Roya Shams ran fast, then faster when she spotted the tiny woman, delicate as a sparrow, in a wheelchair at Pearson airport’s arrivals level.
She dropped to her knees and, for the first time in nearly 10 years, fell into her mother’s embrace.
“Don’t cry!” Roya said. “It’s all good.”
But her mother’s brow was furrowed and she looked left and right for the rest of her children and grandchildren. They were all together.
“I left your father’s grave and everything, but now I can see everyone is safe, and that’s what matters,” she said to her daughter.
The emotional scene Friday night marked the reunion of the family of Roya Shams — a young woman who fled to Canada as a teenager after her father was gunned down in Afghanistan, and who had made this moment happen.
It’s been nearly a decade since the Star and its readers helped a teenage Roya escape to pursue an education and her dreams. It was then Star editor Michael Cooke and reporter Paul Watson who travelled to Afghanistan and escorted her to Canada. She’s since gone on to high school and university here, seizing every opportunity to build a life for herself.
But as the Taliban surged in recent months to regain control of Afghanistan amid the exit of U.S. troops, Roya found herself suddenly trying to save the family she had left behind.
In a harrowing effort to rescue some 27 family members, Roya engaged some of the same people who had helped her come to Canada in the first place.
She fired off emails, pleading for help, she filed 297 pages of immigration documents, and she slept only a few hours a night for weeks.
Unrelenting in her optimism, she knit together a network of military veterans, politicians, journalists, friends and donors.
“I couldn’t cry in front of my own mother,” she says. “I couldn’t let them know how it hurts. I had to be positive and say, ‘This is going to happen.’”
Together, Roya and her team of supporters pushed through the layers of bureaucracy, as her loved ones navigated the heartbreak of near misses at the airport in Kabul, the Taliban fighters who roamed past their safe house, and treacherous checkpoints they faced en route to escaping their country.
Finally, this week, the family arrived: Some came Wednesday, and more late Friday — ending for Roya years of living without her mother, sisters and brothers, the people who knew her best.
A long list of names
In July, with the U.S. withdrawal only weeks away and the Taliban advancing with ferocious speed, Roya, now a graduate student at the University of Ottawa, wrote to two friends, asking if they could help her.
“Everyone who works with foreigners, they are killing,” said her sister Dr. Sharifa Shams, also an obstetrician-gynecologist with an interest in women’s nutrition, over the phone earlier in the week from Islamabad, where they waited for clearance to fly to Canada. “Especially women.”
Her brother Dr. Sayed Shams still bears the scars he received after a grenade was thrown at his car in 2013. Her sister Farishta, who worked for a U.S.-sponsored program promoting women in the economy, was shot at in the company’s car. The family had to change houses twice “because of me,” Farishta recalled. Meanwhile, Roya’s mother’s home was burned down in July. Another brother was dodging bullets. It was time to leave.
Roya’s friends thought they could help four or five relatives — she sent a list of 27 names.
“I know it is a lot,” she wrote in an email. “But they are my family and they are at risk just for being part of the family.”
Roya had left her home in Kandahar as an anxious but resolute teenager after her father, a police colonel, was murdered in a Taliban raid and her school was set ablaze. Haji Sayed Gulab Shah was so influential in his children’s lives scarcely a conversation begins without someone mentioning his insistence on education for his children, particularly his five daughters.
Back then, the Star had reported her age as 17, but Roya says the Afghan bureaucrat processing her passport gave her an arbitrary age and birthdate. It’s likely she was only 15 when she left her family. The youngest of nine children, she had spent every night of her life up until that point sleeping beside her sisters.
Her family had grown in her absence, and scattered across the globe like autumn leaves. A sister is in Germany, Farishta lives in Boston and a brother is in Sweden. Her sisters and brothers had married, had children and she did not know half of them.
But as her nieces and nephews emerged this week from the glass doors of the arrivals hall at Pearson airport, now a COVID-19 testing centre, Roya and Farishta wrapped their arms around the children and bowed their heads. The only sound was soft, muffled sobbing.
The families had been in hiding since June. Taking their first steps out of the airport, they paused — thin, pale and wearing their good clothes — to explain why they had given up their homes and lives in Afghanistan.
Dr. Shogafa Shams, an obstetrician-gynecologist and mother of three, carefully groomed and wearing a deep red head scarf, stretched out her arm to her nine-year-old, Masah, a girl with lively eyes and ribbons in her hair.
“This is my daughter,” Shams said. “They don’t allow her to go to school.”
The doctor was followed by her nephew, Qais Shams, 19, a medical student in a crisp white shirt. He had stopped going to school, he said. “They don’t let us study in English.”
The Shams family
The Shams children, like their father, were open minded and believed women should be able to move freely in the community without the cover of a burqa or the protection of a husband or brother.
