I met Mujeeb at Costco before Christmas. He was pushing a dolly which held a half-dozen deep grey plastic bins, some more full than others. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained that he was filling orders for an on-line computer shopping site. He was using an iPad to keep track of the orders. Apparently, people choose what they want to buy on the website. He is their personal shopper who fills the orders and later delivers them. He told me the name of his company but I have lost the note on which I wrote it down. (I should have used my iPhone “notes,” as I normally do to record such information. Perhaps I was so excited about meeting Mujeeb that I forgot.)
Sensing that he might be new to Canada, I asked where he was from. He replied that he was from Afghanistan, and that he had come to Canada with his parents and his siblings. I told him about my son and daughter-in-law in the Canadian army who had deployed several times to Kabul and/or Kandahar. He told me that all his family were now working in Canada and that his sister was a student at the University of Toronto. He also told me that there was a book written about his family.
No kidding? I had vaguely heard of a book written by CBC journalist, Carol Off, about an Afghan family whom she befriended and had helped come to Canada. Apparently, four months post-9/11, Off was in Afghanistan gathering information for what later became a very successful CBC documentary. Among her most significant sources at the time was Mujeeb’s father, Asad Aryubwal, who provided her with information about war crimes by Afghan warlords. His forthright cooperation with a western journalist however came at a cost. After numerous threats to his life, he had no choice but to flee to Pakistan which, as the political circumstances continued to change at home, he did four times before he was forty. In the fall of 2007, Off learned that Asad needed her help. Contrary to customary professional journalistic practice, she felt she had no choice but to become involved.
Needless to say, I rushed off right away to find Carol Off’s book, All We Leave Behind: A Reporter’s Journey Into the Lives of Others (Random House Canada, 2017). Reading it was a revelation, a totally compelling view of how a single family dealt with the turmoil in their homeland and their seemingly-interminable seven-year wait for permission to immigrate to Canada. Off’s description of their travails will break your heart.
This book is an absolute must for everyone who wants to understand what it means to be a refugee from a society such as Afghanistan.
Carol Off now co-hosts the CBC Radio current affairs program, “As It Happens.” Several weeks ago, this book won the prestigious $40,000. British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Jury members praised it as “a timely memoir that offers both context to, and a closeup of, uncomfortable truths: the failures of the West’s involvement in Afghanistan, the hurdles confronting refugees who seek safety in Canada, and the dilemma of a combat journalist expected to maintain professional distance from her sources.”
It’s a wonderful book. The Timeline of Major Events and the Cast of Characters at the back of the book are in themselves an invaluable thumbnail guide to Afghanistan’s history. I am thankful that my chance meeting with Mujeeb brought his family’s story and this book to my attention. I wish them all the best.
Someone should do a television series on limousine and taxi drivers. After my exhilarating discussion with the Lebanese-Canadian limousine driver in Toronto, I hardly expected to have another million dollar driver experience the same day. So, I did. This time, my driver in Vancouver told me that he was a law student who drives part-time. He is an Afghani-Canadian who came from Kandahar a few years ago as one of the first participants in Canada’s relocation program for Afghanis who provided help to the Canadian military during the war in Afghanistan. He comes from a wealthy family, is educated in Afghani law, and speaks five or six different languages. During the war in Afghanistan, he advised Canadian and American military lawyers negotiating the payment of claims to civilian Afghanis who suffered damage at the hands of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops. He also was a political liaison officer for Canadian Foreign and Cultural Affairs, first during the Afghani election and again following the assassination of the brother of President Karzai. He still uses his cultural and linguistic expertise to train Canadian military in their cultural orientation programs.
The fact that my son and daughter-in-law both served tours of duty in the Canadian army in Afghanistan with ISAF created an immediate bond between us. We both knew the players, the lingo, the terrain, the dates, and the issues. He described a couple of situations where he narrowly escaped death or injury; once in a convoy where an IED hit the vehicle behind his, another when a car he bought was hit by bombs (without him in it, at the time).
He discussed the politics of the region. More precisely, I asked questions and he gave what seemed to me reasoned and well-informed responses. He noted the corruption prevalent in Afghanistan, characterized in his time by fraudulent land grabs which made some millionaires and deprived others of their birthright. He complained about the warlords who have all the money but little education or expertise in how to use the money to increase their capital or for any social purpose. When I ventured the opinion that Pakistan was a big problem and appeared to be a failed state, he suggested that Pakistan has been remarkably successful at doing what it wants to do. “And what’s that?” I asked. His reply: “Playing the big powers off, one against the other, and building up its military intelligence (albeit at the expense of its civil authorities).” He said that he reads many commentators from many countries, but none agree about what the future holds, and he believes none of them. And who was he supporting in the Afghani presidential election? He preferred Ashraf Ghani, a former executive with the World Bank, whose experience in economics he thought would be a huge asset to the country.
When I asked him about his long-term aspirations, he indicated that he hopes to return to Afghanistan at some stage to help build a new order. Unlike other family members who have been successful in business, he wants to take part in government. His age? 31 years old. He has a wife and three young children. How can someone so young have had so much life experience? And what will he do in the decades that lie ahead? One can only hope that the Canadian connection will serve him, his family, and his native country well. I arrived at our apartment blown away by all that I had learned.