THUNDER BAY — "Canada is my dream country. I'm so proud to be here," says Eid Mohammad Sultanzoi.
Last August, the 42-year-old Sultanzoi arrived in Thunder Bay with his wife and two children.
They were the first Afghan refugees to come to the city, and are among more than 14,000 Afghans who have been admitted to Canada to date since the takeover of their homeland by the Taliban.
Sultanzoi served as an interpreter for the Canadian army, but also taught at a female high school, worked as a pharmacist and volunteered as a community health worker.
Now he's using his strong English language skills for a much different purpose, through the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association.
TBMA is a federally-recognized Service Provider Organization under the Resettlement Assistance Program.
It's hired Sultanzoi to help the nearly 100 other Afghans it has welcomed to the city since his arrival here.
Most of them are not fluent in English.
"I'm like a bridge between English-speakers and non-English speakers," Sultanzoi said. "I interpret for them and help them and their caseworkers when they are trying to rent a house or open a bank account."
So far, he's assisted more than 15 Afghan families adjust to life in their new homeland.
Part of his work takes place at workshops put on by TBMA to prepare people for employment in Ontario.
"We had a workshop on workplace hazards, and also on the expectations of the workplace culture. What is the responsibility of the employer and supervisor, and what is the responsibility of the worker? It's important to know how to adapt to the new environment and new country," he said in an interview Tuesday.
Sultanzoi said Afghans coming to Canada are glad to be here but "are under a little stress and shock. I try to make sure they are feeling comfortable."
In a recent national press release, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada singled out the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association's role in facilitating the successful resettlement of Afghans in Canada.
It noted that TBMA has also helped refugees find full-time, long-term jobs, and helped to enroll children in school.
TBMA executive director Cathy Woodbeck said it's a privilege to help Afghans build their lives in Thunder Bay.
"We have witnessed family reunification, watched adults and children become comfortable as part of our community, and welcomed new babies into families since their arrival. This work is emotional and often complicated, but always very rewarding," she said.
Finding work is key to retaining immigrants
Woodbeck told TBnewswatch it was immediately clear that Sultanzoi was willing to get to work and keen to get to work quickly to help his fellow countrymen.
"We've had a lot of arrivals, and many 'connected' arrivals, which is really nice because that bodes well for retention. People will stay in the city if they're connected to each other. When families are here in one place, it seems to be more positive, and people stay longer."
Finding work plays an important role in retention.
"In almost every situation with the Afghan arrivals, we have had people working in a short period of time," Woodbeck said. "Our employment coordinator comes and says 'Six jobs this week' or 'Eight jobs this week.' It's not always just for Afghans but it's been a wonderfully successful year for employment. Employers are really connecting with us, because they're looking for employees all across the city all the time."
Some refugees require language training, safety training, or certification in areas such as safe food handling.
Woodbeck said the immigration target for Thunder Bay this year is 240, and she expects most of that number will be people from Afghanistan.
Members of Sultanzoi's extended family are still there, but are hiding from the Taliban.
"They are in danger, and I hope they get to Canada soon," he said.
He lost his youngest son when the Taliban attacked the house where the family was sheltering in October 2020.
Sultanzoi has been in a wheelchair since being injured in an ambush in 2009.
He said he can walk with a walker and braces but needs physiotherapy, something he hopes to be able to start soon.
"This is a beautiful country. I'm happy to be here with my wife and two boys. And I'm happy for their future because they have jobs now."
Sultanzoi's wife is enrolled in a course to improve her English language skills.
His younger son works part-time and goes to school, while his older son has a full-time construction job but aspires to go to college and become an electrician.
The family, he said, is prepared to do "whatever they can" for the country that rescued them and changed their lives forever.