Reaching Out to Refugees

51 Division
With the regular arrival of Afghan refugees in the city in the past few months, Toronto Police Consts. Mustafa Popalzai and Farzhad Ghotbi have been at the forefront spearheading efforts to help the newcomers gain a foothold in their new home.

Canada is assisting in the resettlement of 20,000 vulnerable Afghanis following the Taliban takeover of the country in August. Almost half are expected to settle in the Greater Toronto Area.

With the help of community partners, including Starbucks, Canadian Tire, the TGI Corporation, Calvin Klein, Toronto Community Housing and local donors, Project Hope emerged.

“Like every immigrant, the refugees came to Canada with just hope for a better life,” said Popalzai, who himself arrived as an Afghan refugee 20 years ago.

Three large cargo vans filled with items, including toys, winter clothing and toiletries were recently delivered to hotels across the city where the newcomers are initially housed.

The estimated value is about $100,000.

“A few months ago, we enlisted the efforts of community partners to collect household items and clothing for the refugees,” said Popalzai. His family too was fleeing the Taliban rule in Afghanistan two decades earlier. “With the arrival of winter, the majority of these people can’t go outside as they don’t have appropriate clothing.”

At the hotels, the 51 Division Neighbourhood Community Officers and their partners set up Christmas trees and placed toys under them for the children.

“The kids were shocked when they came out of their rooms and realized there was a toy for each of them,” said Popalzai. “To see the joy and smiles on their faces was immeasurable. Most of them couldn’t believe they could just take a toy for themselves.”

Members at Toronto Police headquarters and 31, 33, 53, 42, 13, 51 and 23 Divisions along with individual officers also played a role in assisting the newcomers.

A police officer holding a toy truck
Constable Farzhad Ghotbi holding one of the toys delivered to Afghan refugee children Photo: Handout

Det. Tom Comeau, at 51 Division started a t-shirt fundraising initiative.

In addition, Popalzai and Ghotbi have hosted information sessions for about 100 families.

“Some of the topics we discussed were harassment, domestic and sexual abuse,” he said. “We wanted them to be aware of some of the laws in Canada. The feedback was amazing. I believe we should be working with these refugees to help them assimilate into their new environment instead of just leaving them on their own to figure things out.”

Staff Superintendent Peter Moreira is extremely proud of the manner in which Popalzai and Ghotbi are using compassion and humility to connect with the community.

“They are doing it at a level that’s not seen regularly in today’s world,” he said. “The fact that they understand the unique needs of newcomers to this country helps redefine and re-establish a very positive relationship with the police that not only the newcomers can experience, but those who are assisting can begin to look at the police in a different way. It’s so heartwarming to see these officers connect at this level. We are all from somewhere else and I think these officers have encapsulated what it means to be Canadian and what it means to help our fellow citizens. Nobody is in need of help more than these newcomers.”

Sergeant Henry Dyck, the 51 Division Neighbourhood Community Officer Supervisor, thanked his officers and the community partners for lending their support.

“From the beginning of this project, there were those of us who felt like we as Canadians had not done enough for the families of those fleeing to Canada from Afghanistan,” he said. “I remember the first time that I travelled out to one of the airport hotels and seeing a man asking Mustafa if we had any undergarments because he’d been wearing the same clothes for 14 days. Of course, the situation for everyone has not been that dire, but for most, arriving here meant getting aboard a flight with nothing but the clothes they had on and an uncertain future. And of course, they continue to come.”

Katayon Qahir, a Settlement Counsellor with Polycultural Immigrant & Community Service (PICS), also acknowledged the officers for stepping up to the plate to assist the refugees with donations and information.

A United Way agency in Peel, PICS is the first point of contact for Afghan refugees.

“Our entire team appreciates the officers’ time and generous assistance in providing newcomer refugees with donations and worthwhile information,” she said. “The responses are very positive. Thanks for your hard work, time and availability.”

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