Shogafa, who is Roya’s older sister, had recently written in an Afghan medical journal about options for women having trouble conceiving.
“The standard response to infertility (in Afghanistan) is to take a new wife,” says Rachel Pulfer, head of Journalists for Human Rights, which played a vital role in extracting the family. “She wrote that wasn’t really necessary because other things could be done to address it.
“That put a great big target on her back.”
Family honour is a foundation of Afghan culture, she says. If a woman “dishonours” her family by taking a public stand on an issue that defies the norms of conservative Islamic culture, everyone is complicit. “If Taliban can’t find the journalist or human rights defender or women’s rights activist, they will target the whole family.”
Roya’s first email asking for help went to two friends who had become surrogate parents, as she went to high school at Ashbury College in Ottawa and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Ottawa. They were Lisa LaFlamme, chief anchor and senior editor of the CTV National News, and her husband, Cooke, the former editor of the Star and chair of the board of Journalists for Human Rights.
LaFlamme knew the work of veterans groups from her years reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It cannot be overstated: these guys had been fighting since July 8 when they sent a letter to the government saying, ‘We’ve got a crisis. We have to act now.’ Nobody did. But they did. And all with charitable dollars.”
LaFlamme connected with Paul Carroll, a retired major, who became an operations co-ordinator for a consortium of veterans and volunteer groups. Their first task was to help interpreters, but their responsibility soon widened to get Afghans who had helped Canadians to a safe place where they could get a flight to Canada.
“I was trying to bring some coherence to chaos,” Carroll said. “Families were reaching out for somebody, anybody, to navigate the byzantine setup of government departments.”
Recently he has received intelligence that the Taliban is going door-to-door, rounding up fighting-age men, and taking young girls for forced marriages. “The urgency takes on a whole new dynamic.”
Canada’s ‘perfect disaster’
The Shams family was eligible for Canadian visas because their father had worked with the Canadian Forces. Soldiers who remembered him wrote letters describing his life and death as they fought together during missions.
The last day Kandahar airport was open, half the Shams family got a flight to Kabul, while the other half braved the roads, driving at snail’s pace, a four-hour trip that stretched to 16.
They passed through Taliban checkpoints, Islamic State K checkpoints and Afghan National Police checkpoints, where some “were robbing people blind because they hadn’t been paid in months,” says Carroll.
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Frightened evacuees were dumping their prized travel documents to western countries. If they hadn’t saved copies on their phones, they had to start the process anew.
Carroll communicated between groups such as the Veterans Transition Network, which raised money, and veterans organizations such as Aman Lara, which provided food and safe houses for families in Kabul. For a week or so, the government had no official representation on the ground and the embassy was closed, as veterans and other volunteers, did the work, all funded by charitable donations.
In the midst of this instability, the very day the Taliban’s white flags rose over Kabul, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an election. It was August, when many civil servants go on summer vacations.
“All these elements combined to a perfect disaster,” said Pulfer. “Nobody is getting immigration papers fast enough; nobody is getting facilitation letters until it was almost too late to do anything with them.”
The election was not only a distraction from efforts to help Afghans, but the government was operating under “vastly reduce capacity,” she says.
Carroll had been part of a smaller evacuation in Haiti in 2004. “We commandeered a bus and ran people from the embassy to the airport. We had a mandate to do it. Why weren’t they able to do that in Kabul? If the mechanics of government seize up every time we call an election, we are combat ineffective for as long as the writ is in place. We have to do a better job. I’m disappointed we cannot play in the big leagues.”
It was difficult: Travellers applied to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada email line and would hear nothing back, not knowing if their applications had even been received. Filling out the paper work, which was voluminous, required exacting care. Documents were in English and if an applicant mistakenly typed in the letter O instead of the number zero, the application was returned.
Responding to criticism about the demanding paperwork, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino says he instructed his department to “cut all red tape without compromising security.” In the early days, evacuees on the run had to find somewhere to print their documents; now they can take a photo on their phone. Some advocacy groups have said the single biggest hurdle in getting Afghans out of Afghanistan has been the Canadian government.
“The greatest obstacle to getting Afghans out of Afghanistan is the Taliban and the state of volatility and violence on the ground,” Mendicino said. “We’ve done everything in our power to ensure this group and others are getting the necessary … documentation they need.”
The government is looking at matching funds for the veterans groups “as soon as possible,” he said.
Few in the Shams’ group of 27 had passports. After a rigorous screening from government departments, approved travellers were given facilitation letters that said they were Canadian citizens — though they were not — with visas to enter Canada.
(“There were so many layers of screening because the country was being taken over by a terrorist organization,” Pulfer says. “Canadians who have grown up in this country don’t know how incredibly difficult it is to immigrate to Canada.”)
