Afghan refugees, ‘very resilient’ human rights workers arrive in Edmonton

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On Friday, 170 refugees from Afghanistan  — dozens of whom are human rights workers — arrived in Edmonton.

The group landed in Calgary earlier this week and travelled to Edmonton by bus. Agencies have been working for months to bring them to Edmonton, Catholic Social Services (CSS) said.

“Finally we received confirmation that yes, in fact, they are coming, they can all come to Edmonton and they will arrive today,” said Kathryn Friesen, a director of immigration for CSS.

The refugees fled Afghanistan during the Taliban uprising in August 2021 and had been in hiding until earlier this week, when a flight could be booked, CSS said.

“They are human rights workers, human rights defenders,” Friesen said. “They were doing that work in Afghanistan, which did put them in a very precarious situation when the Taliban took over the country, and they had to immediately exit into Pakistan.

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“They were flagged as a very at-risk group and Canada took on the challenge of agreeing to bring them here.”

The Liberal government initially committed to resettling 20,000 Afghan refugees but upped that pledge during the federal election campaign to 40,000.

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“Edmonton and our agency, CSS, our sector colleagues in the community have all been excited and willing and wanting to welcome this very resilient, very resourceful group that’s really been doing some amazing work on the ground in Afghanistan,” Friesen said.

“Many of those arriving worked for decades documenting human rights abuses and war crimes in Afghanistan and intend to continue their work, once settled, with the assistance of Canadian and international non-governmental organizations,” CSS added in a news release.

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Friesen said these particular refugees have a high level of English and are highly educated. Forty per cent of them are children, she said.

Many are choosing to keep a lower profile and not speak about their resettlement publicly for safety reasons, Friesen explained.

“It can be very risky situation. Because if they have family members or friends at home, and they have a high profile in the community, they could have people in their home country targeted due to what’s happening here.”

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Once they arrive, the newcomers will complete their quarantine in Edmonton.

CSS will them resettle in the city, providing accommodation, orientation, language assessment, and other resources, as needed.

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CSS supports between 10,000 and 15,000 newcomers to Canada each year and has helped resettle 118 Afghan refugees in Edmonton and Red Deer since August.

Travel for them was supported by Front Line Defenders and and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

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Friesen expects Edmonton will welcome more Afghan refugees in the months to come.

“People like human rights defenders and people who worked with Canada in Afghanistan and now are targeted because of the work they did with our country.

“This is a good opportunity for Edmonton to show how we can welcome people into our community and hopefully do this well so that we can continue bringing newcomers into our community and really have a society that focuses on the social inclusion of refugees.”

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She said the community response over the past few months has been “overwhelming and heartwarming.”

To support the welcoming and resettlement work, visit the CSS refugee appeal page or partner agencies: Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, Islamic Family Social Services Association, and Action for Healthy Communities.

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