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Entrepreneur helping Afghans is “shining example of Canadian compassion,” Minister says


OTTAWA – A Toronto real estate developer who has worked tirelessly to help hundreds of people fleeing the Taliban settle in Canada – spending $ 50,000 to buy them essential supplies – has been hailed as a “shining example of Canadian compassion By the Minister of Immigration.

Wais Habibzai, who fled Afghanistan to Canada in 1992 after his home was destroyed by a rocket, launched a personal aid effort to provide clothing and other necessities to refugees who fled Kabul.

About 1,000 refugees are receiving food and shelter from the government as they prepare to resettle in Canada, Habibzai said. But he said the refugees, isolated in several Toronto hotels, lacked many essentials, including clean underwear, phones and bottles.

Many of the refugees arrived with only the clothes on their backs and Habibzai bought them clothes from Walmart.

The Afghan-Canadian businessman turned conference rooms in refugee hotels into depots for clothing and essentials, recruiting dozens of people to volunteer as translators and help fund the effort to aid.

He goes to local stores daily to buy underwear, shoes, jeans and shirts, baby bottles, formula and personal hygiene products. He also bought chocolate, candy and toys for the children, as well as prayer rugs and hijabs for some older women.

Habibzai, 40, said he was delighted to see young refugees, arriving in traditional Afghan clothing, walking around Toronto hotels “like real Canadians” in jeans and T-shirts bearing the Canadian flag.

“Some came with (traditional clothes). The next day, they were wearing the shoes I gave them: T-shirts, jeans. I went to Walmart and bought them some T-shirts with the flag of Canada on it. They loved it. They were walking like real Canadians, ”he said.

“20-22 year olds want to be modern.”

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said welcoming Afghans “would not be possible without the generosity of Wais and so many others like him”.

“As Afghan refugees sought shelter from persecution and war, Canada intervened. And as refugees now begin new lives in Canada, Canadians are taking over. Few embody this spirit better than Wais Habibzai. noted.

“And as a refugee himself, he is the living embodiment of Canada’s ‘intergenerational cycle of immigration’, where each generation of newcomers welcomes the next.

The Immigration Department says it helped 3,700 evacuees, including Canadian citizens and permanent residents, to flee Afghanistan, which recently fell to the Taliban. But he was criticized for not helping enough to escape. Its special immigration program has been plagued by bureaucratic and technical problems.

Habibzai visits refugee hotels every day to find out what those who have made it to Canada need. He recruited Afghan family and friends to translate and raised thousands of dollars to supplement the $ 50,000 he spent himself.

“I said, ‘Give me a list of what you need. I’ll buy it: diapers, milk, whatever you want. One man said, “I only have one pair of underwear.” , “he explained.

He said refugees who had left their families behind were desperate to know they were safe, but often had no way to make contact.

Habibzai bought them phones and SIM cards, as well as chargers suitable for Canadian outlets, so they could stay in touch with relatives and friends safe from the Taliban.

He also offered to house several desperate families in his vacant properties without rent for a year. But he says many newcomers have money and are well educated.

The Toronto businessman, whose father was a director of an Afghan national television station and a former diplomat, was forced to flee Afghanistan after the mujahedin – religious fighters who fought against the Russian occupation, evolving into Taliban – destroyed his house with a rocket launcher. .

He arrived in Canada in 1992, at the age of 14, and said his experience as a new immigrant had motivated him to help fleeing Afghans. He wants to “give back” to the country that took him in, because he remembers how “hard” it was for him to arrive in Canada “with nothing”.

“My father had to quit his job, and since our house was destroyed by the rocket launcher,” he said. “It was very difficult for my father to find a rented apartment (in Canada) because he had no credit, no job, and his English was not good. It was hard. My father was a strong man. He wanted to work, no matter what. took, no matter what, even though he was a diplomat for years. “

Eventually, her father accepted a position as manager of a convenience store. Habibzai eventually founded his own real estate company, buying his first house at age 18 and selling it to fund his college fees. He now builds homes in Toronto and runs a real estate company, as well as tech companies in Afghanistan.

“Today, I build houses and, thanks to Canada, I was educated here. My brother played soccer professionally for Team Canada, ”he said. “It’s because of this beautiful country. And I want to give back.”

The businessman also gave newcomers tips on life in Canada, including how to download apps and order pizza.

“Two things I tell them about this country are, ‘Study and work and think of nothing else,’ he said.

“I tell them, ‘Look, I’m nobody. I’m just this young Afghan-Canadian businessman. I came here, like you, with $ 20 in my pocket or not even that, with nothing. But the Canada is the land of opportunity: you can be anyone. “‘

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on September 12, 2021.

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