OTTAWA – A YouTuber who gives investment advice helped fund the escape of 170 Afghans from the Taliban to Canada.
David Lee, an investor who lives in Texas, helped a large group of stranded Afghans get to the Pakistani border after the Taliban takeover last August.
The Hazaras, who arrived in Calgary earlier this week, included filmmakers, members of the Afghan arts community and human rights activists.
They fled Kabul last summer when the Taliban took control but found themselves stranded in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, with no funds to get to the Pakistani border. They had days to get to a border post before it closed, but they had spent all their money fleeing Kabul.
Lee, who had previously financed the flight of a group of 38 Hazaras to Pakistan, as well as emergency food shipments to Afghanistan, was contacted by an Afghan from a humanitarian organization in the United States to see if he could help urgently.
Members of the 170-person group do not want to be identified for fear of Taliban reprisals against their friends and family.
According to Senator Salma Ataullahjan, who was born in Pakistan and has contacts with many Afghans, the Taliban fundamentalists have targeted democracy activists and women, as well as musicians, breaking their instruments and beating them. She said a professional Afghan musician she knows buried his instrument for fear of persecution.
The Taliban have also imposed severe restrictions on what Afghans can watch and banned women from appearing in TV dramas, according to a BBC report. The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ordered broadcasters not to broadcast films or programs “contrary to Islamic or Afghan values”.
Along with some of his YouTube subscribers, Lee raised around US$12,000 in a matter of hours to fund taxi fares and other costs to get refugees to a crossing point into Pakistan before the closure of the frontier.
Lee, who provides investment training via YouTube, previously helped a group of 38 Afghans, including the family of a University of British Columbia student, cross the Pakistani border. He warned the contact who had asked him for help that the group only had a few days to get out of the country before the Afghan-Pakistan border closed near Quetta.
But local bus services that could have taken them to the border ceased after the Taliban took over.
“They wanted to cross the border but they were stuck. They had spent all their money to get to Kandahar. Taxis charged prices ten times higher than usual. move out as soon as possible,” he said.
“I reached out to my network and a group of people who watch investor videos, and within hours we received the fees – it was around $12,000 for their fees, mostly for transportation. A few days later, the land border was closed.
The money was transferred to Pakistan where a middleman managed to arrange transport for the group of Hazaras.
The Hazaras are one of the largest minorities in Afghanistan and speak Hazaraqi, a Persian dialect. They are also found in parts of Iran and Pakistan, with a large population in Quetta. Historically, they have been persecuted in Afghanistan, notably by the mainly Pashtun Taliban.
The border, near Quetta, was closed a few days after the refugees crossed. Some members of the group almost failed to cross, Lee said. A man spent three days at the border trying to persuade the guards to let him through. At the border, the refugees had their luggage removed and then returned to the Pakistani side.
From the border, they traveled to Quetta where they ended up sleeping on the floor of an unheated wedding hall.
In Islamabad, with the help of human rights groups, they were referred to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which referred them to Canada’s “Special Humanitarian Programme”, one of two place to help bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada. The program is intended to help vulnerable groups, including human rights activists, women leaders, persecuted religious or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people and journalists.
In Islamabad, Lee said, Canadian embassy staff interviewed refugees and took biometrics before approving immigration to Canada.
The Hazaras were among a group of 252 Afghan refugees welcomed to Canada by Immigration Minister Sean Fraser on Tuesday, and the first admitted under the Special Humanitarian Program.
The day after their plane landed in Calgary, the leader of the group texted Lee to tell him that the entire group was now on Canadian soil and safe and sound.
The group is now isolated in a hotel in Calgary and will travel to Edmonton upon release from quarantine, Lee said.
Lee, who lives in Texas, hopes to travel to Edmonton to meet with band members when the pandemic subsides.
“I was so thrilled personally when they arrived,” he said. “Their lives and those of future generations will be changed forever.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 15, 2022.