The Current

How 3 strangers are helping refugees start new lives in Canada

What do a former refugee from Afghanistan, an advocate in Canada and a retired academic in Australia have in common? These three strangers found an unexpected connection and pooled their money and skills to change the lives of refugees forever.

Many Afghan refugees stuck in Indonesia with nowhere to go

Collage of three people: an older caucasian woman, a young Afghan man and a middle aged caucasian man.
Left to right: Miriam Faine, Shams Erfan and Stephen Watt work together to bring Afghan refugees from Indonesia to Canada via the country's private sponsorship program. (Submitted by Miriam Faine and Shams Erfan; Alisa Siegel/CBC)

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.

A young man sits on a chair outside in a backyard surrounded by greenery.
Erfan is a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan. He fled the country in 2014, and spent more than eight years stuck in Indonesia. He arrived in Canada in 2022, thanks to the country's private sponsorship program. (Alisa Siegel/CBC)

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.

Several men read and write in books in a cramped room.
Shams Erfan, standing, holds a class with other refugees while at a detention centre in Indonesia. (Submitted by Shams Erfan)

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.

Two groups of people speak to each other outside. One side is holding cameras, while the other side is holding a sign, part of which can be seen writing reading 'want freedom.'
Shams Erfan and other refugees speak to local media in Indonesia about their plight. (Submitted by Shams Erfan)

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.

Illustrated map showing Manus and Nauru islands off the coast of Australia.
Under Australia's hardline immigration policy, asylum seekers intercepted trying to reach the country by boat are sent for processing at camps on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and the tiny Pacific Ocean nation of Nauru. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

"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.

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." 

Eight men pose for a photo in a backyard surrounded by greenery.
Stephen Watt, front row centre, and Erfan, third from right, pose for a photo along with other former refugees and friends at a gathering in Toronto (Alisa Siegel/CBC)

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.

Three young men and an older woman pose for a photo at a cafe.
Miriam Faine, second from right, is a retired academic based in Australia. She pays for Hazara refugees in Indonesia to resettle in Canada via our private sponsorship program. (Submitted by Miriam Faine)

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."

Saying yes

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 man takes a selfie with himself in the semi-foreground with three other people in the mid-ground.
Erfan, right, poses with his sponsor family for a photo at Cherry Beach in Toronto in March 2022. (Submitted by Shams Erfan)

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.'"

Corrections

  • 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.

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