The lights inside Mohammad Ismail’s third-floor Kabul hotel room went out as he peeked through a window in the street below. He caught a glimpse of Taliban officials entering the front entrance of the hotel and making their way to the lobby.
Ismail held his breath. He knew if the next moments didn’t go well, it could be his last.
In the lobby, the Taliban members spoke briefly with the hotel manager and then left. Fortunately, they didn’t check the upstairs rooms where Ismail was hiding with his family, along with a backpack filled with his most valuable possession: photographs from his time with the Canadian military. .
“My window was near the street, I looked out of it all night,” Ismail recalls. “All night, I never slept. I see (Taliban) out there, I think they’re coming in and looking for people who used to work with the Canadian Forces. ”
From 2005 to 2011, Ismail was in charge of security at Camp Nathan Smith, a Canadian military base in Kandahar. Canadian soldiers nicknamed Ismail ‘Captain Smiley,’ because of his constant smile.
“I smile all the time,” he said. “I’m a happy guy.”
But he worked seriously.
At a hotel in Islamabad, Afghans who used to work for the Canadian army wait for a new life
Besides overseeing security, he also joins Canadians in their patrols. They have been attacked by the Taliban many times.
Once, Ismail’s car was hit by a Taliban bomb. He survived, but his brother, Abdul, was killed while on patrol.
“These people performed services at great personal risk,” said Canadian veteran Randie Scott, who worked alongside Ismail in Kandahar.
“He and his security forces went directly to the front lines. They saved our bacon on more than one occasion. ”
Ten years later, Scott and the other veterans will have a chance to repay the favor.
As the Taliban moved into the summer of 2021, Ismail, his wife and 8-year-old son received approval to move to Canada as a refugee. He was asked to leave his home in Kandahar and make the long journey to Kabul, where the Canadian government is sending a rescue flight.
But when they arrived at the airport in August, thousands of desperate Afghans had gathered outside, standing between Ismail and his escape.
He stood on his knees for 12 hours in a sewage-filled canal around the airport, calling out the Canadian soldiers inside the gates for help.
“Many times I call them: ‘Hey, hey! I’m Captain Smiley! This is my visa. ‘ But they never looked my way,” he said. “I was feeling very bad.”
Ismail plans to return to the airport with his family the next day. But that morning, he received text messages from Canadian veterans warning of a possible terrorist attack on the airport.
So Ismail stayed away and is grateful he did. Within a few hours, ISIS-K gunmen and suicide bombers attack crowds outside airport, killing dozens of civilians and 13 American soldiers.
After the attack, international flights were mostly frozen. Ismail and his family took refuge inside a hotel room – part of a network of secret safehouses in Kabul urgently organized by groups of Canadian veterans to provide shelter and food for nearly 2,000 Afghans have been supporting the Canadian army (earlier this month, Most of those safe houses have been forced to close due to lack of funds).
Afghans are evicted from their safe houses when they run out of money
As the weeks went on, Scott remained in regular contact with Ismail, texting via WhatsApp from his home near Vancouver – “just in touch to understand his plight, to try and keep his spirits up.” cheer up.”
“I know he’s worried about his wife and son,” Scott said.
“It was a very stressful, very scary time.”
After three months of hiding, the Ismail family finally saw a chance to escape.
A Canadian NGO, the Veterans Transition Network, has hired a local team to bring Canadian visa holders out of the country to Pakistan. The perilous overnight trek through the mountains required them to pass more than a dozen Taliban checkpoints.
Ismail and his family sat nervously on the bench after their car was stopped by the Taliban. His backpack, which contained photos of Ismail with the Canadian military, lay on the floor leaning against his feet.
“There were so many checkpoints, I became very nervous,” Ismail recalls. “(I was) thinking they could search my bags and they might find everything.”
Outside of Afghanistan: Families are in hiding
Fortunately, the Taliban did not question them or ask for identification, and allowed their vehicle to continue on the road. After six hours, they reached the border and crossed to Pakistan.
Upon arriving at their hotel in Islamabad, Ismail phoned Scott to let them know they had arrived safely.
“We talked on video and cried together with relief that he and his family are safe,” Scott said.
Ismail’s family spent a few weeks in Islamabad, completing paperwork, biometric scans and COVID-19 tests, before finally booking tickets to a new life in Canada.
The family arrived in Toronto in October.
“For me, it was like a dream. I am very, very happy to be in Canada,” said Ismail.
His wife, Pahima, said she spent years living in fear that the Taliban would come and kill her husband. “I wake up now and feel happy knowing my family is in a safe country,” she said.
After a two-week quarantine, Global News met Ismail and his son, Himat, outside their Toronto airport hotel and gave them a tour of their new home city. They also visited a veteran-run cafe, Arrowhead Coffee Company Ltd. in St. Catharines, south of Toronto, where Ismail reunited with Canadian soldiers who had previously worked with him in Kandahar.
“People like Smiley, they provided us with a safe haven and directed us where to go, as for myself, to get all my men home,” Officer Warrant retired. retired Joe Lavoie said.
“Captain Smiley came and rekindled those memories, making me as happy as anything.”
After an hour of coffee and reminiscing, Ismail and his son continued their tour, visiting the CN Tower and taking the first subway to Yonge-Dundas.
“I really like Canada and Toronto,” Ismail said. “It’s a good city, a good place. Very clean and green. Everything is great.”
Before fleeing to Canada, Ismail and his family had never left Afghanistan; Having never seen a skyscraper, a tram or even a squirrel, this provoked an excited reaction from Himat.
The eight-year-old’s first impressions of his new surroundings are both moving and heartbreaking.
“Canada is a very beautiful country. Very safe. I didn’t hear the gunfire anymore,” Himat told Global News.
But the family’s new home also brings new challenges. Almost everything in Canada feels foreign and alien. Ismail can’t read English – he only learned to speak some while working for the Canadian military.
Ismail’s wife, Pahima, grew up under the first Taliban rule in the 1990s, when women were robbed of their education. She is illiterate and is currently planning to attend school for the first time.
“I want to learn English and create a safe home for my family,” she told Global News.
The family is temporarily living in a hotel and will receive government support to find an apartment and a nearby school for their son. They each received $50 on arrival, which is now all they had after leaving everything behind in Kandahar. Their housing costs will be covered for one year.
They will then likely face significant challenges as they attempt to build a new life, according to Wahdat Weish, an Afghan refugee.
Weish is a Canadian former military interpreter who moved to Toronto with his family in 2011 as part of Canada’s first resettlement program for pro-military Afghans.
“Life is completely turned upside down. Western life and Eastern life are completely different cultures; things were different,” he said. “At that time when I arrived, there was no one to help me.”
For eight years, he struggled to find steady work, like other Afghan refugees he met along the way, most of whom eventually moved back to Afghanistan.
“I lost. I fell into depression,” Weish said. “.
But a few years ago, Weish got a full-time job and his situation improved. He is currently working to help Ismail’s family, after the two men were connected by their mutual friend and former colleague, Scott.
“There are services and some funding available and things like that. But it takes a community to help welcome them and help them become established and upbeat,” Scott told Global News from outside his home in Abbotsford.
Statistics Canada data shows that first-generation refugees often struggle but their children are more likely to thrive. For that reason, Ismail said, there is no need to look back.
“I do my best for my family. I do my best for this country.”
Veterans Relay Network is working to provide shelter and emergency assistance to interpreters and others who have provided critical support to Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, as they await evacuation to Canada.
https://globalnews.ca/news/8403805/mohammad-ismail-afghan-canadian-soldiers/ ‘Starting a New Life’: This Afghan Saved Canadians. Now they are paying back. – National