More than 250 Afghan refugees, many of them young girls, arrive in Calgary

Afghan refugees who supported Canada’s mission in Afghanistan prepare to board buses after arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Aug. 24. A plane carrying more than 250 Afghan refugees, many of them school-age girls, arrived in Calgary on Friday afternoon. MCPL GENEVIEVE LAPOINTE/REUTERS

A plane carrying more than 250 Afghan refugees, many of them school-age girls, arrived in Calgary on Friday afternoon.

More than 200 of the arrivals are students from a girls’ school in Afghanistan, as well as other members of their community. There are also roughly 50 other refugees, including individuals associated with the Malala Fund, the education non-profit founded by Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. On Friday, Ms. Yousafzai tweeted her thanks to the Canadian government for helping to ensure their protection.

The refugees were able to leave Afghanistan via overland routes to neighbouring Pakistan in order to escape the country now under Taliban rule. Though they flew into Calgary, they will be headed to cities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba to begin a new stage of their lives.

“Their arrival in Canada means they will have the opportunity to make a new home where they can pursue their studies,” said Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “They can achieve their full potential here in Canada.”

The group that arrived Friday joins the more than 2,600 Afghan refugees who have already come to Canada, and there are approximately another 1,200 Afghans in “transit points around the world” still waiting, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. The Canadian government has pledged to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees.

Taliban forces rapidly gained control of Afghanistan this summer, and have closed secondary schools for girls since assuming power. Canada’s target of 40,000 resettled refugees, up from the initial target of 20,000, is focused on vulnerable populations, including women and girls.

Though the ministry has not provided a timeline by when all 40,000 will make it to Canada, Mr. Mendicino said the government is acting with “as much urgency as we can.” He added that providing a specific timeline is difficult because the situation in Afghanistan is so volatile and unpredictable, but said the government is working to issue visas and partnering with regional and international partners to help get people out of the country via overland routes.

“We fully acknowledge there are challenges, but we are doing everything in our power to advance the resettlement objectives that we have set out,” he said.

Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, was waiting at the Calgary airport on Friday afternoon for the plane carrying the 250 refugees to land. Mr. Birjandian said his organization has already helped nearly 200 Afghans who have arrived in the city in recent weeks. He was at the airport with about 25 members of his staff, all ready to assist the refugees when they arrived, including helping get them through security and tested for COVID-19.

Some of the refugees will then be boarding other flights to Manitoba and Saskatchewan, he said, but about 70 to 80 people will be staying in Calgary overnight.

“We provide them winter clothing, to make sure they don’t get shocked with Canadian weather,” Mr. Birjandian said, adding his organization is also ready to provide food and necessary medical assistance, as well as transportation to where some will stay for the night.

In addition to prioritizing women and girls, Canada’s Afghan resettlement program also focuses on other individuals from groups that are at a high risk of being targeted by the Taliban. This includes human rights advocates and journalists, as well as those who belong to the LGBTQ community, persecuted religious groups and families of interpreters already resettled in Canada. The program includes both government-assisted refugees and those arriving through private sponsorship.

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