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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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Energy

Satellite photos show aftermath of Abu Dhabi oil site attack

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Satellite photos obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday appear to show the aftermath of a fatal attack on an oil facility in the capital of the United Arab Emirates claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The attack brought the long-running Yemen war into Emirati territory on Monday. That conflict raged on overnight with Saudi-led airstrikes pounding Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, killing and wounding civilians.

Meanwhile, fears over new disruptions to global energy supplies after the Abu Dhabi attack pushed benchmark Brent crude to its highest price in years.

The images by Planet Labs PBC analyzed by the AP show smoke rising over an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot in the Mussafah neighborhood of Abu Dhabi after the attack. Another image taken shortly after appears to show scorch marks and white fire-suppressing foam deployed on the grounds of the depot.

The Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., known by the acronym ADNOC, is the state-owned energy firm that provides much of the wealth of the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula and also home to Dubai.

ADNOC did not respond to questions from the AP asking about the site and damage estimates from the attack. The company had said the attack happened around 10 a.m. Monday.

“We are working closely with the relevant authorities to determine the exact cause and a detailed investigation has commenced,” ADNOC said in an earlier statement.

The attack killed two Indian nationals and one Pakistani as three tankers at the site exploded, police said. Six people were also wounded at the facility, which is near Al-Dhafra Air Base, a massive Emirati installation that is also home to American and French forces.

Another fire also struck Abu Dhabi International Airport, though damage in that attack could not be seen. Journalists have not been able to view the sites attacked and state-run media have not published photographs of the areas.

Police described the assault as a suspected drone attack. The Houthis claimed they used cruise and ballistic missiles in the attack, without offering evidence.

Meanwhile Tuesday, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen announced it had started a bombing campaign targeting Houthi sites in the capital of Sanaa. It said it also struck a drone-operating base in Nabi Shuaib Mountain near Sanaa.

Overnight videos released by the Houthis showed damage, with the rebels saying the airstrikes killed at least 14 people. Sanaa resident Hassan al-Ahdal said one airstrike hit the house of Brig. Gen. Abdalla Kassem al-Junaid, who heads the Air Academy. He said at least three families were living in the house. Another adjunct house with a four-member family was damaged.

The Saudi-led coalition has faced international criticism for airstrikes hitting civilian targets during the war.

For hours Monday, Emirati officials did not acknowledge the Houthi claims over the Abu Dhabi attack, even as other countries condemned the assault. Senior Emirati diplomat Anwar Gargash broke the silence on Twitter, saying that Emirati authorities were handling the rebel group’s “vicious attack on some civilian facilities” with “transparency and responsibility.”

The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had been in the Emirates on a state visit, said he spoke to Abu Dhabi’s powerful Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, immediately after the attack.

The statement quoted Sheikh Mohammed as saying the attack had been “anticipated.” The two had been scheduled to meet during Moon’s visit but the event had been cancelled prior to the attack over an “unforeseen and urgent matter of state,” according to Moon’s office.

The Emirati Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment over Moon’s statement.

Fears over future attacks reaching the UAE, a major oil producer and OPEC member, helped push Brent crude oil prices to their highest level in seven years. On Tuesday, a barrel of Brent crude traded at over $87.50 a barrel, a price unseen since October 2014.

Although the UAE has largely withdrawn its own forces from Yemen, it is still actively engaged in the conflict and supports Yemeni militias fighting the Houthis.

The incident comes as the Houthis face pressure and are suffering heavy losses on the battlefields. Yemeni government forces, allied and backed by the UAE, have pushed back the rebels in key provinces. Aided by the Emirati-backed Giants Brigades, the government forces took back the province of Shabwa earlier this month in a blow to Houthi efforts to complete their control of the entire northern half of Yemen.

While Emirati troops have been killed over the course of the conflict, now in its eight year, the war has not directly affected daily life in the wider UAE, a country with a vast foreign workforce.

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Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, Samy Magdy in Cairo and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press

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National

Grocery store closures loom amid labour, product shortages

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Grocery stores are struggling with rising labour and product shortages that could threaten Canada’s food security, experts say.

Employee absenteeism due to workers calling in sick and COVID-19 protocols has hit about 30 per cent at some stores and is continuing to rise, Gary Sands, senior vice-president of public policy with the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, said Tuesday.

Without access to rapid testing in many provinces, he said workers are repeatedly forced to isolate for a week or more after an exposure to COVID-19.

If the situation worsens, some grocery stores won’t be able to stay open — threatening food security in rural and remote areas that rely on a sole independent grocer, Sands said.

“If we have to keep sending people home, at a certain point stores are not going to be able to operate,” he said. “We’re very frustrated with the lack of rapid test kits for grocers.”

Health Canada has made some rapid test kits available directly to companies in critical sectors, including the food industry, with 200 or more employees.

But many independent grocery stores don’t meet that threshold, putting those kits out of reach, Sands said.

Yet many grocers cannot obtain rapid tests through provinces either, he said.

“Independent grocers are in a myriad of communities in this country where there is no other grocery store,” Sands said. “If those stores close, you’ve got a food security issue.”

Meanwhile, stores are also experiencing a shortage of goods stemming from supply chain issues, including a shortage of truckers, packaging and processing delays and the Canadian winter.

Grocers rely on “just in time” delivery, meaning even transient issues like inclement weather can cause delays and shortages, Retail Council of Canada spokesperson Michelle Wasylyshen said.

Still, empty shelves at some supermarkets should only be temporary, she said, noting that retailers are exploring all avenues to get products to stores as quickly as possible.

But some supply chain issues could be longer lasting, such as the trucker shortage intensified by the federal government’s new vaccine mandate.

“The issue with the truckers having to be vaccinated is causing some delays, especially with the supply of fruit and vegetables from California,” Sands said.

“Grocers in Central Canada are mostly reporting just delays of a couple weeks, but in the West the shortages seem to be more significant.”

In some cases, Sands said grocers are short nearly 40 per cent of their usual stock of a variety of products.

“Especially in the West, some grocers are saying the situation is as bad as it was in the spring of 2020 in terms of supply,” he said.

It’s not just the produce aisle that experiencing shortages. Soups, cereals and cleaning supplies are all running lower than normal, Sands said.

Many shoppers have noticed empty shelves where Kellogg’s cereal is normally stocked, for example.

Kellogg Canada said in an emailed statement that higher at-home consumption coupled with supply chain challenges have impacted the availability of some products in Canada, such as Kellogg’s Rice Krispies cereal.

The company said the “intermittent shortages” reflect the challenging operating environment all manufacturers are experiencing, adding that it’s working hard to get Kellogg’s cereal brands back on store shelves.

About 1,400 union workers at Kellog’s plants in the United States were on strike for several weeks last year. An agreement was reached Dec. 21.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2022.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

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