A small group of people slowly gathered in the mostly empty Thunder Bay International Airport late in northwestern Ontario this week.
They made small talk as they waited for the arrival Wednesday night of the man they all worked tirelessly to bring to Canada.
Passengers from the second last flight of the night trudged off the plane.
Robin Rickards, a veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan during his 11 years with the Canadian Armed Forces, stood a bit away from the group, waiting.
Finally, the man he’d spent years trying to bring to Canada walked through the doors with a smile that could be seen through his mask.
With more than a dozen family members surrounding him, Abdul Jamy Kohistany hugged his friend.
“How are you buddy?” responded Rickards. “It’s been a long journey man. A long journey.”
People clapped and shook hands.
“It is really an unforgettable moment,” Kohistany said.
WATCH | Afghan translator reunites with Canadian veteran after years of living in fear:
After a decade of frustration and fear, the Afghan translator who worked alongside Rickards since his first overseas deployment in 2006 was safely in Canada, with hopes of living in Thunder Bay permanently with his family.
“I could never even think of this [happening],” Kohistany said. “We were struggling for years, [Rickards] especially, he was pushing the government to make it happen.”
When Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan ended in 2011, soldiers left behind the local Afghans — including translators like Kohistany and other mission staff — who helped them navigate the country they had landed in nine years earlier.
Their work with Canadian and American forces meant they were seen as traitors and lived in fear of being killed or attacked. When the U.S. military left Afghanistan this summer, the Afghan staff and interpreters, and their families, were left at the mercy of the Taliban.
Canada never made written commitments, but there was an understanding among interpreters and veterans that those who had risked their lives to assist Canadian efforts would be taken care of.
At a time when the Canadian government has been criticized for the way it’s handled the whole situation, Kohistany is grateful for Rickard’s involvement in bringing him to Thunder bay.
A long journey
“I was like a little bit on a high-profile level, and so if I would leave, my family was also in danger,” Kohistany said.
“That’s why we brought everybody.”
Everybody included his children, his brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces — all made the 10,542-kilometre trip from the Afghan capital of Kabul to Thunder Bay.
It was a long and treacherous journey.
“The first step we took was to enter Kabul airport, it was really surrounded by thousands of people and it was really difficult. We made it by the U.S. government support, and the marines were there,” he said.
From there, it was a flight to Qatar and then to Germany. The family stayed in the European country for 40 days before they made contact with the Canadian government. Then it was onto a flight to Windsor, Ont., where the family passed their quarantine, and finally a transfer to Thunder Bay.
Asked why he wanted to come to Thunder Bay, Kohistany said: “Too many reasons, but the main reason was to live beside my old friend. We want to continue the strong friendship.”
‘A lot of folks we’ve left behind’
Rickards has been working on bringing people from Afghanistan to Canada for years.
“We have to take care of the people who took risks to protect our soldiers,” Rickards told CBC News in a 2019 interview.
Rickards and Kohistany had a special relationship, he said, and he’s relieved Kohistany has made it to Canada.
“But there’s a lot of folks we’ve left behind,” Rickards added.
He said people like Kohistany who speak English fluently have a lot of support from Canadians.
“The real struggle is the guys who cooked our food, who wired the camps, kept the [generators] running, repaired our vehicles. Those guys don’t speak as much English,” Rickards said.
“Those guys are still trapped.”
That’s not just a statement. It’s a call for action.