PETERBOROUGH — Parwaiz Hamidy's two young sons are all smiles as they rush down a slide at a park in Peterborough, Ont.
The boys and their parents are half a world away from the chaos of Kabul, having fled the Afghan capital two months ago with the hope of starting over in Canada.
The Hamidys are among nine Afghan refugee families who recently arrived in the mid-sized Ontario city after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. They've decided to call Peterborough home thanks largely to the support of Heather Hedges, a local school teacher who's helped them for much of the last two months.
"Most people would be scared because they don't know anything or anybody in here, but fortunately I'm lucky, I know Heather," says Hamidy, an interpreter who worked with the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2011.
Hedges, who is at the park with the family, says she met Hamidy through a Facebook group created to help Afghans who worked with the Forces apply to come to Canada as refugees. She initially just helped the family fill out a few forms but that soon led to further support.
"As I got to know them, it just seemed like the right thing to do," she says. "They were going through such a horrible time ... I thought it would just be a couple of hours initially and it morphed into a relationship."
The family applied to come to Canada under a special program the federal government announced in the summer to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees. Ottawa doubled its commitment last month, saying it would resettle 40,000 refugees.
About 9,500 people from Afghanistan have already been approved to come to Canada – more than 2,600 of them have arrived and 1,200 are in other countries set to make their way here soon – according to government data.
Hamidy says there came a point, a few weeks before the Taliban took over Kabul as American forces withdrew, that he feared not being able to make it out of the country.
"My life was at risk," says the 33-year-old.
Hedges recalls Hamidy texting her, asking her to make sure his wife and children made it to Canada even if he didn't.
"That touched me," Hedges says, adding that she told Hamidy to have his wife memorize her phone number.
The Hamidy family's journey to Canada began in mid-August.
Hamidy says he, his wife and his two boys, aged three and four, had to wait with about 200 people at a gas station outside the Kabul airport for two days. The family was eventually allowed to enter the airport after they managed to show special Canadian forces at the gate their Canadian visas, he says.
They then made their way onto a military aircraft that flew them to Kuwait, where they waited for four days before boarding a commercial airplane to Canada on Aug. 27.
Hedges says she met the family at their hotel in Toronto after they completed a quarantine period required by pandemic rules and invited them to live near her.
Hamidy credits Hedges' support for the family's decision to move to Peterborough.
"Because of her, I came here. I don't have anybody here," he says at the park. "She is like a member of my family now."
Hedges, who volunteers with an organization called Northern Lights Canada that sponsors refugees, says she first got involved with helping refugees when a blind Syrian girl came to her class to learn English five years ago.
"That changed the course of my life forever, because she was so amazing and she just was working so hard," she says.
The executive director of the New Canadian Center, a settlement organization that provides services to refugees and immigrants in Peterborough and surrounding areas, says most of the Afghan refugee families that have come to Peterborough aren't likely to stay in the city.
Andy Cragg says that's because unlike the Hamidys, many of the Afghan newcomers don't have contacts in Peterborough.
"You come to a new country, the first thing you want to do is to connect with someone you know," he says. "Peterborough has tended to be not super diverse. That has been changing a lot in the has five years, which is great."
Hamidy says he doesn't feel like a stranger in Peterborough because he has friends in the city, including Hedges. He now plans to explore his education options at the city's Trent University
"(I will) get some education, then I will start working," says Hamidy, who also worked as a legal advisor after getting a law degree in Afghanistan.
Hamidy's wife, Rahima, says she's happy her children will grow up in a safe country.
"My kids will have a bright future here," she says in Dari, which her husband translates to English. "I'm really thankful to all those who helped us."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2021.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press