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Hazara expats from Afghanistan grapple with own trauma while helping others escape

Halima Bahman may be sitting in the safety of her home in the suburbs north of Toronto, but her mind is thousands of kilometres away in Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s renewed grip on power makes her fear the worst for family and friends.

“I talked to my cousins back home. They’re afraid of being taken away by Taliban soldiers because they are young girls and not married,” Bahman said. “They’re afraid of their men getting killed.”

Bahman is one of many Afghan expats who have spent the past week fielding phone calls and text messages, trying to help however they can. She is fundraising for those who’ve been displaced, guiding people through the bureaucracy of applying for asylum and translating information.

“I haven’t slept a full night’s sleep in 22 hours,” Bahman said. 

After Canada announced it would accept 20,000 vulnerable Afghans as refugees, Bahman was bombarded with calls. “Many people are [asking], ‘Is there a way, can we also be saved?'”

She doesn’t know the answer to that question.

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Halima Bahman is in near-constant communication with women trying to flee the Taliban. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Bahman is Hazara, an ethnic group persecuted in Afghanistan for more than a century. The Hazara people are not specifically listed among the vulnerable groups that qualify for refugee status in Canada, though many of them are Shia, considered to be heretics by the Taliban’s Sunni fundamentalists.

“To be honest, that’s what pains me most,” said Bahman. “It’s the lack of acknowledgement and validation of the struggle that Hazaras, specifically, are going through in Afghanistan.”

Remembering Mazar-i-Sharif

Now in her 30s, Bahman was just 11 years old when she witnessed the 1998 massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif, in which the Taliban went on a killing spree, driving through the streets of the city and murdering civilians indiscriminately. Estimates suggest anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000 people were killed, possibly more. 

Watching the Taliban take power again, decades later, brought all that trauma back for Bahman. Tears welled up in her eyes as she shared her fear that those horrors will be repeated.

On Friday, Amnesty International reported Taliban fighters had killed nine Hazara men after taking control of Ghazni province in July. Amnesty International said it believes the death toll is much higher. 

Bahman has been calling on the Canadian government to include Hazaras on its list of vulnerable Afghans who qualify for resettlement. But this week, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said even getting all the Afghans who are currently eligible out would be “almost impossible,” because the Taliban is blocking their efforts.

Volunteer support hub in Indonesia

That hasn’t stopped some people from trying to help, with what little resources they have. On the other side of the world, in Indonesia, a group of Afghan refugees have turned themselves into a volunteer support hub for people trying to flee the Taliban.

Using his laptop in a sparse room provided by the United Nations in the Indonesian city of Makassar, Mubarak Shah Rahimi said he’s completed at least 20 applications for asylum.

He himself is Hazara and a refugee from Afghanistan. While he waits for Ottawa to process his own application to resettle in Canada, Rahimi is helping others.

The space he shares with a roommate isn’t much, but there’s a reliable internet connection that he can use to fill out forms for Afghans who are on the run.

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Mubarak Shah Rahimi, pictured in his room in Makassar, Indonesia, has helped complete 20 applications for interpreters and others trying to flee Afghanistan for Canada. (Submitted by Mubarak Shah Rahimi)

Rahimi remembers an interpreter he helped out a few days ago. 

“I don’t know what will be the next step for him and for his family. It depends on Canada … [but] at least we could submit his application,” Rahimi said. “At least we give hope for him, for his family.”

A dream ‘to live in a safe country’

Rahimi has been aided in his efforts by his friend Zakir Hussain Moradi, a fellow Hazara. 

“In our case, we just have to wait for a third country to resettle us,” he said. Moradi added that many Afghans back home don’t have access to a good internet connection or a laptop.

“We can help them,” he said.

While he’s now in a house, Moradi was living in a tent with his family just three months ago. When their savings ran out after fleeing their home, they ended up spending years in an Indonesian refugee camp. In Indonesia, refugees lack basic rights: they can’t work, study, marry or even open a bank account.

Moradi is finishing up his own application for private sponsorship, and hopes to resettle in Canada soon.

In the meantime, he said he finds it fulfilling to help other Afghans.

“It has been our dream to live in a safe country and live like normal people,” Moradi said. When other Afghans manage to reach Canada, “we feel like we are going there. It makes us feel so good.”

Moradi’s family fled Afghanistan when he was just a newborn in 1995. He spent his childhood in Pakistan, but was forced to leave in 2017 when the government started deporting Afghans without a legal status. 

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Zakir Hussain Moradi, far left, is pictured with his family, who raised enough money to get him and his wife sponsored to come to Canada. If Moradi’s application is approved, his older brother, parents and nephews will remain in Indonesia. (Submitted by Zakir Hussain Moradi)

“We asked the people smuggler to take us to a safe country, and he brought us to Indonesia,” Moradi said. “We didn’t know that refugees in Indonesia were deprived of their basic rights.”

Unable to help own family, he tries to save others

Rahimi’s own escape from the Taliban still haunts him. 

At the time, he was an engineer in Afghanistan, working for a company that was a subcontractor for the United States Armed Forces.

Rahimi said being Hazara is bad enough in the Taliban’s eyes. The fact that he was also well-educated and collaborating with the United States only multiplied his risk level.

During a visit to his hometown in 2014, a neighbour reported him to the Taliban. He was taken from his family’s home and imprisoned. 

Rahimi managed to escape and flee to Indonesia, where he was kept in a detention centre for four years. It was there, while being detained, that Rahimi started to help other refugees, translating for those who couldn’t speak English. 

“It’s so joyful for me, at least if I can do a little bit for others,” he said.

While he is out of the detention centre and in basic housing now, there’s little Rahimi can do to help his own family escape.

“Every night, I cannot sleep well. Many times I had a nightmare that my mom is in danger,” he said.

Since Rahimi’s family members do not have passports or electronic ID cards, he fears they won’t be able to flee to a neighbouring country like Pakistan.

He said he keeps praying for them, while he focuses on trying to make a difference for others.

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