Escape from Afghanistan: Family dodges bombs, checkpoints and landmines to reach Canada

Ten years after the Taliban killed her father, an Afghan woman reunites with her family in Ottawa.
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A morning in Kabul after the Taliban took over Afghanistan.

Mohammad Rahmani/Unsplash

Roya Shams’ father spent his life fighting for his daughter’s right to go to school. 

Afghan police officer Col. Haji Sayed Gulab Shah was a human rights activist and father of nine—including five daughters—who advocated for women’s education. When insurgents tried to stop women and girls from going to school, he stood up for his daughters and other Afghan girls.

“I had his protection to go to school, to get [an] education, to convince other girls to come to school,” says Shams, 26. “My dad would say, ‘This is my example. I am putting my own daughter up front.’”

In 2011, while on a mission to capture a local Taliban commander in Kandahar, he was killed.

Devastated but determined, teenage Shams fled to Canada with the help of local journalists in 2012. She resumed her education in Ottawa, learning Shakespeare by night and braving the cold winters to live up to her father’s dream. Having graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Ottawa, she’s now completing her master’s degree in international affairs and diplomacy.

Her family, meanwhile, continued their own fight in Afghanistan. Two of her sisters are doctors who also taught other women. 

This fall, 10 years after her father died, Shams finally reunited with her family after they escaped the Taliban’s latest siege of Afghanistan.

The militants took over the country as U.S. troops withdrew after a 20-year war. In mid-August, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled, collapsing the government. Civilians packed airports in desperate attempts to find safety.

Afghan citizens continue to be in crisis. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 18 of this year, 670,000 Afghans fled their homes, according to the United Nations. And that figure accounts only for those who are internally displaced. More than 80,000 have escaped to neighboring countries, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Canada has committed to welcoming 40,000 refugees. By early December, almost 4,000 had made it. 

On Dec. 1, the UNHCR said it was “profoundly concerned” by growing risks Afghans face while fleeing to other countries as internal conditions worsen. The agency urged countries to keep borders open. “An inability to seek refuge may risk innumerable civilian lives,” the UNHCR said in a statement.

When the Taliban took Kandahar in August, Shams’ family went into hiding. Some of her family members made it to Kabul from Kandahar by air. But conflict broke out just as the rest of them arrived at the Kandahar airport. Shams’ mother was lost for a harrowing five hours and became unconscious in the chaos. 

One of Shams’ brothers found their mother and the family took shelter for the night. The next day they drove to Kabul, a trip that took most of the day as they triedto avoid checkpoints and landmines.

From Canada, Shams reached out to her networks to help her family. Among those who stepped up was Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), a media development group whose chair sponsored Shams when she first came to Canada. In August, JHR became involved in helping both journalists and human rights advocates flee Afghanistan. With funding from newsrooms and corporate sponsors, the group hired a security firm in Kabul to explore safe options for leaving the country. 

The 27 members of the Shams family — Roya’s mother, three brothers, two sisters and their respective families — were “in a particularly difficult situation because the vast majority of them did not have passports,” says JHR executive director Rachel Pulfer. “There was a real possibility that they would get to the border and be stopped.”

In Kabul, the family was no safer than they were in Kandahar. They tried to catch a flight out of the country multiple times, spending days and nights at the airport. Once, they missed a bombing at the airport by 30 minutes, Shams says. 

Seeing that it was safer to travel by land, in early September, Pulfer coordinated their departure to neighboring Pakistan with the help of the security firm. She arranged for their overnight travel from Kabul to Islamabad in two separate batches. The first bus got to Pakistan without trouble. 

But a child on the second bus had a name misspelling on one of their documents, taking hours of negotiations to resolve. After that, they made it safely into Islamabad. They spent three weeks being processed in Pakistan, where they obtained visas for Canada. Two of the family members caught COVID-19, so they had to isolate. 

But by early October, both groups flew safely to Canada. 

“I feel like I’m the luckiest human on this planet to be able to see my mother, to see [my family is] safe,” Shams says. “I can’t even believe it.” 

There were still about 500 Afghans on JHR’s list at the end of November who were looking to come to Canada, about 100 of whom were cleared to enter the country, Pulfer says. 

She adds that governments worldwide should open their doors to help the effort.

As for Shams family, they’re now in Ottawa, staying in a hotel while waiting to be housed. Though they’re safe, they carry scars from their homeland. Her family has nightmares. Shams suspects her mother has post-traumatic stress disorder. The children are also traumatized from witnessing brutal violence.

But she’s grateful they’re together.

“Thank God they’re safe,” Shams says. “It’s like a devastating movie with a good ending.”