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'Kind of a dream': Family that escaped Taliban en route to Campbell River

Gul Ahmadi and his family will arrive at Comox airport on Saturday to begin a new life on the Island after escaping Afghanistan with the help of a group of sponsors.
Gul Ahmadi and wife Farida with their five daughters, ages 12 to a year and a half, as they left Islamabad. The family is set to arrive in Campbell River on Saturday as privately sponsored refugees. VIA MICHELLE DOWNEY

Sayed Ahmadi received a text from his younger brother this week saying he and his family had arrived safely in Toronto after months of hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ahmadi, who lives in California with his wife and four children, received the news while renting a car to drive to Vancouver Island so he can be at the Comox Airport Saturday morning to greet the brother he hasn’t seen for seven years.

“I was shocked. I’m super happy,” said Ahmadi, who once worked as an interpreter for the U.S. and Canadian Armed Forces in Kandahar. “It’s kind of a dream to me. It’s amazing that I will see my family and everyone is safe.”

Ahmadi’s family is coming to Canada as privately sponsored refugees under a federal humanitarian program to resettle vulnerable Afghan nationals outside of Afghanistan. They are being sponsored by a Safe Journey Afghanistan, a group of volunteers from the Comox Valley and Campbell River, created by Michelle Downey in August 2021 after the Taliban swept back to power.

The sponsorship group has raised the required $90,000 to bring 10 members of the family to Canada. Ahmadi has been translating for the Island group and has become friends with them. On Saturday morning, everyone will be at the airport to welcome Gul Ahmadi, his wife, Farida, and their five little girls as they begin their new life in Campbell River.

“It’s been a long time coming. I can’t believe it’s finally here. I can’t believe it’s real,” said Downey. “Some of the things they’ve gone through and the things we’ve had to work with on them has been like a spy movie — one of the ones you want to end well.”

Ahmadi’s mother, Bibi, brother Mahmood and sister Asma are expected to arrive in Campbell River by the end of December. They are approved under the sponsorship agreement and are just waiting for their medical check, Downey said.

Downey learned about Sayed Ahmadi and his family from her friend Spencer Sekyer, a teacher who lived with the Ahmadi family in Afghanistan. Sayed Ahamdi was shot and threatened by the Taliban in 2009 but continued working as a procurement officer, radio officer, human resource specialist and security co-ordinator, changing his location.

But life was too dangerous. In 2014, he was allowed to move to the U.S. under a program to help interpreters who worked with the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan.

Then in April 2021, Ahmadi’s father was murdered when he refused to hand over his 16-year-old daughter to the Taliban.

“When we got on board, they were already hiding out, moving from home to home,” said Downey. “They had to start running and they were moving every two days to escape the Taliban.”

Second son Gul Ahmadi was now in charge of looking after the family, but in June 2022, he was shot in the abdomen.

“He couldn’t get in to see a doctor. If they think you’re shot by the Taliban, they won’t help you,” said Downey. “We had to get him out of Afghanistan, so basically we had to sneak our family across the border into Pakistan.”

The sponsorship group received invaluable help from a former interpreter for the Canadian Forces called Sadiq, who now lives in Toronto and has helped 10,000 Afghans come to Canada.

“Sadiq knew who to bribe,” said Downey. “We were doing things we would never do in Canada, but we had to do it in order for this family to live and those were hard decisions. He bribed people not to shoot our family. We couldn’t have done it without him.”

Throughout this time, the sponsorship group supported the family, sending them $600 a month for food and shelter, the bare minimum, said Downey.

She has sent the family photos of the four-bedroom house the group has rented for them.

“They can’t believe we have this beautiful home ready for them. They think they’re going to be in heaven,” said Downey.

The house has been completely furnished with donated furniture, except for the mattresses, which are new.

Members of the team have committed to helping the family for a year. They will provide support and teach them about finances, job skills and legal requirements.

“Emotionally, we will have to figure out how to support them. We’re facing a lot of issues. We realize there’s trauma and PTSD,” she said.

Finding a job is not an immediate priority. “We want them to rest,” said Downey.

“It’s been a long time since they have enjoyed life. We want them to enjoy some of the fun things this time of year, see some Christmas lights. We have a few things planned to brighten their life.”

Downey is trying to find another sponsor to bring the remaining family members — two sisters, their husbands and children — to Canada.

“When my whole family arrives here, I’m sure I will be super happy and all my problems are solved,” said Ahmadi, who has found work as a locksmith and supports his family. He has also learned to follow the rules of the road — literally.

“As an interpreter, I was familiar with talking. But many things were new,” he said. “In my country, there’s no traffic. There’s no rules. Cars are everywhere, left to right, right to left.”

Ahmadi thinks his brother’s family will enjoy life in Campbell River. He said he will tell his brother that he is starting life from the beginning.

“Life is important and when we compare that time to this time, it’s amazing. In my previous life, I don’t remember one good day in my country. Now I’m good. I’m super happy.”

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