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‘I’m thankful to all of them’: The path of Afghan refugees in Calgary

The resettlement process may seem complicated and long for some Afghan refugees, but the end path is worth it, according to one new family in Calgary.

A statement earlier this summer from the government of Canada said it’s working hard to resettle at least 40,000 Afghan nationals as quickly and safely as possible. Tens of thousands fled Afghanistan after the Taliban reclaimed rule in 2021.

Canada has now welcomed more than 16,000 Afghan refugees, including the arrival of a charter flight in Vancouver on June 17, with 313 Afghans who supported Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.

Calgary has welcomed 3,400 Afghan refugees, 1,800 of whom have been relocated to 20 different locations across the country as part of the Afghan project which began in August of 2021, according to the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS) CEO, Fariborz Birjandian.

According to Birjandian, those who stayed in Calgary are living in five different locations.

There isn’t a specific timeline of when they’ll be completely settled in Calgary. Each family has a certain file with different circumstances, said Birjandian.

Birjandian also said there’s been challenges in terms of processing times due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Most of the Afghan refugees who have come to Canada, unfortunately, don’t have all their paperwork done because of the situation they have been facing in Afghanistan,” said Birjandian.

“Immigration papers and health examinations that we had to do in Canada were during COVID. The length of time we may keep refugees in temporary accommodation has been longer than the maximum timeline of four or five weeks which we initially had in place.”

Once all the paperwork of a certain family is complete, it takes the CCIS about four weeks, according to Birjandian, to move them out.

A new place to call home

Mohammad Hassan Ebadi and seven other family members arrived in Calgary less than a year ago and said moving to Calgary was the best decision he’s ever made.

“CCIS helped us the moment we landed in Calgary. They provided us with winter clothes and welcomed us with open arms,” said Ebadi.

“We came from a hectic situation; it was full of chaos. We had a lot of anxiety and stress because we didn’t know anything about Calgary’s environment, but the CCIS staff did a great job in helping us get accommodated.

Ebadi said he’s grateful that Canada opened its doors to refugees as the situation in Afghanistan became impossible to live in.

According to Ebadi, regardless of the challenges of starting from scratch in a new place, it’s completely worth it because it’ll lead one on a better path.

The CCIS Process

When refugees were welcomed at the airport by CCIS they are placed in temporary accommodations, like the reception house in the community of Bridgeland, which can hold between 60 to 70 people.

According to Birjandian, once a stay exceeds the eight-month mark, refugees are then sent to stay in hotels.

When they’re in accommodation, all of their necessary documents are worked on by CCIS staff members.

CCIS volunteers help refugees with getting around, learning how to use transportation, how-to call-in case of emergencies, getting a bank account open, taking the language assessment test, getting placed in ESL classes, registering children in schools and helping them look and apply for jobs.

Refugees are then also accommodated in accordance with Alberta Health Service regulations regarding COVID-19 vaccination.

Once a refugee’s paperwork is complete, they’re ready to leave the temporary accommodations. They are then placed with a voluntary family sponsor.

“We introduced this newly-arrived refugee to a particular family, and that family becomes the refugee’s sponsor for one year, this is what we call the initial settlement, said Birjandian

“This means once they leave and move to their second accommodation, they need to be able to function on their own.”

The government-assisted refugee’s resettlement process chart. PHOTO COURTESY/ CCIS

According to Birjandian, there are now 500 to 600 families who have already entered the initial settlement phase.

Even though the initial plan is to move all refugees into permanent homes as fast as possible, this has been quite a challenge, Birjandian said.

Birjandian said it’s important to get Calgarians’ help with the housing issue. They are also providing help for Ukrainian refugees arriving in Calgary in the next months.

“We are desperately looking for housing. Please help us with that,” said Birjandian.

The support is there, said Ebadi

Ebadi said refugees will be helped to find what they need in terms of jobs, careers and/or education. 

“Canada is one of those places that likes refugees, and newcomers, will have a different experience once they land in Canada,” he said.

“They’re going to find their own place, as there’s plenty of room in skill-building and of finding one’s own value and their own place anywhere in Canada.”

Ebadi described living in Calgary has been easy thanks to the communities he’s interacted with over the past months.

“I’m thankful to all of them. They’ve helped us to settle and integrate within the society. Especially the communities whom I was able to interact with,” said Ebadi.

Ebadi is now an employment councillor with CCIS.