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200 Afghans, including female students and dancers, make daring overland escape

Nearly 100 girls have managed to flee to Pakistan with their families after failing to get out of Kabul before the airport was closed
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Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2021. Dozens of female Afghan students have escaped the Taliban and are heading to Saskatoon after a daring land journey lasting weeks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Rahmat Gul

OTTAWA — Dozens of female Afghan students have escaped the Taliban with the help of a Toronto-based charity and are heading to Saskatoon after a daring land journey lasting weeks.

Nearly 100 girls have managed to flee to Pakistan with their families after failing to get out of Kabul before the airport was closed. A number of Afghan female dancers were also part of the group.

They will head to Saskatoon within the next three weeks, Canada's immigration minister confirmed on Sunday.

The group of about 200 Afghans spent weeks trying to find a safe route to evade the Taliban, which recently reclaimed political control of the country and opposes the education of women. 

On Friday, the Taliban decreed that male high-school students should return to the classroom, but not girls. 

Prince’s Trust Canada, which is a charity set up by Prince Charles that supports youth and veterans programs and was involved in co-ordinating the escape, said it was relieved the group had finally made it to safety. 

“They are a highly inspiring community and now they have an opportunity to grow and continue their education in Canada,” said charity chairman Mark Fell.

With support from the youth charity, the girls tried to escape by air after the Taliban seized control of the country in a lightning offensive last month. But conditions proved too perilous to allow the girls and their relatives to reach the Kabul airport.

They then tried to make it to another Afghan airport and considered fleeing over the border with Uzbekistan before ultimately escaping to Pakistan through a route which cannot be disclosed for security reasons. 

The federal government confirmed on Sunday that it plans to resettle the female students and their families in Saskatoon. They are expected to travel there within two or three weeks, and will quarantine after their arrival in Canada in accordance with federal measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Around 35 Afghans have already arrived in the Saskatchewan city, which is home to a small community of refugees from that country.

Fell said the Prince's Trust wholeheartedly supports the choice of city the group will soon call home.

“The Canadian government selected Saskatoon," he said. "It’s a fantastic place for them to settle.”

Another smaller contingent of female students, who managed to escape with the main group, have travelled to Mexico, a spokesman for the immigration minister said. 

The Canadian Press has agreed not to share details of where the girls are from or where they were being educated for security reasons. 

Federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Canada will “exhaust all the options to help Afghan refugees get to safety in our country.” 

“Offering refuge to women, girls and persecuted minorities is at the heart of Canada’s humanitarian response to the crisis in Afghanistan," Mendicino told The Canadian Press.

"Over 200 girls and their families will soon begin new lives in Saskatchewan, which is further proof of that commitment — and we’re not stopping there.”

On Aug. 13, the federal government announced it would resettle 20,000 Afghans who had fled their country, and set up a special program for especially vulnerable Afghans, including women leaders, human rights activists, journalists, persecuted minorities and members of the LGBT community, as well as the family members of former interpreters who have previously fled to Canada.

There were also 3,700 Canadians, Afghan refugees — including former interpreters — and other country's nationals who were airlifted by Canada out of Afghanistan before American troops completed a frenzied withdrawal from the country at the end of August.

Since seizing control of the country, the Taliban has targeted female students and their teachers. A May attack on a girls’ school in Kabul, which took place before the Taliban were formally back in power, killed more than 85 people, many of whom were attending classes.

Organizations helping refugees settle in Saskatoon offer language classes, as well assistance finding accommodation and employment.  

They also run programs where local families can donate furniture, clothes and children’s toys, while local schools offer support to help refugee students adapt. 

Ifti Khan, a Saskatoon-based driving instructor who is originally from Pakistan and teaches refugees to drive, said the city is a “welcoming place” for refugees.

“This is a place where you can live your life freely,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity here, to grow up and get an education — and we have plenty of space.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Sept. 20, 2021.

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press