By Watson, PaulStar Columnist
The agonizing years of worrying that the Taliban would get him before he could get to Canada are over.
Sayed Shah Sharifi, a former combat interpreter for Canadian forces in Kandahar, arrived in Toronto from Afghanistan Sunday, ending a more than two-year fight to reach safety in Canada.
Philip Hunter, who worked closely with Sharifi, 24, as a combat medic, drove down from Ottawa with his wife, Oana, to welcome his comrade to the new home Sharifi often doubted he would live to see.
“Good to see you, buddy!” said Hunter, relieved but teary-eyed after waiting more than two hours in the reception area of Pearson airport’s Terminal 1, wondering if Sharifi had hit yet another snag.
“You made it!” Hunter beamed, shaking his head in disbelief after hugging Sharifi tight. “We’re brothers from different mothers.”
“Thanks a lot — to everybody,” Sharifi replied. “You really did a lot for me.”
In the end, after all the incessant danger and fear of life in a war zone, the hardest part for Sharifi was saying goodbye to his parents and siblings, who must now survive without him.
“They said, ‘You are leaving us alone,’ ” he said, as airline travellers pushed their way past. “I told them, ‘It is for my safety to go there. Some day, I will come back and see you guys.’ ”
Sharifi was also met by a representative of COSTI Immigrant Services, a settlement agency that helps some 42,000 clients, speaking 60 different languages, in the Greater Toronto Area each year.
The agency’s financial backers include the federal and provincial governments, the City of Toronto, the United Way and the Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund.
While he gets his bearings, Sharifi will live at a COSTI reception centre in Toronto, where he will get help finding a more permanent home.
Sharifi is also eager to find a job, and go back to school. He’s thinking about getting a degree in political science.
After Hunter was redeployed to Canada, he tried to stay in touch with Sharifi by email. When he suddenly lost contact, Hunter feared the worst.
And then he saw his old friend, as courageous as ever, standing up for himself and other rejected interpreters on the front page of the Toronto Star last summer. And Hunter immediately rallied to join the fight.
He knew well what might happen if Sharifi didn’t win this one.
In the summer of 2008, not long before Hunter was stationed on one of the toughest battlegrounds, an Afghan interpreter from the frontline base disappeared after going on home leave.
When his corpse was found by the roadside, it seemed the Taliban had stopped the young man, searched him and discovered a Canadian military letter of recommendation.
“He was found with their letter affixed to his chest with a knife,” Hunter said.
Sharifi worked as an interpreter for Canadian troops in Kandahar from November 2007 to March 2010.
He applied for a visa under a special program that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney set up to protect Afghans who faced retaliation from Taliban-led insurgents because they worked alongside Canadian troops or officials.
Sharifi had tentative approval last summer, but after complaining in a July 2011 story about long delays, and fears that he would be killed before a visa came through, Sharifi was suddenly rejected.
Kenney defended the decision, insisting a three-member panel, which included a senior Canadian military officer and diplomat in Afghanistan, didn’t find Sharifi’s claims of Taliban death threats credible.
As Hunter and other Canadian soldiers who served with Sharifi quietly lobbied on his behalf, the Defence department also fought a bureaucratic battle for him.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper intervened, forcing Kenney to review scores of Afghans’ applications rejected under the special program.
Under loosened rules, the rejected applicants no longer had to prove they faced extraordinary risk, acknowledging the reality that the Taliban considers any Afghan who has worked with foreigners a collaborator with infidel invaders.
Harper pulled all Canadian combat troops out of Kandahar last fall and the final Canadian civilian, an aid official working under U.S. military protection, left the Taliban heartland this spring.
Several hundred Canadian troops are in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and northern provinces training Afghan security forces.
The U.S. and its remaining NATO allies still in Afghanistan plan to have their combat forces out by the end of 2014, while Washington is expected to leave behind a small contingent to deal with any remnants of Al Qaeda.
But the main fight against the Taliban and allied insurgents will be left up to the Afghan military and police. The Taliban’s northern Afghan enemies are quietly rearming, laying the foundation for what many fear will be a new, vicious civil war.
As Sharifi packed to leave Kandahar, and his family, NATO reported Thursday that insurgent attacks increased 11 per cent during the past three months, compared to the same period last year.
June saw the most attacks since 2010, when the war sharply escalated under a surge of fresh U.S. combat forces that President Barack Obama hoped would deliver a death blow to the insurgency.