The facilitation letter read: “Please allow these persons safe travel to the Hamid Karzai International Airport so they can board their organized flight.” This genteel request seemed farcical given the chaos travellers, including the Shams, faced standing in a filthy ditch outside the airport waving red scarves to get soldiers’ attention.
Twice they waited for 14 hours in that ditch and were crushed by disappointment, believing they could never leave Afghanistan.
“But I kept myself strong because of my children,” recalls Sharifa Shams. “If I lost myself and became confused what would they do? I was encouraging them not to be afraid. I said, ‘Nice Canadians will help us.’”
‘It was like a doomsday’
For one month, the Shams family lived in a safe house, a former hotel, which held about 140 people, in Kabul. They couldn’t take one step outside. Trigger-happy Taliban were loitering out there.
David Lavery, a retired master warrant officer now running a risk management firm, looked after them — he put blast film on the windows, carpeting in the basement for a school room, CCTV, bedding and generators. “He looked after them the way he would look after a squadron of his own soldiers. By God, nothing was going to happen to them under his watch,” Carroll said.
Twice Taliban fighters came into the garden of the compound. They were served tea by Afghan staff, while the Shams family hid. “We were crying, we could see them from the window,” says Sharifa Shams.
The children all got sick. Some of the little ones became dehydrated and had to go on IV treatment, which their mothers administered. With foresight, they had brought medicines from Kandahar.
Twice, the families were told to go the airport. They received emails with “cryptic descriptions” of what gate and what time, says Pulfer.
“There was this line I heard,” she added, “‘The Americans sent troops. The British sent helicopters and the Canadians sent emails.’”
Meanwhile, Taliban were firing guns every so often, and the threat of suicide bombers among the throng at the airport gates put everyone on edge.
“There was a flight and the Canadians told us to go to the airport,” Sharifa Shams said. “But it was not possible to go inside. There was too much of a crush. I thought my children would die. Oxygen was blocked. It was like a doomsday. I saw a child who had died. My brother carried my mother on his shoulders.”
Help from some Canadians
Pulfer, of Journalists for Human Rights, was foremost among the Canadians trying to find a solution.
She now had to decide the safest exit — the airport, which was in Taliban hands; or a dangerous land route to Pakistan, rife with checkpoints, bandits and a long wait at the border.
“There were credible security concerns that as a final send-off to the Allied Forces they would pick a plane to put a bomb on.
“I had an image in my mind of a plane full of evacuees being blown up by the Taliban. With that image I started looking to land routes.”
Pulfer found a reputable British company run by former special ops who could safely transport the Shams to Islamabad, Pakistan. The company suggested a large coach, available at the time, with a former special forces guard.
Pulfer had worked as a journalist in Sudan, her father worked for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and she had grown up around the world. “The commonly held trope of security is that the more you blend in and be humble and live at a level as close to local as possible, the safer you are.
“My parents’ ethos was always to be as unobtrusive as possible.”
Instead of a large coach, she suggested two small vans, with inconspicuously armed Afghan men. The security firm agreed.
She estimates the cost to transport one person and sustain them for three weeks in Islamabad is between $3,000 and $5,000. Her work and fundraising continue — 350 people are on her list and 10,000 are on the Veterans Transition Network list. “All of the funds to support this family were Joe Q public donations from Canada and some amazing corporate donors.”
Though they were on their way, the Shams still had no documents to enter Pakistan. LaFlamme contacted Wendy Gilmour, Canada’s High Commissioner to Pakistan. “I was calling her at three and four in the morning and she was amazing. She got someone there to meet them; they had documents, they had buses.”
There were more problems. A child’s name was missing on the Pakistani visa, the whole group had to wait. The owner of a hotel in Islamabad was demanding huge sums of money, which the family didn’t have. They spent the night in the lobby, until Gilmour fixed that crisis finding alternative accommodation.
After all of it, the family would, however, make its way to Canada.
Now in Toronto, the family will stay in a quarantine hotel near the airport for the next two weeks. Each of them arrived bringing only the smallest of carry-on luggage.
They don’t know yet where they will be settled.
But they are confident. The doctors are already planning to study hard to earn certification to practise in Canada. Sharifa Shams’ husband is a pharmacist, but is thinking of a career change. He might want to be a police officer. Another girl wants to study law. All possible because of the resolve of a young woman, and the friends, the unnamed volunteers and donors who helped her.
“Imagine,” Roya said, marvelling at what has happened, “someone living in Canada making somebody else’s family a priority.”
Leslie Scrivener is a former Toronto Star feature writer. During her first days in Canada, Roya Shams stayed with Scrivener, and the two remain friends.
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