September 5, Toronto, ON: Shortly after the news came of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban, Wendy Cukier started getting email from former sponsors of Syrian refugees looking to her to do something about the humanitarian crisis coming out of Afghanistan.
The Ryerson University professor quickly convened the same advocates, colleagues and friends she worked closely with six years ago in the campaign to sponsor, welcome and resettle Syrian refugees as permanent residents in Canada.
In response to the escalating crisis in Afghanistan, they would like to replicate their previous success that saw Canadians from coast to coast raising money, rolling up their sleeves and helping tens of thousands of Syrian newcomers settle in their communities.
“Obviously, the attention was being focused on the evacuation from Afghanistan, but a lot of ordinary citizens didn’t really know what to do or where to go. So they reached out to to me because I had led the effort in 2015,” said Cukier, a co-founder of Lifeline Afghanistan launched Tuesday in response to the unfolding Afghan crisis.
“I’m just lucky I have a really incredible network of people that I was able to mobilize very quickly. We all understand how important it is to engage the people in Toronto and across the country in this effort.”
Cukier, director of Ryerson’s Diversity Institute, quickly enlisted 50 civic leaders, including human rights activist and journalist Sally Armstrong, Sen. Ratna Omidvar and Afghan-Canadian lawyer Hila Taraky, as well as community organizations to get them on board.
“The settlement agencies and community organizations are managing the influx of between 1,500 and 2,000 (Afghans) who have just arrived in Canada. They need all sorts of things,” said Cukier.
“That’s why on the website we listed groups that are doing work right now as we speak and putting people in hotels and looking for accommodation and trying to get clothes and everything else.”
Taraky, whose parents fled the Taliban in 1990 and came here via Russia in 1998, said she and her family had been trying to help a group of Afghans in Kabul resettle to Canada with no success. When news came last week that Ottawa’s evacuation effort was all but over, she shifted gears and looked to others to support the Afghans who have made it out.
The Burlington woman said her family has been supporting sponsored refugees in Canada over the years and would like to see Canadians roll out the welcome mats once again to her compatriots.
“This effort must be replicated for the Afghan people,” said Taraky, who is also recruiting her clients, many of them developers and builders, to support the cause in whatever ways they can.
“We need to do what we’ve been doing historically, bringing in immigrants and refugees. We’ve seen time and time again they strengthen our communities and our economy. By assisting Afghan refugees, we can continue that tradition.”
Up until the withdrawal of U.S. forces on Monday, Ottawa had evacuated 3,700 people from Afghanistan, about half of them Afghan interpreters and employees who worked for Canada, plus their families; the rest were Canadian citizens and permanent residents.
That’s a fraction of the 2,500 applications — representing 8,000 people — received under Canada’s special Afghan resettlement program. It’s still unknown how many of them have escaped over land border to another country.
The program is part of Ottawa’s commitment to prioritizing and resettling 21,000 Afghan refugees here under Canada’s government and private refugee sponsorship programs, and other immigration streams such as family reunification and skilled immigration class.
The community support would be invaluable in helping the newcomers in their transition in Canada, said Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.
“One of the key ingredients to our success in our settlement service and the immigration system is the people who are working on our front line in our settlement service organizations and Canadians themselves who are stepping up,” he told a news conference earlier on Tuesday to update Canada’s response to the Afghan crisis.
From private donations of food, clothing and toys to veterans covering job training and Airbnb offering free temporary housing, as well as other corporate support from WestJet, Walmart and Rogers, Mendicino said the response from Canadians and corporate Canada has been “phenomenal.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory, a supporter of Lifeline Afghanistan, hopes Torontonians and Canadians will once again show their compassion and commitment to helping others, and work together to support the sponsorship and resettlement of Afghan newcomers.
“We have done it before and we can do it again and our city and our country will be stronger for it,” Tory said in a statement.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees in the world, about 2.2 million in Iran and Pakistan alone. Another 3.5 million people are internally displaced, having fled their homes for refuge within Afghanistan.
The Canadian Campaign for Afghan Peace, a grassroots community group, has been critical of Ottawa’s response to the crisis and is urging the government to double its Afghan refugee intake to 40,000 this year and 95,000 over the next two years.
The campaign, spearheaded by the Afghan Youth Engagement and Development Initiative, has also asked Ottawa to broaden the eligibility of the refugee sponsorship programs to include those Afghans still trapped within Afghanistan who are technically not recognized as refugees but as displaced people only.
“Canada must continue to accept refugees and not turn its attention away from Afghanistan,” said Khalidha Nasiri, a spokesperson for the Canadian Campaign for Afghan Peace.
“In 2015, 25,000 Syrians were resettled within the span of 100 days. We have the system and the lessons learned. We just need the will to do so.”
Read this article as it originally appeared in the Toronto Star on September 5, 2021, here.