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Entrepreneur helping Afghans is ‘shining example of Canadian compassion’: minister

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OTTAWA — A Toronto property developer who has worked tirelessly to help hundreds of people fleeing the Taliban settle in Canada — spending $50,000 to buy them essential supplies — has been praised as a “shining example of Canadian compassion” by the immigration minister.

Wais Habibzai, who fled to Canada from Afghanistan in 1992 after his house was destroyed by a rocket, has launched a personal aid effort to provide clothes and other necessities for refugees who escaped Kabul.

Around 1,000 refugees are being provided with food and accommodation by the government as they prepare to resettle in Canada, Habibzai said. But he said the refugees, isolating in several Toronto hotels, lack many essentials, including clean underclothes, phones, and baby bottles.

Many of the refugees arrived with only the clothes on their backs and Habibzai has been buying them outfits from Walmart.

The Afghan-Canadian businessman has turned conference rooms in refugee hotels into repositories for clothing and necessities, recruiting dozens of people to volunteer as translators and help fund the aid effort.

He has made daily trips to local stores to buy underwear, shoes, jeans and shirts, bottles and baby formula and personal hygiene products. He has also bought chocolate, candy and toys for children, as well as prayer mats, and hijabs for some older women.

Habibzai, 40, said he is delighted to see young refugees, who arrived in traditional Afghan attire, walking around Toronto hotels “as true Canadians” in jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with the Canadian flag.

“Some came with (traditional clothes). The next day they were wearing the shoes I gave them: the T-shirts, jeans. I went to Walmart and bought them some T-shirts with the Canada flag. They loved it. They were walking about as true Canadians,” he said.

“Teenagers, 20 to 22 year-olds — they want to be modern.”

Marco Mendicino, minister for immigration, refugees and citizenship, said welcoming the Afghans “wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of Wais and so many others like him.”

“As Afghan refugees sought shelter from persecution and war, Canada stepped up. And as refugees now begin new lives in Canada, Canadians are stepping up. Few embody that spirit better than Wais Habibzai. Wais is a shining example of Canadian compassion,” he said.

“And as a refugee himself he’s the living embodiment of Canada’s ‘intergenerational cycle of immigration’ where each generation of newcomers welcomes the next.”

The Immigration Department says it has helped 3,700 evacuees, including Canadian citizens and permanent residents, flee Afghanistan, which recently fell to the Taliban. But it has faced criticism for not helping enough escape. Its special immigration program has been plagued by bureaucratic and technical problems.

Habibzai has been visiting refugee hotels each day to find out what those who managed to reach Canada need. He has recruited Afghan family and friends to translate and has been raising thousands of dollars to top up the $50,000 he has spent himself.

“I said: ‘Give me a list of what you need. I will go buy it: diapers, milk, you name it. One man said: ‘I have only one pair of underwear’. They were always asking for necessities like this,” he explained.

He said refugees who had left family behind were desperate to know they were safe, but often had no way of making contact.

Habibzai bought them phones and SIM cards, as well as chargers that fit Canadian sockets, so they could stay in touch with relatives and friends sheltering from the Taliban.

He has also offered to house several desperate families in his vacant properties rent-free for a year. But he says many new arrivals have money and are well-educated.

The Toronto businessman, whose father was the manager of an Afghan national TV station and former diplomat, was forced to flee Afghanistan after the mujahedeen — religious fighters who fought the Russian occupation, evolving into the Taliban — destroyed his home with a rocket launcher.

He came to Canada in 1992, at age 14, and said his experience as a new immigrant motivated him to help the fleeing Afghans. He wants to “give back” to the country that took him in, because he remembers how “tough” it was for him arriving in Canada “with nothing.”

“My dad had to leave the job, and since our home got destroyed by the rocket launcher,” he said. “It was very difficult for my father to get a rental apartment (in Canada) because he had no credit, no job, and his English was broken. It was tough. My father was a strong man. He wanted to work, whatever it takes, no matter what, even though he was a diplomat for years.”

