How a deadly school bombing has galvanized Canada’s Afghan Hazara community

In front of Toronto City Hall, a crowd of nearly 300 people is chanting. “Canada! Canada! Attention! Attention!”

Among them stands Habib Athaee, a former educational specialist for UNICEF in Afghanistan, who immigrated to Canada in 2019.

“We are getting the attention of the world and the Canadian policy makers on Hazaras in Afghanistan,” says Athaee, 38.

“Hazaras have been discriminated against and oppressed,” he says.

The protest earlier this month, organized by members of the Hazara community in Canada, was part of a global outcry in the wake of a suicide bomb attack in late September on an educational centre in west Kabul. The bombing, in a predominantly Hazara neighbourhood, left more than 50 teenage girls dead.

The Hazara are a Shiite minority group in Afghanistan that has faced persecution by the Taliban and attacks from a local affiliate of the Islamic State in the country, known as Islamic State of Khorasan Province.

Athaee says advocacy for Hazaras should not be limited to protests. Instead, in the long run, the diaspora must form groups of lobbyists to influence Canadian politics.

“We should go one step forward: that’s lobby,” he tells the Star in Persian. “We want to be at the tables of policymakers.”

With the deadly Kabul attack drawing global attention for their plight, Athaee and other members of the Hazara community are asking for action from Canada and other countries.

The community here, which members put at between 7,000 and 10,000 families in Canada, has previously asked the government to initiate a special immigration process for Hazaras in Afghanistan, and expedite the settlement process for members of the ethnic group who have been waiting in other countries for years.

“Canada should take seriously the issue of Hazara settlement,” says Halima Bahman, the co-founder of Hazara Women Organization, a Woodbridge-based not-for-profit that advocates for the rights of Afghan women.

A survivor of the 1998 Taliban massacre in Mazar-e-Sharif, in which more than 2,000 people are believed to have died, Bahman, now in her 30s, was part of an advocacy team in 2019 that collected more than 500 signatures in a letter sent to the House of Commons. The letter was a plea for recognition of what they call Hazara genocide, encompassing years of persecution under the Taliban and the western-backed regime.

“I went house to house, park to park to collect signatures,” she says of her advocacy efforts. “The letter was submitted. But we haven’t heard any response.”

Bahman says that after the Taliban conquered Kabul in August 2021, the Canadian government prioritized the settlement of vulnerable people in Afghanistan, including ethnic and religious minority groups, but never mentioned Hazaras. “Canada didn’t do anything about them,” she says. (Canada has prioritized resettling Afghans who worked with the Canadian government.)

Hazaras in Afghanistan have been a key ally for Canada and other NATO countries, which had a military and diplomatic presence in the country after the Taliban’s ouster in 2001.

“In the last 20 years, Hazaras had worked with the Canadian government . Hazaras had walked side by side of Canadians in Afghanistan,” says Mohammad Hussain Hazara, a former director of the treasury in the Afghan finance ministry, who immigrated to Canada in 2018.

“Today, they are being avenged for working with Canadians.”

Hazaras are the third largest ethnic group among Afghanistan’s diverse population.

When the Taliban seized power in the 1990s, they persecuted the minority group, and committed mass killings, both in the heartland Hazara province of Bamyan and the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The Hazaras made significant political and educational gains in the past two decades following the ouster of the Taliban and with the presence of the international community. That included Hazara women seeking education and work in the government, opportunities that had been denied to women under the Taliban.

But in recent years, a string of attacks on Hazaras by extremist groups, including the Taliban — which is now back in power since August 2021 — have fuelled concerns that the group will suffer more if the world does not help. The Taliban have also been criticized for failing to provide to protect Hazaras from Islamic State attacks.

Recently, in the British Parliament, Conservative MP Anthony Browne raised concerns of the Hazaras.

“Two weeks ago, a bomb in Afghanistan killed … girls and young women. They were Hazaras. … Today, outside Parliament, Hazaras from across the U.K., including from my constituency, are gathering calling for international support to stop the slaughter,” he said. He asked the prime minister if her home minister would meet the protesters’ representative, which the PM approved.

Mohammad Hussain Hazara says his children ask him why “leaders of other countries are talking about the killing of Hazaras” but it’s not been discussed in Canada’s Parliament. “We haven’t heard a single thing from Canadian politicians,” says Hazara, who helped connect Canadian protesters to others around the world.

“I had no answer to them. I said that we protested and raised our voice. It’s possible that the Hazaras lives don’t matter for the government.”

While condemning the “rise of hatred in Afghanistan against religious minorities, including the Hazaras” Marilyne Guèvremont, a spokesperson of Global Affairs, told the Star that Canada is deeply concerned about the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation under the Taliban.

“We remain committed to advocating on behalf of persecuted religious and belief communities under threat, and to opposing religious hatred, discrimination and xenophobia … We strongly condemn ongoing violence with recurring terrorist attacks targeting, among others, members of ethnic and religious minorities and in particular members of the Hazara community.” she said. “The Government of Canada takes every opportunity to raise the issue of human rights for all Afghans in multilateral fora.”

She said Canada has pressed the Taliban on the Hazaras’ situation.

Canada has made a commitment to resettle at least 40,000 vulnerable Afghans by the end of next year, and so far more than 22,000 have arrived.

“Over half of Canada’s commitment focuses on those who assisted Canada, including 18,000 spaces for the Special Immigration Measures program (SIMs) for Afghan nationals and their families who closely assisted the Government of Canada, as well as 5,000 spaces for the extended family members of Afghan interpreters who came to Canada under earlier programs,” said Michelle Carbert, the spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

“The remainder of the spaces under this commitment focus on resettlement through the humanitarian stream, which includes both government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees, including women leaders, human rights defenders, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities like Sikhs, Hindus and Hazaras, 2SLGBTQI+ people and journalists.”

The organizers of recent demonstration have drafted a letter, aiming to send it to all Hazaras to share with their MPs. The letter will be sent to the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“Due to the persistent, organized and systematic nature of these attacks, the Canadian Hazaras are deeply concerned for the Hazaras in Afghanistan for humanitarian reasons beyond just familial and kinship ties,” reads the letter.

“Therefore we are appealing to our government, here in Canada, to condemn these heinous and targeted attacks on the Hazaras, and to set forth resources and do what Canada can to prevent any further attacks on the Hazaras by pressing the Taliban as the de facto regime to ensure the Hazara communities’ safety and security in Afghanistan.”

For Daoud Naji, a former prominent BBC Persian journalist who lives in London, the essential demand is that the world should recognize the historical persecution of Hazaras as a “genocide.” He called for action by international courts.

“Once it’s recognized as a genocide, the next move would be to stop it,” he said.

Bahman said the Canadian government should use its international influence to support the Hazaras.

“We will not stay quiet. Our silence means one Hazara gets killed every day,” she said.

“Those who are living under persecution in Afghanistan, they deserve to be heard and defended. It’s on us now.”

This month, members of the Hazara diaspora demonstrated in major cities around the globe, including Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Calgary, carrying signs that reads “Stop Hazara Genocide.” Their social media campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #StopHazaraGenocide has surpassed 10 million tweets.


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