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Toronto organizations raise awareness, funds for crisis in Afghanistan

Students discuss advocacy efforts, personal connections to ongoing crisis
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ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY
ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY

On August 15, the Taliban captured the capital city of Afghanistan, Kabul, effectively taking control of the country during a months-long withdrawal by US troops. By the end of the month, US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops had left the country, formally ending a 20-year war.

The war and ensuing occupation has been devastating for Afghans, marred by corruption, profiteering from US defence contractors, and at least 150,000 deaths, many of them civilians. It was preceded by a proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, a civil war between Islamist groups in the 1990s, and Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. 

Previously condemned for banning women’s education and confining them to their homes, the Taliban have once again barred girls from secondary schools and urged them to stay home. Matters are further complicated by the fact that rural women — who account for the majority of women in Afghanistan — bore the brunt of the war.

Afghanistan now faces a fresh humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands displaced and millions at risk of starvation. Individuals and groups in the diaspora have also been outspoken about the ongoing crisis. The Varsity spoke to Toronto community members about their aid work, advocacy, and personal experiences. 

Community aid

Toronto based non-profits like Afghans of Toronto, founded by Farhad Ahmad, have been working hard to get relief to newly landed refugees and those in Afghanistan who are in need. The organization has also raised $21,000 for humanitarian aid and was recently able to send it after delays caused by the Taliban’s takeover. 

Discussing some of the victims of the crisis in an interview with The Varsity, Ahmad said that “there’s no milk supplement, there was no food for them, and there’s no tents or blankets for them to sleep on.” However, he said that it has been heartwarming to see the sheer amount of community support, especially for recent refugee arrivals. 

“We’ve been doing a lot of clothing drives, we’ve been doing a lot of toy drives [and] toiletry drives,” Ahmad explained. He mentioned an outpouring of donations and volunteer interest, from the Afghan community and beyond. As a result, Afghans of Toronto has delivered roughly 250 boxes of supplies to incoming refugees. 

He noted that anyone who would like to help can donate to the organization’s GoFundMe or donate items directly. 

For Ahmad, one of over 80,000 Afghan Canadians, the crisis is deeply personal. He takes solace in the fact that he is doing something for his people and hopes that Afghans of Toronto’s work will show refugees that “somebody is here to be your backbone in this country.”

Furthermore, he called on the Canadian government and Western governments more broadly to do more to support Afghans, saying that Canada’s commitment to take in 20,000 refugees is not enough. Canada has admitted less than half that number so far.

Student support

Students in the Afghan diaspora have also been involved in advocacy and aid efforts, including Hena Noorzada, a fourth-year human biology and mental health studies student and current co-president of the Afghan Student Union at UTSC.

In an interview with The Varsity, she spoke about her work through MakeAnImpact, a non-profit organization she founded that works to support impoverished communities worldwide. 

“We actually started a fundraiser and it raised over $10,000,” said Noorzada. The fundraiser was meant to provide imperishable food items to displaced families in Afghanistan, but it has been put on hold due to bank closures and restrictions. 

Undeterred, Noorzada ran a 48-hour campaign to raise money for supplies and items for new refugees in Canada, and has also been raising awareness through interviews and protests. Like Ahmad, she has been grateful for the support of others in the diaspora too. 

Noorzada hopes to continue raising awareness and fundraising through her role at the Afghan Student Union, and hopes for more support from the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, expressing disappointment at their relative inactivity. 

As to how others can support Afghans, she pointed out that people could raise awareness, volunteer at hotels hosting refugees, and donate to fundraisers supporting refugees and vulnerable groups in Afghanistan. 

Noorzada also expressed the guilt that she and others in the diaspora feel over being in a privileged place so far away from the crisis. “We’re not back home,” she said. “We’re not going through what they are.”

“It’s just pretty heartbreaking,” she added. She pointed out that, in spite of desensitized media coverage and the resources underlying the conflicts, “Afghanistan is still a beautiful country that has a beautiful culture.” 

University response

In mid-August, Joseph Wong, U of T’s vice-president international, released a statement expressing the university’s intent to assist its community members in Afghanistan. In a recent email to The Varsity, a university spokesperson elaborated on these efforts. 

“Currently, we are assisting five Afghan journalists who worked for international media outlets to take up fellowships in Global Journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health,” the spokesperson wrote. Additionally, the university has assisted students and their families, as well as a human rights activist, who had to flee Afghanistan. These individuals have successfully left the country.

Moreover, the spokesperson pointed to U of T’s engagement with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and other relevant contacts that aimed to “support Afghan fellows, students and scholars to come to Canada.” The university hopes to pursue such efforts into the future within its limits.

Hopes and worries

The Varsity also spoke with Khadija Hosseini, a fourth-year business administration student and the sitting vice-president finance of the Afghan Student Association (ASA) at UTM. Hosseini was involved with Afghans of Toronto over the summer. 

Having left Afghanistan at the age of 16, the crisis is close to home to Hosseini in a different way than it is to others. “I had friends and a normal life,” she said. 

While she sees Afghanistan as home, it was a frightening place to live. “[The Taliban] would attack mosques, malls, schools, after-school courses, or just literally anybody on the street,” she explained. 

Hosseini wants others to get educated about the crisis, stating that “you can’t help them out if you don’t know what the problem is.” She said people should watch documentaries, do independent reading, look at multiple news sources, and talk to others as means of understanding the crisis. 

She would also like Canada to lobby for humanitarian aid and human rights, and U of T to champion education for all and offer more scholarships. 

Contrary to the narrative that Afghans do not want to fight back against the Taliban, her hopes lie in the resistance of ordinary people. Numerous anti-Taliban and womens’ rights protests have taken place across the country in the wake of the takeover, in spite of Taliban crackdowns. 

“These people are putting their lives on the line,” Hosseini emphasized. “They are literally standing up to and looking something that they’ve feared for many, many years in the eye. And they’re telling [the Taliban] ‘okay, I do not accept you’… So these small acts of bravery — it’s everything.”