‘Today is a fantastic day’: Manitoba welcomes more than 300 Afghan refugees

A charter plane from Pakistan, carrying more than 300 refugees from Afghanistan, landed in Winnipeg on Friday morning.

The flight is part of the Government of Canada’s commitment to resettle 40,000 Afghan people in Canada.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told CBC News that nearly 17,600 Afghans and their family members have arrived in Canada since August 2021.

A year after Kabul fell to the Taliban, Afghanistan faces a humanitarian crisis, with millions of people struggling to find food, while women and girls have lost basic rights.

For Sayed Najib Amin, it’s a day of extreme joy and pain.

Friday marks exactly one year since his brother and sister-in-law were killed by a suicide bomber near the Kabul airport on the day they were set to fly out of Afghanistan. Their deaths orphaned two boys, now aged 2½ and four.

Amin, who lives in Montreal, flew into Winnipeg on Thursday to get his nephews.

“We suffered a lot, so today is a fantastic day. It’s the happiest day of my life. I can’t wait to hold my nephews in my arms,” he said, getting the words out between sobs.

The boys had been living in Pakistan with another uncle and his wife, who are making the trip as well. Amin plans to take them all to Montreal to live with his family.

“We were counting every second of our life [to get them]. God gave me another life today. I can’t describe it, how happy and emotional I am.”

The flight was originally supposed to arrive last month but was delayed, which made the wait seem so much longer, Amin said.

But the day has finally arrived “and I’m not living in the past anymore,” Amin said. “I’m a present person.”

Boris Ntambwe, resettlement and housing manager for Accueil Francophone, said 115 of the refugees will go to Brandon, Winkler and Winnipeg, and the rest will settle in different parts of Canada. 

“We are going to offer them, first of all, a place … [to] have food and relax a little bit and have an intake and have immediate assessment to see if there’s any urgent needs that need to be addressed, any medical or health issues,” he said. 

In this image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, families board a U.S. Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 24, 2021. (Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps/The Associated Press)

The not-for-profit organization that provides services and programs to newcomers in the province was there to welcome the refugees around 7 a.m. Friday, and has been anticipating their arrival since early July.

“It kept on being postponed and it hasn’t been easy at this particular moment of time … hotels are booked all over the place. We are receiving Ukrainians, receiving Afghans, so it’s all packed and full,” said Ntambwe, who has been managing the many moving parts of Friday’s arrival.

He has been collaborating with airlines, hotels, airports, catering services and health services so the Afghans have what they need, he said.

Boris Ntambwe, a resettlement and housing manager for Accueil Francophone, has been collaborating with other not-for-profits, hospitality businesses and airports to help welcome over 300 Afghan refugees to Canada. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Westman Immigration Services is prepared to take 50 of the refugees to Brandon — the largest intake of refugees the organization has ever had at once.

They will then help sort out temporary and permanent accommodations and provide families with a needs assessment, a Westman Immigration Services spokesperson said. 

The people moving on to other destinations within Canada will spend a few days in Winnipeg before continuing their journey.

Ariana Yaftali, who was born in Kabul and co-founded the Afghan Canadian Women’s Organization, is one of the volunteers providing support to the newcomers.

She knows from personal experience how overwhelmed and emotional refugees can be when they arrive.

“We will provide that critical support, which is assuring them that now they are in a safe place, they are in Canada, where we have respect for human rights. They are free from any form of violence [and] persecution,” Yaftali said.

She hopes she can be a role model and help them navigate things like preparing for the winter weather and enrolling kids for school — challenges Yaftali dealt with when she first arrived in Canada.

“If they see people like me and community members, or people who have been through this journey … then they can see, oh, you know what? This person can make it, and I can make it too.”

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