How 3 strangers are helping refugees start new lives in Canada
Many Afghan refugees stuck in Indonesia with nowhere to go
Originally published Nov. 24, 2023
Warning: This story contains mention of suicide.
When Shams Erfan arrived in Toronto in March of 2022, it marked the end of nearly eight years spent in political limbo in Indonesia — much of it in prison-like detention centres.
"When a Canadian immigration officer stamped my permanent residency paper and told me, 'Welcome to Canada,' I felt human. I felt reborn," Erfan, a refugee originally from Afghanistan, told the CBC's Alisa Siegel.
Erfan fled Afghanistan in late 2014 at the age of 15, on the run from the Taliban, the militant Islamist group. Like thousands of other Afghan refugees, he soon found himself trapped in Indonesia.
He eventually ended up in Toronto, thanks to Canada's private sponsorship program.
Now 25, Erfan is working with Canadian refugee advocate Stephen Watt and Australian retired academic and donor Miriam Faine to help bring other refugees from Indonesia — some of whom have been there for up to a decade — to start new lives in Canada.
"To me, it goes without saying that we need to support people who are fleeing [for] their lives. And I feel a compulsion to do what I can to support refugees," said Faine, who estimates she's helped nearly 200 refugee cases.
Erfan was born and raised in a remote village in eastern Afghanistan. He is Hazara, an ethnic group that has long been persecuted by the Taliban, which is a predominantly Pashtun nationalist group.
In 2014, Taliban members pulled Erfan off a bus and accused him of being a traitor. They slapped his face and called him "the servant of Westerners," he recalled.
"I was 100 per cent convinced that I was about to be shot dead," Erfan said.
He believes it was thanks to the intervention of a stranger — a woman who told the Taliban that Erfan was her son — that saved his life. But he knew he had to flee the country.
With the help of paid smugglers, Erfan fled to India, then Malaysia, and eventually sailed to Indonesia. There, he hoped to find refugee status and a safe haven. Instead, he spent a year on the streets of the capital, Jakarta.
By 2015, the only option for shelter, food and medical treatment came with surrendering to a migrant detention centre run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Erfan quickly learned, however, that the centre was effectively a prison, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.
"We had only one toilet in the block, for 180 people. We had only one public washroom," Erfan recalled. "We would receive running water for an hour a day and each person had five minutes, sometimes three minutes."
Nowhere to go
According to February 2023 data from the UN Refugee Agency, there are 12,710 registered refugees in Indonesia. More than half are originally from Afghanistan; many, like Erfan, are Hazara. In 2021, only 457 refugees — about 3.5 per cent — were resettled to another country.
The IOM is a sister agency of the UN, but it has a different mandate from the UNHCR, according to Levon Sevunts, communications officer for the UNHCR.
"UNHCR's global mandate is to protect, assist and find durable solutions for refugees," he said in an email, while the IOM "works on matters related to migration, including assisting migrants stranded in conflict situations with return to their home countries."
They often work together, with the IOM offering the UNHCR support to either return refugees to their home country — an often impossible option — or resettle them in a third country.
Those hoping to settle in Australia in particular have found that door shut.
In 2013, the country instituted its controversial Operation Sovereign Borders policy. Since then, Australia has forcibly transferred more than 3,000 migrants and refugees to offshore processing camps in nearby places like Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the South Pacific.
Australia's history of sending refugees who arrived by boat to Indonesia goes back even further, to at least 2007, as part of what it called its Pacific Solution policy.
"So the idea is by trapping people in countries like Indonesia, it'll be like a red flag for [any potential refugee] who thought they might do the same," said Watt.
In 2021, following the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, demonstrations erupted over the IOM and UN's failure to help refugees resettle in third countries. One refugee set himself on fire, according to Al Jazeera.
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Erfan saw other detainees' hopes evaporate as they realized they were not getting to Australia. One night, he walked into the centre's yard and found a friend hanging from a rope.
"I held him up so he could breathe in my arms. But he was so heavy. A friend brought a knife and he cut the rope. And I fell down together with him," he said.
In 2018, Erfan was transferred to a refugee shelter with better conditions — but he still wasn't free to come and go as he wished.
Funding an escape path
Erfan spent years writing for international publications and for The Archipelago, an online literary magazine he co-founded with other refugees about the plight they faced.
It was during that time that he caught the attention of Stephen Watt.
"The tone was polite, but with an edge of need," said Watt. "He knew that if he didn't connect with Canadians, he was probably going to be stuck there for another decade."
Watt helped Erfan to search for a Canadian sponsor. Finally, a woman in Burlington, Ont., agreed to do it. Erfan's application was submitted in January 2020, and approved two years later. In March 2022, more than eight years after he arrived in Indonesia, he landed in Toronto.
Erfan has since become a PEN Canada writer-in-residence at Toronto's George Brown College. He also works with Watt at Northern Lights Canada, Watt's nonprofit group dedicated to assisting refugees hoping to come to Canada — often with financial help from Faine. (Faine inherited money from her parents as well as from a close friend, and she has used all of these funds to help Hazara refugees.)
Faine covers half of the sponsorship costs, which can run between $9,000 and $18,000 per person when a prospective sponsor in Canada can't afford to pay for the process.
"Honestly at this stage in my life, I don't need the money," Faine said.
She also sends money to many other refugees directly. Some are destined for Canada, Australia and the United States. Others have found their way to Europe and Turkey.
Faine's contributions are a "game-changer," Watt said. "I haven't seen a donor ever do what she's done."
For Faine, this is personal. Her own mother was a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and settled in New Zealand.
"In many ways, I have taken on my mother's feeling of responsibility for other people in that situation," she said.
Erfan's siblings and their families fled Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban returned to power in 2021. They've been in Pakistan ever since.
A local Toronto church agreed to sponsor them. Faine provided the more than $60,000 needed to cover the costs. Erfan hopes to finally reunite with his family in Canada next spring.
"Too many people in the world go around saying no for all sorts of reasons," said Faine. "And to be able to say yes to someone is one of the nicest things in the world — to be able to say to someone, 'Yes, we can help.'"
- This story has been updated to correct Levon Sevunts's title and to note that the UNHCR and IOM have worked together to return refugees — not asylum seekers, whose asylum claims may not yet be heard — to their home country.Nov 27, 2023 11:39 AM ET
The CBC Radio documentary Say Yes was produced by Alisa Siegel.