Ali got through his 14-hour flight to Toronto using the same coping mechanisms as three-year-olds everywhere: scribbling in colouring books and watching favourite movies. On this trek, he watched Cars 3 over and over.
But the reason for his journey was far from routine. The boy was reunited with his father in Ontario for the first time in two years. He had been stranded alone for more than two weeks in an orphanage in Qatar after narrowly escaping a suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport that killed at least 169 Afghan people and 13 U.S. soldiers.
“He is absolutely [an] amazing child, so well behaved and very mature for his age,” said Stella Dshurina, a project officer with the United Nations’ International Organization For Migration, who met Ali the night before accompanying him from Doha to Canada.
Ali, for whom The Globe and Mail is using a pseudonym to protect his family in Afghanistan, was airlifted out of Kabul with other refugees on Aug. 28 to Doha and touched down on Monday evening at Toronto’s Pearson Airport thanks to an effort co-ordinated by the UN and the Canadian and Qatari governments.
But the child would never have been evacuated were it not for a 17-year-old who shepherded him away from the chaos during the airport explosion, according to a statement from the Qatari foreign ministry.
The boy, having seen a child among the mass panic and crowds, acted heroically under difficult circumstances and decided to bear responsibility for the child, despite being a minor himself, the Qatari foreign ministry said.
Ali’s father Sharif, who ran a dried fruit business in Afghanistan before coming to Canada two years ago, had been trying to find out what happened to his son after the child was separated from his family.
Minutes after embracing his child, he relayed through an interpreter that he had no words to convey his joy.
Hours before his son arrived, he told The Globe in English: “I have no sleep for two weeks.” The Globe is also using a pseudonym for him to protect his family.
Mohammad Samsor accompanied Sharif, who is a friend from the Greater Toronto Area’s Afghan community, to help translate and offer support. Mr. Samsor, a former professor of public administration who arrived in Toronto two years ago as a refugee, said he feels his friend’s joy acutely because he was finally able to bring his own family to Canada from Afghanistan nearly two months ago.
“I know how a man can feel when you leave your family for two years,” he said.
Still, the reunion on Monday was bittersweet: The boy’s mother, four siblings and two cousins escaped the pandemonium two weeks ago, but are hiding in a safe house, terrified they have no path out of Afghanistan or the crosshairs of its new Taliban government.
Ali’s mother Khadija, a pseudonym, told The Globe over text message this week that she initially thought all her children – including Ali – were killed that day, but then her two nephews re-emerged at the airport with four of their cousins.
“When the blast is happening, all people are confused. The people went every where. I didn’t know where were my children,” wrote Khadija, who stayed up past 4 a.m. Tuesday to keep updated on Ali’s arrival.
Mr. Samsor said the instability has also been hard on Afghan people abroad, with service from international remittance companies becoming spotty and the threat of violence hanging over their families that remain.
“Everyone has someone behind in Afghanistan,” he said in an interview at the airport. “So everyone is very much concerned and they’re scared.”
Asked about Sharif and Ali’s family in Afghanistan, a senior official in Qatar’s foreign ministry said his government would help if asked.
The Globe is not naming the official because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the case.
But documentation will be a challenge. So far, the Taliban is allowing people to depart only if they have foreign passports, vowing an end to the mass evacuations that followed the militant organization’s Aug. 15 takeover of Kabul.
However, Western governments expect Afghan nationals with visas for their final destinations will be allowed to fly out once Kabul’s airport fully reopens.
Last week, 43 Canadian citizens were among 113 foreign nationals who were on the first Kabul-Doha commercial flight since the Taliban took control of the airport on Aug. 31. The Qatari official said a second commercial flight arrived in Doha on Monday with 158 passengers, including Canadian, U.S., German, French, Dutch, British, Belgian and Mauritanian nationals.
Peter Liang, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said Monday his department can’t comment on specific cases for privacy and security reasons.
Ali is one of about 3,700 people the federal government says it airlifted out of Afghanistan to come to Canada before the Taliban stopped the flow. Mr. Liang said in an e-mailed statement that Ottawa expects more refugees “as we sort out flights from our partner countries.”
Canada has committed to welcome a further 20,000 Afghans over the next year and a half, a group consisting of those endangered under new Taliban rule: human-rights campaigners, female leaders, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and immediate and extended families of those already in Canada.
Sharif, who is a butcher in Brampton, left the airport to quarantine at home with his child, together for the first time since before the pandemic.
“I am happy, my children are also happy,” he said.
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