Afghan translators who helped Canadian army adapt to life in Toronto
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Sayed Shah Sharifi has discovered a simple strategy for figuring out the Canadian way of doing things during the six months since the former translator for the Canadian military in Afghanistan made this country his home: just observe Canadians and copy them.
Usually it works. He learned subway etiquette by watching TTC commuters as they quietly listened to music on earphones and did not make eye contact with strangers. In Afghanistan, people on public transport are boisterous.
“Life here is like watching a movie. I watch the movie and copy it,” said Sharifi, 24.
Sometimes the tactic doesn’t work. Dec. 25 was his first-ever Christmas but when he wandered out of his 21st-floor North York apartment to see how this famous Christian holiday was celebrated, he was surprised to see deserted streets.
During religious festivals back home, the restaurants, mosques, Sufi shrines and parks are packed with families.
“I was like, ‘why aren’t people outside?’ Then Hasham told me Canadians stay home and eat turkey,” said Sharifi.
Hasham Mohammad, also a former combat interpreter, is one of the first friends Sharifi made when he landed in Toronto last July after a two-year battle with the Canadian government to get a visa under a special program to protect Afghans working with Canadian forces or officials.
Sharifi, 24, was staying at a reception centre run by COSTI Immigration Services, a settlement agency which helps newcomers in the Greater Toronto Area, when Mohammad, invited Sharifi to live with him and two other former military translators.
The four comrades-in-arms now live in a sparsely furnished apartment where a 32-inch flat screen television dominates the living room. The bachelor pad has become a magnet for neighbours, said Akif Khushal, 25, one of the roommates as he passed around cups of tea.
“The guys who are married in this building come here at night to play cards with us,” he said. “Once you marry, you have children right away and then it becomes hard to do anything.”
Finding their feet in a new country is a struggle. They say they are eager to become productive, taxpaying citizens but the immigration program doesn’t help in finding work.
“We are grateful we have been brought here and have a new life but they have just dropped us here in Canada with no way to figure out how to settle down and get work,” said Khushal who is studying English.
Sharifi is the only one with a job — he earns 12.50 an hour working five days a week in Scarborough for ABnote, a plastic card manufacturer. He got the job because its chief executive Bud Kronenberg read about Sharifi’s plight in The Star and decided to give him a chance.
“At the end of the month, I send half my money home,” said Sharifi who supports his parents and eight siblings in Kandahar. “My father doesn’t work. My elder brother is not educated, he cannot write so he cannot earn much money.”
In the evenings, Sharifi takes a bus to the City Adult Learning Centre on Danforth Ave. to study English and earn his high-school degree.
Eventually, he wants to study political science at university.
His roommates are also studying English.
Rahmatullah Ismatullah, 25, has a licence to work as a security guard but employers want Canadian experience.
“I have seven-and-a-half years of experience with the military in Kandahar but this is not good enough,” he said.
But at least they no longer live in fear of the Taliban who kill Afghans who have worked with foreigners, said Sharifi who worked for Canadian troops from Nov. 2007 until March 2010.
They are reminded of their good fortune when they call families back in Kandahar — a task helped by a clock in the living room set to Afghan time.
Khushal, 25, said their parents have kept their whereabouts a secret from friends and neighbours because admitting their sons are former interpreters living in Canada would put their families at risk.
“Our families always say we are in Kabul to learn or in some other province,” he said. “My family says I am in Europe to study.”
They try not to take life too seriously and laugh at their mistakes.
Sharifi recounts the story of how he once gave a small boy on the subway a $5 note and patted him on the head because the child reminded him of his nephews.
In Afghanistan, strangers show physical affection to children and give them candies.
“But in Canada you are not supposed to be close to children and touch them,” he said. “Hasham told me I did something stupid. The boy’s mother was looking at me very strangely but I explained I was new to Canada.”
“Everything has changed for us, but we are running with it,” he said.
“We are young, we are single.”
Which is why on New Year’s Eve Sharifi and his friends planned to go to Yonge-Dundas Square and observe how Canadian revelers ring in 2013.