PHOTO: PALWASAH HUMAYUN SMILES FOR HER RIGHT TO CHOOSE.
Peering out at the cave-like countryside, Palwashah Humayun didn't know if she'd ever see her homeland again. Squished into a fifteen passenger van, the expectant mother held her breath at each gun-ridden checkpoint.
The year was 1992 and the Afghan Civil War was heating up. The Mujahideen or anti-government rebels had kicked out the Soviets in 1989. Without this Cold War power, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was unstable, collapsing to the fundamentalists. A race to form the new government began but tensions between various ethnic groups ran deep; this division resulted in an internal blood bath.
Rocket snares and bullet sounds filled the air as civilians rushed to safety. Humayun said locals went outside only to clear the dead bodies. Recently married, Humayun and her husband knew they had to flee for their safety.
They lined up visas and booked flights to India. They were set to leave August eighth but the clock didn't tick fast enough. The week before departure was particularly violent, forcing the newlyweds to seek protection in a dark basement: "there's just dirt and there's nothing. No concrete, no nothing," Humayun explained. With the cold soil beneath them, the couple huddled for a week with fellow apartment dwellers, helplessly awaiting ceasefire.
On August fifth, a temporary ceasefire was heard. For one hundred thousand rupees, Humayun and her husband were offered an early ride out of the country. "The situation got really bad so we had to just leave the country at that moment or we wouldn't have been alive," Humayun said. They paid up and jumped in with only the clothes on their back.
The drive from Kabul to Pakistan takes about three hours but with checkpoints every few miles, the journey extended far into the night. Not the easiest trip for a woman who is five months pregnant. To make matters worse, she had miscarried during her first pregnancy; making her even more concerned about her unborn child. The arduous journey ended at four am, as Humayun and her husband safely pulled into Pakistan.
Almost two decades later and Humayun can still remember the details like it was yesterday. "These are the memories that will never fade away,” she said.
Humayun and her husband lived in India for six years before moving to Canada in 1998. A few years after she arrived, she chose to become a Canadian citizen. "I love who I am and am so proud of where I'm from" she said, "but at the same time I'm a full Canadian too. I want to take advantage of that so there would be a privilege for me to vote".
A democratic option that was not available to people in Afghanistan until 2004.
After the September 11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan with “Operation Enduring Freedom”. One of the key objectives was to democratize a country most recently ruled by the Taliban. Canada was a key proponent of the election effort; offering advice and printing ballots back in Canada.
On paper, 2004 was a milestone for democratic rights as 17 candidates ran for the presidential seat; but on the streets, violence leading up to the elections was rampant.
The 2009 presidential election was no exception. Riots and protests broke out after President Hamid Karzai reclaimed a second term with 54.6 per cent of the vote. Abdullah Abdullah came in second at 27.8 per cent. Rumors over rigged election results had residents in an uproar.
In Afghanistan, the President must win with a majority. If not, a runoff between the two strongest candidates must be held within 14 days.
The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) looked into the accusations and found discrepancies in the voting process. Consequently, the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) ordered a presidential runoff.
Karzai dismissed the numbers and at first refused to participate in another vote. But after international pressure and alternative power-sharing options, he finally agreed.
A presidential runoff was scheduled for Nov. 7, but last week, Abdullah surprisingly withdrew from the race; saying deception was sure to spoil another vote.
As a result, the IEC declared Karzai the president of Afghanistan.
Although corruption and chaos have marred this recent election, one Afghanistan family has not lost faith in the Canadian process. Abdullah Hafizi and his family immigrated from Afghanistan before voting was an option; they are now Canadian citizens.
"We like to vote and be involved," Hafizi said with a smile. Last week was no exception, as Hafizi voted in the civic election. He and his family were impressed by the campaign efforts. More importantly, he says he feels welcomed by city officials who often dine in his Afghan restaurant.
PHOTO: THE HAFIZI FAMILY PROUDLY DISPLAY TWO EMINENT FLAGS IN THEIR LOCAL AFGHAN CUISINE RESTAURANT
Humayun contrarily thinks Regina's city officials should kick it up a notch. As an Afghan woman, she values her unique freedom to choose but she's not sure if she'll vote tonight. She described the campaign efforts as "weak" and irrelevant to immigrants. Working amongst immigrants in the city, she's noticed a lot of confusion. In her opinion, immigrants weren't given much attention in the election. "I think we have a lot of ethnic groups that are now organized in our communities and city councillors need to know that these are the people living in the city of Regina," she said
Sentiments echoed by former city council candidate Michael Cassano who thinks more needs to be done. Besides running for council, Cassano is also the president of the Regina Multicultural Council. He's chaired the recent immigrant sculpture project and heads up Mosaic each year. But beyond this, he wanted to personally meet and greet new immigrants. He's already helped settle several Philipino families into the Queen City. He also stressed the importance of campaigning to non-Canadian residents. "Some of them don't have the opportunity to vote back home," Cassano noted, "we can make them aware that voting is a privilege that they can undertake".
An idea that could flourish or fall to the wayside considering Cassano took a third place hit in tonight's results. Now another city representative must step up to fulfill his hefty vision.
A vision Humayun hopes to see one day. It could be sooner rather than later. "Maybe one day one of my children will be a candidate for a good post in government," Humayun chimed.