This 21-year-old Afghan skier has fled the Taliban and fears for his life. Canada has rejected it

Nazima Khairzad grew up believing in the power of women in Afghanistan. Freed from Taliban rule, he took up competitive skiing with the boys at a local club in Bamyan.

This young woman first learned about the sport in 2015 through an overseas program aimed at empowering girls through athletics, and she fell in love with it. In 2020, after winning a bronze medal in the international race in Pakistan, he is even determined to represent Afghanistan at the Olympics one day.

For the past two weeks, Khairzad has been glued to the winter games in Beijing, mesmerized by the speed and movement of world-class athletes, shown on TV screens in a safe house in Pakistan, where he seeks refuge from the returning Taliban while imagining a future in Canada.

“My biggest wish is to ski at the Olympics. I want to be a professional skier and make Afghanistan proud and show other girls that it can be done,” the 21-year-old told Star in an interview.

“I believe I can do it. My father always said, ‘I don’t want you to marry someone and ask him for money. I want you to stand alone.’”

Khairzad made it out of Afghanistan last June with the help of skiers and other supporters he met, just as Kabul was falling to the Taliban. Eva zu Beck, a Polish travel blogger who hired Khairzad as her guide for an outdoor adventure tour of Afghanistan, managed to fly her to Islamabad on a temporary visa.

Jane Golubev from Calgary, also met the young woman on a tour; Golubev’s husband, Igor Tesker, later tried to help him to Canada from Pakistan, where Khairzad was alone and could face repatriation to Afghanistan at any time, given his temporary status.

Khairzad, whose story as a skier has been featured in The Guardian and celebrated on Afghanistan’s now-defunct Olympics website, saying her life was at risk under the Taliban both as an ethnic Hazara, a persecuted minority, and as a famous female athlete.

In October, Tesker and his wife applied for a temporary Canadian residency permit for Khairzad, via a formal invitation to visit him here to explore his options for settling in the country with their full financial support.

They hope Canada will allow him to enter and live under one of the special resettlement measures Ottawa launched last summer for Afghans in need of protection. To date, 7,885 Afghan nationals have arrived in Canada to achieve the Liberal government’s 40,000 goal.

However, Khairzad’s application has been rejected by the Canadian visa office in Abu Dhabi because officers do not believe he will be leaving Canada at the end of his stay. The Calgary couple appealed the decision before Canadian Federal Court.

“We have a girl, definitely one of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who find themselves in this dire situation. But this is a clear case for me. Nazima as a female, minority athlete really checked all the boxes to qualify to move to Canada,” said Tesker, a businessman who traveled to Pakistan last week to visit the girl.

“We will take care of Nazima. Please let us take him to Canada. We don’t need money. We don’t need grants. Let us buy his ticket and he can get his life back.”

Khairzad was born and raised in an era when Afghan girls like her were allowed to go to school to learn to read and write, and women were no longer required to wear the burqa from head to toe or be accompanied by a man when outside. It was all thanks to the arrival of western coalition forces, including Canadians, who helped oust the Taliban and rebuild the country ravaged by years of war.

Khairzad said his mother lost both her parents to the Taliban and married at a young age, and has spent her entire life sewing and baking to earn a living.

“I don’t think he knows the other life he could have. He doesn’t understand our desire to live differently,” said Khairzad, who finished high school last year and plans to study computer science in Kabul.

“My mother can’t go to school. He wasn’t even allowed out. And I can play volleyball and soccer, and run.”

Calgary lawyer Raj Sharma said Tesker and Golubev could have applied to take Khairzad to Canada under private refugee sponsorship, but the process would take years, and getting the young woman a temporary residence permit was the quickest way to get her out of harm’s way. method.

A permit is basically a special permit by immigration officials for foreign nationals to enter and stay in Canada under special circumstances. Once in Canada, the person can then access different pathways to becoming a permanent resident, whether as an international student, foreign worker, or asylum seeker.

“Part of the problem is the government seems to be talking a lot but when it comes to walking, it seems a bit shy,” said Sharma, who represents Khairzad.

“This is the perfect opportunity for the government to give effect to its eloquent statements about the plight of some of the most vulnerable and those at risk as a result of dictatorial and despotic regimes.”

Tesker agrees.

“Nazima is a very simple country girl who was ‘brainwashed’ by us about the power of being a woman. If that wasn’t the case, he would be married with three children by now, living in his village and looking at the mountains while doing his homework,” said Tesker.

“We, as the western world, came and showed him another way of life, which was very good. Now, his life has changed and he will not fit into that society anymore. With the Taliban, he will die.”

The Star did not contact immigration officials, who have stopped commenting on certain Afghanistan cases due to security and privacy concerns even with the person’s consent.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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