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Journalist who fled Taliban ready to help other refugees settle in Burnaby

Nearly half of the Afghans who have come to Burnaby since August are school-aged children, according to settlement worker program

Before he and his family fled Afghanistan four months ago, Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar was giving up to 10 media interviews a day.

As a founder of Nai, a leading media advocacy and training organization in the country, he was a sought-after speaker on freedom of expression and the Afghan media landscape.

He was also a Taliban target.

“In their press releases and their statements, they were always saying that Mujeeb and Nai – me and my organization – it was against Islam what we were saying.”

After Kabul fell on Aug. 15, there were reports of Taliban soldiers going door-to-door, searching for journalists.

A ‘sea journey’

I met Khalvatgar in the community room of a Burnaby elementary school.

He and his family have been in the city for less than three months.

He hasn’t even had a chance to get his Canadian driver’s licence yet, but he is already eager to help other families in the school district who’ve made the same journey he has.

He translates an Afghan proverb about how those who have journeyed on the sea know best what a sea journey means.

“I learned something, and I think it is something that I can share with others,” he says.

Khalvatgar’s journey started not long before the fall of Kabul.

He and his family had already been granted Canadian visas, he says, but nobody predicted how quickly the government would collapse.

He snaps his fingers three times, indicating how quickly three main cities around Kabul were taken by the Taliban.

On the day they entered Kabul, he was at work and had to hide out at an uncle’s house for days because soldiers were searching for him, he says.

Even with visas in hand, it took two days to find a way through the thousands of people blocking the gates to the Kabul airport.

“It was a queue of thousands,” he says.

Finally, early on Aug. 22, he, his wife, his oldest son and daughter and two nephews decided to form a tight circle around the younger kids and push their way through.

It took them three hours in 40C heat to reach the gate, Khalvatgar says.

Inside, they spotted a Canadian soldier and were eventually put on a flight to Kuwait.

Another flight took them from Kuwait to Germany.

“Both flights were military flights, the biggest military planes with more than 600 people in them. There was not a place to even sit,” he says.

They arrived in the Lower Mainland after quarantining in Toronto.

A new beginning

The Khalvatgars now live near Brantford Elementary School, where the three youngest children go to school.

Another attends Byrne Creek Community School.

The family has settled in with help from Leila Nemati, a Burnaby school district settlement worker with the Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS) program, an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada-funded program that helps newcomer students and their families with everything from finding a doctor to opening a bank account.

Last week, Nemati got one of Khalvatgar’s daughters and a group of other girls, all newly arrived from Afghanistan, to decorate the Byrne Creek community room for Christmas.

“They were around 10, 15 girls, and they were all from Afghanistan, brand new here, and they were so excited, and they had no clue what they were doing,” Nemati says with a laugh. “I’m sure it was one of their first experiences of things doing in Canada, and they were doing a great job,”

Khalvatgar has already started to help Nemati support other new Afghan families, acting as translator at a recent parent meeting and helping one single mother find housing.

“It’s really important to have somebody beside you who’s been through the same new way and process and speaks the same dialect,” Nemati says.

The school district currently doesn’t have a SWIS worker who is fluent in both of Afghanistan’s two major languages, Pashto and Dari.

And with more people fleeing the country, Khalvatgar hopes he might be able to parlay that experience into a job as a SWIS worker himself.

“I love this,” he says.

With his educational background, experience, passion and language skills in English, Dari, Pashto and Farsi, he feels he’d be a good fit.

He’s already applied in Vancouver, but that position required a driver’s licence.

But the Burnaby program will soon be hiring as well, according to Natalya Khan, the SWIS coordinator in this district.

She says the IRCC has already agreed to fund another SWIS position in the district to help with the influx of Afghan refugees, nearly half of whom (48 or 102) have been school-aged children.

Here to stay

Like so many recent arrivals from Afghanistan, Khalvatgar and his family fled with only what they could carry, leaving everything else behind.”

“Forty years of my life left there,” he says. “I came with nothing. Believe me, I did not bring even my driving licence. I had two master’s degrees. I left all the documents there … my library, I had a library in my house, friends, my mom. My mom still lives in Afghanistan.”

When they first arrived in Canada, Khalvatgar says his family was too much in shock to take in first impressions.

Since then, he has come to appreciate the country’s diversity, he says.

And his younger children are already settling in, teaching him Canadian pronunciations and the English word for “lettuce.” One of his daughters recently made pizza.

Difficult as it has been to leave everything behind, Khalvatgar says the family is here to stay.

In one way, the escape from Afghanistan has taken a big burden off his shoulders, he says.

All his adult life, the Taliban has threatened, creating uncertainty in everything he did there. 

“At least I don’t have that ambiguity,” he says.

While he was still in Afghanistan, he spoke defiantly about Taliban threats on his life, saying they would not stop his work.

Now that the Taliban has taken over, however, he says it’s not just his own life and future at stake.

“I don’t want to take them back to Taliban’s terror,” he says of his children. “They have their own lives … Peace, hope for the future, especially for my children and their schools and their knowledge, keeps me motivated.”

Interviews for the school district’s new SWIS position will take place in January.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor