get them closer, but they still were not able to get inside.
Finally, by nightfall on the second day, her husband showed their documents to a Canadian soldier. They were in. A military plane then took them and dozens of others to Kuwait. Then another military transport took them to Germany, for the final leg of their trip that landed the family safely in Toronto.
She had to leave behind seven sisters and her father. They are hoping at the very least her father can join them in Canada.
“(My sisters) also all have younger daughters. All of them were university students, they have great ideas and ambitions for their futures. But when Taliban came, they cannot continue their lessons,” she says.
She says she’s relieved to be in Canada, for the sake of her young son and daughter. And she’s planning to continue her studies in economics.
“I want to do my master’s,” she says. “I like economics because my father’s a great person, he’s a smart man. I want to follow him.”
Her father’s safety is uppermost in her mind.
“I want my family, my dad, if I have this ability, I’ll carry all of them here and we’ll start a good business here,” she says. “We can all start a great life here.”
‘That house, we loved it’
Their home in Kabul, in the family for three generations, had just been revitalized — new sofas, wallpaper and updated guest rooms.
Within a month, it would sit empty.
Now, the family of eight is crammed into two hotel rooms, with four double beds, plus extra cots the hotel has provided.
The children are still being registered in school, so they spend most days around the hotel. Their 14-year-old daughter, Khadija, is passing the time speeding through books — Harry Potter, at the moment. The family asked that Khadija’s first name to be used.
They are there for now, and the 32-year-old woman who arrived with her husband, sister-in-law and five children, says she hopes where they end up next can accommodate everyone.
“We were about to start living happily, but we found out the Taliban were planning to take over the country,” says the woman. “It was all of a sudden. Within 24 hours, we left our country.”
She’s a dual Canadian citizen, a status she was able to get for three of her children over the past five years. Her parents had moved her to Canada temporarily when she was a child. She eventually returned to Afghanistan to get married and start a family.
Visiting Canada for vacation was something she always wanted to do. Moving to Canada, without any money to start life over from scratch, had not been her plan.
Life in Afghanistan had been uncertain. Increasingly, there was insecurity and fears about going outside, due to fighting in the streets. Seeing people hurt and not being able to get treatment due to lack of medical professionals, has made her teenage daughter Khadija talk about becoming a doctor.
“There are a lot of people dying. When you have an injury in Afghanistan, it’s like nothing because there’s so many deaths. So, if something’s broken, it’s like, what’s that? It’s not even counted as an injury,” said Khadija.
The self-professed ‘nerd’, along with her siblings, attended the best schools her family could afford in Afghanistan.
“Our children are the biggest priority — and their education. There are a lot of schools in Afghanistan, private schools, government school. Her father said ‘It’s OK, I will pay more,’” the mother explains.
The day the Taliban invaded Kabul, her brother, also a dual Canadian citizen, decided he needed to get his family out and went to the airport. He called and said she and her family should come with them to Canada.
She was concerned as her husband didn’t have a Canadian passport, and neither did two of her children.
But her brother convinced her they might let her in. Canadian troops told him to tell her and her family to come to the airport. In a split second, they decided to leave.
“I was like, ‘how can I leave everything here?’ That house, we loved it,” she says. “But the biggest fear was (the children’s) education.”
They quickly packed and headed to the airport. She had promised her kids they would make pizza that night. The dough and toppings were left in the fridge.
“I was kind of shocked. I was happy and sad. Everybody loves their country,” says Khadija.
She says she had to leave her sketchbook behind, which she thinks about daily.
“It was really precious, and a lot of effort and drawing. It was portraits, like nature, paintings, watercolours and everything.”
Until they were actually on the plane, none of them believed they would actually be leaving, says the mother. When the military plane arrived, they packed in so that as many people could leave as possible, only sitting down once the doors closed.
When the plane went up, she said it felt like her heart “left.”
“I told myself it’s OK, whatever God does, it’s better for us. Then I calmed down. Maybe this is the better choice; we will find a house there, we will find schools there.”
Now, they’ve spent more than two months in the hotel, while the kids get registered for school. It’s hard to keep the young ones entertained.
Without easy access to transportation or money, they can’t do anything yet that would help the children transition to life in Canada. All the kids have seen are a hotel lobby, and a parking lot near a Starbucks and Tim Hortons. They are going stir-crazy, she says.
“The most important thing we are struggling with is a vehicle, or a car,” she says. “At least we could take them somewhere, outside. Until we can get on our feet, we can’t afford it.”
As a photographer took photos of the mother and daughter, children from different Afghan families played in the hotel lobby.
At one point, one of the young boys of the woman came downstairs to the hotel restaurant. He was carrying her youngest daughter, who is just a baby. She sat on the woman’s lap after the interview, looking around curiously, and smiling.
She won’t remember the loud military plane, or the crowded, frantic airport, but she also won’t remember the mountains and rivers of Afghanistan, or their large generational home, or the beauty of the country that her teenage sister says she loves.
One day they may return. But for now, in the lobby and in limbo, trapped between two worlds, is where they remain.
Correction – Nov. 6, 2021: This article was edited to correct the name of Canadian Connections. As well, this article was edited to correct Farida Nekzad’s title.
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