This is a true story that happened on Christmas Eve, 1990.
This story will warm me during whatever Christmas Eves God has planned for the rest of my life. This story will also explain why I never intend to remove a silver cross and chain, put around my neck by a Moslem this holiday season.
Just a few days before Christmas I received a call from a contact at Canadian Immigration telling me about an Afghan who was about to be deported to Kabul, Afghanistan. The call came on Thursday and the Afghan was destined for deportation on the following Saturday.
Now, one might ask how it is that I would be contacted about any Afghan?
Well, having once adopted a little Afghan girl for the three years it took to have her reunited with her mother and siblings, I do admit to a soft, spot for Afghans.
I believe that some day history will record the incredible courage of the poorly-equipped Afghan Mujahideen (freedom fighters) as a catalyst in the eventual death of communism in Eastern Europe: for Afghanistan is the only country on earth where the dreaded Russian Red Army was turned back. But that’s another story for another time.
Although familiar by necessity with Afghan culture and even with their rather complex politics, what I know about Canadian Immigration law could be put in your eye. I told my contact I would telephone the lawyer of the detainee. But because only two days loomed to his deportation date, I doubted anything could be done.
As it turned out, lawyer Isak Grushka was as perplexed as everyone else about the deportation of Vasir Vasily. Canadian Immigration would be setting a precedent? As far as anyone knows, no other Afghan has ever been deported from North America.
In the hope that media colleagues at the Toronto Star are not reading this column, here is what happened next.
When Isak Grushka told me all his means had been exhausted in trying to keep Mr. Vasily in Canada, I asked, “Have you tried the press?” He answered in the negative. I instructed him to call the Sun and Star immediately, that he should be provocative, if not downright dramatic.
“What do I say when I reach them?” he wanted to know.
“Tell them all you want for Christmas is to save the life of this Afghan,” I said.
He answered, “But I’m Jewish.”
“So tell them all you want for Chanukah is to save the Afghan’s life.”
Mr. Grushka’s pleas to the Star were ignored, but the Sun came through with a story on the following day, just 24 hours before deportation.
In the meantime, I felt that the most sensible way to clemency would be to find a
sympathetic Tory MP, meaning one who cared about immigrants, to petition Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall.
Easier said than done.
Staffers for the first half dozen MPs I contacted made it known that this was not the time to bother their MPs. Many were out in their constituencies playing Santa Claus and could not be disturbed.
Some of their executive assistants even let it be known that I was being a nuisance at this particularly busy holiday time, and that I was on a self-imposed fool’s errand trying to save a refugee just two days before his deportation date.
It was now late in the afternoon, and after a whole day on the telephone with no success, I knew time was running out. At this stage I remembered having heard good things about MP Jesse Flis. With dwindling hope I telephoned his office. A return call came from Nasreen Bhimani-Burrows.
“Please,” I begged, “if this man is sent back to Kabul he will face certain death from the Communist government.”
“You don’t have to convince me of that,” said Nasreen. “I know the problem in Afghanistan very well. I am Iranian.”
Noting it was just one day before deportation, she said she could make no promises, and that she would make an effort to find Mr. Flis as soon as possible.
On Friday morning, not having heard back from her, I was pacing the floor. At noon I was scheduled to meet my dear friends Danielle” Crittenden, visiting her parents, and Saturday Night magazine editor Ernest Hillden. It was supposed to be our annual Christmas luncheon, but I was going with a sad heart.
So desperate was I about the fate of Vasily, the idea popped into my head to marry him. This way, I thought I could get his picture on the front page of the Star, with a message to External Affairs
Minister Joe Clark – “Please save my husband.”
The telephone rang. It was Nasreen telling me in a teary voice, “My God, what a Christmas, you saved a man’s life.”
The morning of Christmas Eve found me at Canadian Immigration’s detention centre. Bonds had to be posted in order to get Mr. Vasily home for Christmas. (Even though Ms. McDougall had signed the papers, $10,000 in posted bonds had to be paid.) And though times are tough, the Ukrainian community and others willingly came through with the money.
Another Afghan posted half the cash while I signed for the other half.
Door to Freedom
After several hours (things don’t go quickly at Canadian Immigration), when Mr.Vasily walked through the door to freedom, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
When the humble Afghan asked a friend what he could give me as a token of his appreciation, he was told, “Gee, I don’t know, but she’s one of those Catholics always lighting candles, so if I were making the choice, it would be a cross and chain.”
That’s why I am now wearing a cross put around my neck by a Moslem. It is a symbol to help me remember always how prayers really are answered, and to think, too, how nothing in this life is impossible if we try hard enough.
Meanwhile, Happy New Year to all of you, and most especially to MP Jesse Flis and a certain Iranian “farishta” (angel) named Nasreen. You saved a man’s life this Christmas.