Eventually, his father took a job as manager of a convenience store. Habibzai eventually founded his own property company, buying his first house at 18 and selling it to fund his university fees. He now builds homes in Toronto and runs a real-estate company, as well as technology companies in Afghanistan.

“Today I am building homes and, thanks to Canada, I got my education here. My brother played soccer professionally for Team Canada,” he said. “It is all because of this beautiful country. And I want to give back.”

The businessman has also been giving the new arrivals tips on Canadian life, including how to download apps and order in pizza.

“Two things I tell them about this country are, ‘Study and work and don’t think about nothing else,’” he said.

“I tell them, ‘Listen, I am nobody. I am just this young Afghan Canadian businessman. I came here, like you, with $20 in my pocket or not even that, with nothing. But Canada is the land of opportunity: you can be somebody.’”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 12, 2021.

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

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Environment

CP NewsAlert: City of Iqaluit declares emergency due to water shortage

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IQALUIT, Nunavut — The City of Iqaluit has declared a state of emergency due to a water shortage.

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Crime

Author Salman Rushdie attacked on lecture stage in New York

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CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. (AP) — Salman Rushdie, the author whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was attacked and apparently stabbed in the neck Friday by a man who rushed the stage as he was about to give a lecture in western New York.

An Associated Press reporter witnessed a man confront Rushdie on stage at the Chautauqua Institution and punch or stab him 10 to 15 times as he was being introduced. The 75-year-old author was pushed or fell to the floor, and the man was arrested.

State police said Rushdie was apparently stabbed in the neck and was flown to a hospital. His condition wasn’t immediately known. The moderator at the event was also attacked and suffered a minor head injury, police said.

Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the roughly 2,500 people in the audience. Amid gasps, spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater.

The assailant ran onto the platform “and started pounding on Mr. Rushdie. At first you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then it became abundantly clear in a few seconds that he was being beaten,” Savenor said. He said the attack lasted about 20 seconds.

Another spectator, Kathleen Jones, said the attacker was dressed in black, with a black mask.

“We thought perhaps it was part of a stunt to show that there’s still a lot of controversy around this author. But it became evident in a few seconds” that it wasn’t, she said.

A bloodied Rushdie was quickly surrounded by a small group of people who held up his legs, presumably to send more blood to his chest.

Rushdie has been a prominent spokesman for free expression and liberal causes. He is a former president of PEN America, which said it was “reeling from shock and horror” at the attack.

“We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil,” CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.

Rushdie “has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered,” she added.

His 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims. Often-violent protests against Rushdie erupted around the world, including a riot that killed 12 people in Mumbai.

The novel was banned in Iran, where the late leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death. Khomeini died that same year.

Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never issued a fatwa of his own withdrawing the edict, though Iran in recent years hasn’t focused on the writer.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s attack.

A bounty of over $3 million has also been offered for anyone who kills Rushdie.

The death threats and bounty led Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, which included a round-the-clock armed guard. Rushdie emerged after nine years of seclusion and cautiously resumed more public appearances, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism overall.

He has said he is proud of his fight for freedom of expression, saying in a 2012 talk in New York that terrorism is really the art of fear.

“The only way you can defeat it is by deciding not to be afraid,” he said.

Iran’s government has long since distanced itself from Khomeini’s decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered. The Index on Censorship, an organization promoting free expression, said money was raised to boost the reward for his killing as recently as 2016, underscoring that the fatwa for his death still stands.

In 2012, Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie had used while in hiding.

Rushdie rose to prominence with his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel “Midnight’s Children,” but his name became known around the world after “The Satanic Verses.”

The Chautauqua Institution, about 55 miles southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, has served for more than a century as a place for reflection and spiritual guidance. Visitors don’t pass through metal detectors or undergo bag checks. Most people leave the doors to their century-old cottages unlocked at night.

Police said a state trooper was assigned to Rushdie’s lecture.

The Chautauqua center is known for its summertime lecture series, where Rushdie has spoken before. Speakers address a different topic each week. Rushdie and moderator Henry Reese were set to discuss “the United States as asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression.”

___

Associated Press writers Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York; Michael Hill in Albany, New York; and Jennifer Peltz in New York City contributed to this report.

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