Baker, realtor, musician, lawyer, counsellor, soccer player, writer – in any conversation with Afghans in Greater Toronto, they will say, “The first thing you have to remember is we are a resilient people.”
Such a conversation will invariably be accompanied by a glass of tea. Afghans are also hospitable people.
Farid Asghary was a renowned painter in Kabul but in the past seven years has built up the successful Arya Home Bakery & Sweets on the Danforth.
After a generation of steady, sorrowful immigration to Canada, as one war bled into another in their homeland, the Afghan community in Toronto is coming of age, producing a homegrown band of young professionals.
Despite their accomplishments, they are mindful of just how damaged the newest émigrés are, the ones who arrived in the post-9/11 third wave. (The first wave came after the Soviet invasion of 1979, the second from 1991-96, during the civil war eventually won by the Taliban.)
When Dwajid Taheri arrived 23 years ago, he was 14, alone and spoke no English. Now he’s one of the first Afghan-Canadian lawyers in Toronto, wearing monogrammed shirts and Burberry ties in an office with a fireplace and leather chairs.
But he knows how to play hardball with today’s high school kids from Afghanistan, who run with gangs, fight, skip school and get arrested.
“The newer arrivals, the young people, have been raised in violence. A full generation has had no schooling. They’ve been back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan (refugee camps) two or three times. And they are so angry at everything. When I was in high school, I was like that. I have a heart-to-heart chat with them.
“I am more than just Afghan. I have a deep loyalty to this country. I owe it to these people to help.”
Like his compatriots here, Taheri appreciates the intentions of the Canadian troops in his homeland but wishes Westerners had a deeper grasp of its history.
“My heart goes out to those soldiers. These deaths are not necessary,” he said. “Talk to any Afghan. I have not found one person who believes the military option is a solution.
“It is a misguided assumption that the Taliban are in Afghanistan. They’re not. They’re in Pakistan. You can kill as many as you want and the door is still open for more.”
There were 14,000 Afghans in Toronto in the 2001 census and 23,230 in the 2006. On average more than 2,000 have arrived into the GTA every year since 1996, with a peak of 3,934 in 2001.
Mariam Mahbob fled Afghanistan 15 years ago. She started the first local Afghan newspaper, Ar Zarnegaar, and has published a book of short stories about women and their lives – a sort of Afghan Alice Munro.
She and her husband, a poet, are financing an association in Kabul to help writers and poets.
“Democracy means nothing for people who have nothing to eat,” she says. “If I have the money, I will help them.”
James Hussaini, who arrived with his family in 1997 at age 20, says adapting to a new country is not easy. He would rather have been a lawyer, but as the eldest son, he had to help support the family. Selling real estate pays the bills.
“No matter how hard I try, I can’t think, talk, walk like I grew up here,” says Hussaini.
His passion is to bridge the gap between young Afghans and their parents, “who are physically here but mentally still in Afghanistan.”
He’s hopeful. He named his new daughter Tamana – “hope.”
Neelofer Hajran, a customer service manager at TD Canada Trust, knows well the tug-of-war between old and new world values.
“It was very hard for my family to accept so much freedom here,” the 26-year-old said via Facebook. “My family still doesn’t like seeing their kids going out with friends or watching a movie in theatres.”
Then there’s Roain Satarzadeh, gelled hair and leather jacket but sporting a keychain with a photo of his 8-year-old brother. His solution for the damaged, angry teen immigrants? Run them ragged.
Last year, in their spare time, Satarzadeh, 22, and two friends created the Canadian Afghan Sports Association for soccer, volleyball and basketball. They staged the second Canadian Afghan Cup at the Hershey Centre last December.
On March 14, they launch the first Afghan Chess Tournament at the Habib Banquet Hall in Scarborough.
Satarzadeh’s organization has the advantage of being able to draw upon former professional soccer stars in the émigré community as coaches.
“The level of stuff that used to happen is down,” Satarzadeh says. “Support is the main thing.”
A seminal 2005 study found nearly a third of Afghan teens in Toronto reported experiencing war trauma and nearly two-thirds said their families had. Three-quarters said they had problems adjusting at school; 21 per cent reported being suspended or expelled from school, most often for fighting.
Three years ago, Zarsanga Popal, 30, helped write a report on how to help Afghan youth.
At the time, she was a social worker affiliated with Sabawoon – a community organization created several years ago after a wave of suicides among alienated Afghan youths in Toronto.
Married now with a house in Oakville – “the immigrant dream is the 905” – Popal is more determined than ever to fix misconceptions about Afghan immigrants.
“A lot of people portray us as a poor-victim, suffering community. Yes, we’ve been disadvantaged, but a lot of people miss where this community is going, its strengths.”
Social life revolves around weekly worship at the mosque and big weddings – big, as in 500 or more and guests. (They have come to appreciate Italian wedding halls.)
“Everybody gets invited, your next-door neighbours, business acquaintances, family, friends,” says Maryam Alesi, who is on maternity leave from the Afghan Women’s Organization but does bookings for the Afghan Women’s Catering Group.
“In times of instability and devastation and sadness and loss, a wedding is the start of a new life for a couple,” says Popal, who has a newborn daughter. ” Weddings are a big part of our culture.”
Farid Asghary makes the “very fancy” five-tier cakes for those weddings at his Arya Home Bakery & Sweets, at Danforth Ave. and Main St. In seven years, he has built up a broad multicultural trade, offering Afghan bread and sweets, Indian sweets, and Greek and Turkish pastries, along with his own creations.
It’s an outlet of sorts for a man who, when he arrived in Toronto, was renowned in Kabul as an artist who staged exhibits, before he realized he couldn’t make a living here as a painter.
Unlike Asghary, Vaheed Kaacemy can still make a living with his art.
Kaacemy was a high-profile musician in Kabul who fled the threat of death at the hands of the Taliban. “They didn’t like music,” he notes.
He played stadium concerts in 1984 and still writes songs, teaches and performs around the world.
He used young local voices to record 16 songs in four Afghan languages. The songbook and CD, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, were launched at a gala in 2006 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Thousands of copies have been distributed to children in Afghanistan.
He would love to do more to preserve a musical legacy at risk of being obliterated by war.
“There is a musician, a singer, who is very old, 107 years old. He lives in Baluchistan (lying partly in Afghanistan). If we could spend five, six, seven hours with him, recording what he knows, we can preserve our culture.
“If he dies, we have nothing. If we wait for war to end in Afghanistan, it will not get done.”