On August 15, 2021, the Taliban seized control of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, and assumed control of the country after a blistering takeover. For many Canadians, the events in Afghanistan are distant and ephemeral. However, for members of the Afghan diaspora that call Canada home, the events of the past few months are far more tangible. According to the 2016 census, 83,995 people with Afghan roots live in Canada. They experienced the events in Afghanistan not only through the news, but through frantic phone calls with loved ones still on the ground, through a scramble for refugee and immigration applications to get them out from under the thumb of the Taliban, through memories passed down from their families that resemble current events all too closely. Needless to say, members of the Afghan diaspora in Canada have been nothing short of restless.
Maseh Hadaf was born in Kabul in 1996, around the time of the Taliban’s first rule over the country. He arrived in Canada in 2000, growing up in the Greater Toronto Area. Having cultivated an interest in public health and technology, Maseh founded a start-up with a member of the Iraq diaspora. When the chaos in Afghanistan began to unfold this time around, he put his plans on hold to assist with the evacuation efforts, providing IT assistance and advocating for the Canadian Campaign for Afghan Peace, all while helping relatives prepare refugee status applications.
Maseh was quite young when he left Afghanistan, too young to have lasting memories of life under the Taliban. Yet, as he vividly recalls the memories passed down from his family, it became evident that they are deeply ingrained in him. Stories from the women in his family have made a particular impression. “As a woman, you are brutalized, you can’t go outside without a male companion, you have to cover head to toe, you can’t be seen in public alone, and even if you do all of these things, you can still be beaten arbitrarily,” he says while recounting some of his family’s experiences under the Taliban.
Omra Masstan, a law and international affairs graduate student at the University of Ottawa, recalls several similar stories passed down from her mother. “Seeing women being whipped on the streets for whatever reason, like for wearing the wrong-coloured shoes, wearing nail polish, the little things the Taliban could nitpick on, they would just stop women and beat them on the street. This is the kind of stuff you would see on the regular.” Born in 1996 and arriving in Canada in 2005, Omra sympathizes with the reality of being a young woman living under an oppressive regime. “It’s heartbreaking. I put myself in the shoes of someone still back home, I don’t even know if I would still be alive, let alone be pursuing the life that I have today. Seeing pictures of these old Taliban fighters with 12-year-old girls, God forbid that could have been my little sister, or my little cousin.”
While many youths in the Afghan diaspora share these memories passed down from their families, some have lived them first-hand. Roya Shams, a student at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), recollects some of these: “I remember when my parents would home school us from inside, underground, and they would hide our pens and papers. We were not allowed to say to any of our neighbours or even relatives that my parents are educated.” Having seen the value and importance of education as a young woman, Roya is disheartened to see a regressive regime return to power after 20 years of relative freedom. “The women are subjected to violence, child marriages, they will not be allowed to pursue their dreams, education, sports. They won’t have the same basic human rights. Here I can walk outside without fear, but there they would expect that a woman has a man accompanying her. For me it means they don’t even consider us as a functional part of society.” Roya came to Canada in 2012 with assistance from the Canadian government after her father, an advocate for women’s education, was assassinated a year earlier at the hands of the Taliban.
When the United States announced a date for a complete troop withdrawal, many Afghans were confident in their own government and armed forces to put up some degree of resistance to a Taliban resurgence. Upon seeing the districts falling to the Taliban one after another, doubts began to set in. “I thought, maybe the government has had enough, and now we will see some counterattack. Maybe within the next three to six months, all those districts that had fallen would be recaptured,” Reshad Nazerzai tells me. “But as the days went by, you want to see the trend to change, for things to turn around, but unfortunately to the shock of many, we were all devastated to see that actually there was no plan.”
Reshad came to Canada in 2007 after studying in the United States. An alumni of the political science and public administration programs at the University of Ottawa, he traces his interest in politics to his roots, quoting his father: “if you’ve got money and you don’t invest it, one day you’ll run out and you will be left with nothing. If you have knowledge and you don’t pass it on, it will be gone and you will be left with nothing. If you don’t participate in politics or you don’t take interest in politics, then you will lose your country one day.”
When asked about the lack of response to the Taliban’s advances from the Afghan government and the hasty, messy American withdrawal, Reshad becomes visibly stirred. “I think it’s nothing less than betrayal. I feel like Afghans have been betrayed. I don’t care about the government, the politicians, but the Afghan people have been betrayed. Of course, most Afghans have lived under the rule of the Taliban, and it will be no different for them now.”
