In the summer of 2001, Const. Mustafa Popalzai and his family arrived in Toronto as refugees after fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“My dad was an artist and he had to shut down everything and bring us here because of safety concerns,” recalled the 51 Division Neighbourhood Community Officer who arrived to Canada at age 13.
Just over two decades later, Popalzai has found himself helping Afghan refugees make the transition in their new country.
Canada is assisting in the resettlement of 20,000 vulnerable Afghan nationals following the Taliban takeover of the country.
Nearly 2,000 people arrived in Toronto a few weeks ago.
“When I came, there wasn’t a community that reached out to us,” said Popalzai, who joined the Service seven years ago. “I am so glad this is happening now for these people who are in desperate need of all the assistance they can get. This is a little bit different than when we and few others came. There were about 250 of us on that flight. This is a mass exodus.”
With the help of his partner, Const. Farzad Ghotbi, Project Hope was born, enlisting the efforts of community partners to collect household items and clothing for refugees.
“These refugees came here with just the clothes on their backs,” said Popalzai. “They weren’t allowed to bring anything on the military planes because the space was needed to bring as much people as possible. All they have is hope of living a better life in Canada.”
He said the refugees will have to adjust to life in Canada in ways big and small.
“They have to learn English, the culture and simple things like shopping in a store. When I came here, I didn’t know you have to stand in a line. I just went straight to the front because that’s how things are done in Afghanistan. Nobody stands in a line.”
He said it’s ultimately a time of great excitement and anxiety.
“They are super thrilled to be here, but they have a lot of needs to be met. All they are getting right now is food, which is placed outside of the doors they are staying because of COVID.”
With the support of his Division and community agencies, including Polycultural Immigrant & Community Services, Afghans of Toronto as well a local Starbucks, Popalzai and Ghotbi have delivered clothing and food for the refugees.
“Our front lobby was filled with clothing after the word was put out that we are assisting the refugees,” said Popalzai. “We had to rent a large truck and make three trips.”
He said there is a need for food, clothing, diapers, wipes, baby formula, toys, backpacks and strollers.
“Many of these families have small kids that they are carrying in their arms,” he said. “They were extremely happy when we delivered strollers. It’s a huge help for the parents.”
Ghotbi is excited to be part of the initiative.
“I am from Iran which shares a border with Afghanistan and I also came here as a refugee,” he said. “When he heard that Afghan refugees were coming, we decided we would visit them, see what the needs are and then go from there. As soon as we got there, they surrounded us and told us they didn’t have anything besides the clothes on their backs.”
The response was overwhelming after Ghotbi put out a call on Instagram for donations.
“People were bringing stuff to 51 Division,” said Ghotbi. “With assistance from Afghans of Toronto, we sorted through the clothing, put them in boxes and then made the deliveries to the refugees who were overjoyed.”