The welcome is always so warm from this young Afghan family, a rare constant in a year marked by many changes.
Abdullah welcomes us with a smile. An assumed name chosen in hopes of protecting his relatives left in Afghanistan. Those relatives where nothing has improved for a year.
Abdulah’s wife Maheen (also an alias) joins us, glass of lemonade in hand. The children are noisy in the next room, a bedroom with mattresses on the floor.
The apartment isn’t really furnished any more than it was last winter: a small dining table, electrical appliances, beds. New, modest equipment was also purchased, thanks to the Quebec government.
Notable difference in the apartment, a TV now keeps you company on the couch. The family also has winter clothes and a few more toys than when they arrived in Canada.
It’s good for us, Canada. Abdullah says he has no regrets, even though he is more than 10,000 kilometers away from his parents, his friends, his culture. Even if he doesn’t know when he’ll hug her again.
No regrets, even if the family is somehow back to square one a year after a leap into the unknown. She moved to Ontario, 700 kilometers from the city of Quebec, where she initially planned to rebuild her life.
Why did we leave Sherbrooke? It’s for work, says Abdullah. A pragmatic decision, which he justifies in sufficiently precise English to make himself understood.
The family of Abdullah, 32, and Maheen, 28, have come a long way since leaving Kabul with two backpacks. The couple fled, a 7-year-old girl in their hands, a 4-year-old toddler in their arms.
In 12 short months the family was uprooted, having to learn to navigate Canadian bureaucracy to deal with the Quebec winter. The COVID messed up their plans, and the isolation sometimes took a heavy toll.
Trying to understand why they left this Quebec that opened its arms to them means putting oneself in the shoes of foreigners looking for points of reference in a society very different from their own.
Despite Abdullah’s wishes, learning the French language proved too difficult an obstacle to overcome. Before he worked as a chef, he first had to learn the language, but also the gastronomic vocabulary.
That would have taken too long for me, says the father, who is intent on earning a living for his family without state aid. And then there aren’t enough hotels and restaurants in Sherbrooke to hope for a job.
The couple were offered a full-time postage course last winter but without the childcare needed for the youngest. So Abdullah stayed at home with his 4-year-old son.
Maheen began a course session in Pavilion 2 at the Cégep de Sherbrooke without an interpreter by her side, she who speaks virtually no English.
Abdullah complains that she couldn’t communicate with the other students. Nobody spoke Dari in class. She could only hear French without really knowing what we were talking about.
After a few absences related to COVID and the elders’ appendicitis, Maheen was forced to drop out of her classes without knowing enough French to interact with foreigners.
… and cultural barriers
By choosing Ontario, Abdullah and Maheen have joined half of the Afghans who have settled in the country in the past year. About a quarter of those 17,200 arrivals favored Alberta.
Quebec only accepts 630, or about 3% of all new arrivals in the past year. In an email, the ministry responsible for accepting them stressed that Quebec is ready to accept more families.
Abdullah and Maheen also had trouble making friends. Important connections to better decipher the codes of society. Around them there were mainly people who also settled in Quebec.
Abdullah and Maheem were in good contact with the provincial nominated host organization to accompany them. The first steps were helpful, but the employees were overwhelmed with answering everyday questions.
The family considered moving to the Montreal suburbs, where several Afghans live, but the Toronto suburbs came to the fore quite by accident, thanks to an unexpected phone call from a childhood friend.
I show them the malls, the best parks. Kasim, this old found friend, takes care of the family as if it were his own. He advises them and explains the laws to them.
The list of questions is diverse: How do you get your first credit card? insurance for a car? Which school should the children be sent to? When do they have to be registered?
Kasim does his best to respond, offering Abdullah a small job and even arranging Sunday family outings.
It’s supposed to distract them, make them forget a little what they left behind. It’s hard to go to the airport and leave everything so suddenly. Leaving his parents, brothers and sisters for a country we don’t know, explains Kasim.
Do you like fish Mr. Yanik? Abdullah has been discreetly preparing a meal for the guests for a few minutes. It’s his way of greeting the journalist, but also thanking his friend.
Abdullah prepared fish for the occasion.
Photo: Radio Canada / Yanik Dumont Baron
“Your children will do very well”
Maheen also made some friends. Muslim women met in the neighborhood park, with whom she can converse in Farsi or Dari. The children play, the women support each other, help each other.
Sabina, in her fifties, moved to Ontario about ten years ago. Your children are grown. She took Maheen under her wing, much like this mother too far today.
First the language. Without language there is no life here. Sabina was clear with her protégé. She has to learn English quickly in order to be able to get along and study without her husband.
The first few years are not easy, she admits and estimates that it will take her ten years to learn English and find a good job.
It won’t be easy for the parents, she continues. But it will be good for her children. It’s much safer than Afghanistan. It’s Canada for that.
The Canadian-Afghan community is closely linked.
Photo: Radio Canada / Yanik Dumont Baron
Of course, these friendships are a breath of fresh air for Maheen, who found himself isolated in Sherbrooke. It shines in the Toronto suburbs.
Children also strive to make friends at school. The 8-year-old loves inviting friends over to play video games.
Abdullah speaks fluent English to take the next step right away. He harbors a dream, which is to open a good restaurant, mixing Afghan cuisine with local cuisine.
He didn’t think of the facility, I’ll take my wife’s advice, he said. This restaurant is my destination. I need a goal Otherwise I wouldn’t really know what I would do with my period.
This project is also a way to forget about this sometimes frustrating everyday life. It is a little balm on this wound opened by the absence of loved ones and the distance from his homeland.
We’re just as bored as we were in the first few days, says Abdullah, who sends them a little money every month. He often calls his parents or Maheen’s.
We decided that we were Canadians, that this was our country now. Here our life is getting a little bit better every day, while in Afghanistan it is getting worse and worse.