The feeling of betrayal extends to the evacuations, which have largely been seen as unnecessarily haphazard and chaotic despite the resources available. The lack of new pathways offered by Canada in lieu of refugee status, which requires that the border of another country be crossed to apply, to escape the Taliban regime has resulted in much frustration, as Maseh indicates.
One of the factors commonly attributed by members of the diaspora to the lack of an official Afghan response is its staggering level of corruption, in which officials demonstrate exorbitant self-interest at the expense of the people. Seeing the enormous amounts of money poured into Afghanistan over the years yield very little in the way of results, Reshad points the finger squarely at them: “I don’t know how that money ended up with them but based on what we have found out, the money that was spent in Afghanistan went into the pockets of very few, and the people, the public, felt abandoned. They did not see their representation in the government.”
Afghanistan has a rich cultural heritage, with ethnic and cultural diversity at its heart. “There is a mosaic of identity, a wealth of diversity,” says Maseh. “Not just identities but languages as well.” Under the Taliban, reports of targeted violence against ethnic minorities have surfaced. The Taliban has historically shown little regard for diversity, prescribing rigid guidelines for society, particularly as it pertains to its strict and puritanical interpretation of Islam. “Although the huge majority of Afghanistan is Muslim, this is not the Islam that anyone has ever asked for or practices daily,” says Omra. “It’s not the values that represent Afghanistan at all. We’re a culture of such rich history, and poetry, and music and arts, bursting with culture, and this is not a part of it at all.” Sharia law is proclaimed by the Taliban as their key guiding principle in establishing the societal code of conduct but, Reshad points out, many varying interpretations exist in the Muslim world, aggravating the uncertainty around its application.
As the members of the diaspora tell their stories and speak of their homeland from Canada, feelings of guilt emerge. “The first thing that comes to mind is survivor’s guilt,” says Maseh. “A lot of people in the diaspora feel this. They feel a guilt for being here and safe. You might come across some gruesome images on social media, and as you scroll, you’ll see your friend baking sourdough or something. There’s a real contrast, and that contrast is extremely painful as a member of the diaspora, because you feel this guilt and shame, and you feel like there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Omra, harbouring these feelings herself, reveals that this is a nearly universal feeling among younger Afghans in Canada: “I speak with other Afghans my age who’ve left and you really do feel survivor’s guilt. You almost feel bad having a good life here. The only difference between you and the person back home is that your family was lucky enough to get out at some point.”
Roya, who has seen the horrors of the Taliban first-hand, continues to suffer through this guilt: “I lived this war, I breathe this crisis through my siblings, through my little nieces and nephews. I fear for their lives, but also their futures.” However, she proclaims, she does not feel that Afghans bear this weight alone. “There are so many other Afghans who call Canada home, and Canadians are their families, their friends. I made aunts, uncles, even parents here, and they live it through me. They feel the same pain.”
What the future holds
The compassion that Roya finds in Canadians is not something that the diaspora takes for granted. It stems, Omra believes, from the universal traits that Afghans and Canadians share: “At the core, Afghan people and Canadian people share the same values. The average Afghan just wants peace, access to education, access to a good livelihood, so at the core there isn’t much that differs between an average Canadian and an average Afghan person.”
Maseh echoes this sentiment and hopes that Canadians will continue to show support and put pressure on their elected officials to make Afghanistan a priority in Canada’s international affairs agenda. The Canadian Campaign for Afghan Peace, with which Maseh is actively engaged, is centred on an open letter that outlines four demands that Canada should take to support Afghans and Afghanistan. The group wants Canada to expand the Afghan resettlement program, provide immediate humanitarian assistance and aid for Afghanistan, engage in diplomacy on the issue of human rights in Afghanistan and push for the rights of girls, women, ethnic and religious minorities to be respected.
Expectations for a reversal of fortune in Afghanistan among the diaspora remain reserved. Reshad, who recently welcomed a daughter into the world, reflects on the future that awaits the next generations in his home country. “I look at my relatives, my old neighbours, and what I see when I look at their children and the kind of future that’s waiting for them, it’s not a good one, that’s for sure.” Yet a ray of light still manages to shine through for Reshad. “You know, when my daughter was born, I was going to name her something else, but given the situation, I changed her name to Hila, which means hope in my native language.” The Taliban’s totalitarian history, however, does little to alleviate concerns, despite their claims of moderation. “They are trying to show the world that they are doing something right,” says Roya. “Let me ask them something: if they are doing it right, will they allow a girl like me to walk freely and get an education to be equal to them? It will never happen.”