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Stranded Afghan Refugees Find a Home in Canada

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page A19

TORONTO -- Habibullah Abdul Ghafar is drinking black tea and resting after arriving in Canada from Kyrgyzstan, the Central Asian country where he and his family were stranded as refugees. Their one-bedroom apartment on the east side of Toronto is furnished with a sofa, chair and kitchen table donated by the Canadian government.

News of the refugee crisis in Sudan is blaring on the South Asian edition of the local television news. He flips the channel. Judge Judy is chastising a woman for not paying rent. He flips again. "Family Feud" pops up. Ghafar, who speaks little English, finally lands on an Indian movie.


Habibullah Abdul Ghafar, holds Mehrangiez, 3, as his wife, Lailuma Mohammed Akber, holds Marjan, 1. They were among the first of the refugees stranded in Kyrgyzstan to arrive in Canada. (Deneen L. Brown -- The Washington Post)

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In the small kitchen, his wife, Lailuma Mohammed Akber, 34, bakes Afghan bread. She brings out a platter. Their two girls, ages 3 and 1, play on the carpets, punching holes in notebook paper. They have no toys. The family brought only their clothes on the 23-hour trip from Kyrgyzstan to Toronto.

"I have a lot of hopes," Ghafar says, sitting cross-legged in blue pants. His feet are bare. "I want a bigger house, my own house, a big luxury car. Whatever you get, you want more."

The family is among the first to arrive in Canada under a program designed to settle a humanitarian problem that has defied solution for years: what to do with hundreds of Afghan war refugees who are stranded in Kyrgyzstan. Last month, at the behest of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Canada agreed to accept 525 of the approximately 650 Afghans who remained there.

They were deemed unlikely to return home because of threats to their lives or affiliation with the despised Soviet-supported Afghan government whose leader was forced to resign in 1992. Some of the refugees have been in camps in Kyrgyzstan since Soviet forces invaded their country 25 years ago.

"Some came because of the Taliban," said Michael Casasola, a resettlement officer for the U.N. refugee agency in Ottawa, referring to the repressive Islamic movement that took control of most of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and was driven from power by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. "There wasn't a solution being made available to them. Many were professionals, which may have been why they had difficulty with the Taliban."

The hope is that Canada's move will facilitate a solution for the remaining Afghans in Kyrgyzstan. U.N. officials said they were hoping that those who don't go to Canada will choose to go home or perhaps apply for citizenship in Kyrgyzstan.

"It is very exciting," Casasola said. "We have not done resettlements there in Central Asia before at that scale. We've resettled thousands of Afghans out of Iran, but in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, this is relatively new."

Canadian officials said their government had an obligation to help resettle the refugees. "We study every proposition by the UNCHR," said Jean-Pierre Morin, spokesman for the Department for Citizenship and Immigration, noting that the country is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on Refugees.

"Canada has an ongoing commitment to provide resettlement to persons in need of protection," Morin explained. "Our resettlement program reflects our strong commitment to providing protection and safe haven to those who need it."

Canada accepts between 20,000 and 30,000 refugees per year. Last year, the top five countries of origin were Afghanistan, Colombia, Sudan, Iran and Congo. Morin said most of the recent refugees had resettled in Ontario. In Hamilton, Ontario, south of Toronto, people from Afghanistan are the second fastest-growing immigrant group, after Somalis.

But the overall number of refugee claimants coming to Canada has declined significantly since 2001, according to Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, a Montreal-based organization that advocates for the rights of refugees. Part of the reason, she said, is that "post-Sept. 11 security issues are having negative effects on refugees trying to get out of countries where they are suffering persecution and to get to countries where they would be safe."

The acceptance rate for refugees who do make it here has also declined. "There is a significantly smaller number of accepted refugees who are making Canada their new home," Dench said. "After several years at a 47 percent acceptance rate, it was down to 42 percent in 2003. In the first half of 2004, it was down to 40 percent."


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