Alumni Spotlight | Spring 2022

Trapped in a Conflict Zone

Robin Rickard dressed in combat gear sits outside a building in Afghanistan with three other men.

Robin Rickard

More and more Lakehead alum are working in communities around the world. For some, this global service has included time in terrifying conflict zones.

While world attention is now focused on the horrific invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin, Robin Rickards (BA'00, Political Science) is working to bring peace and progress to another conflict zone: Afghanistan.

The withdrawal of the U.S. and its allies from Afghanistan in 2021 engulfed the country in a humanitarian crisis. Robin, a former Canadian soldier who served three tours of duty there in 2006, 2008, and 2009, witnessed the seeds of Afghanistan's collapse.

He became an army reservist at the end of his second year at Lakehead, serving as a corporal with the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment.

Robin was sent to Kandahar, a city of over 650,000, on the edge of the Registan Desert. During Robin's first tour, he was with the battle group.

"We patrolled the countryside trying to rein in the Taliban," he says.

One of the reasons Robin survived was thanks to Afghan interpreters like Abdul Jamy Kohistany who worked with his platoon monitoring Taliban radio communications and helping soldiers navigate a dangerous environment.

Canada's military also relied on Afghan workers to carry out many other essential functions.

"They were the merchant marine of the conflict," Robin says. "They fixed our plumbing, cut our hair, and provided food, electricity, and security. They allowed Canadian soldiers to sleep at night."

And now they're at risk of losing their lives because they're considered traitors by the Taliban. This is why Robin has taken up the cause with renewed focus.

 Alum Robin Rickard with Sami in Afghanistan

Robin with Sami, an Aghan worker employed by Canada's armed forces: After the army, Robin worked at Frontier College and then at vehicle manufacturer Bombardier's Thunder Bay plant, where he was a shop steward. Currently, he's training to be a commercial pilot.

A history of upheaval

Afghanistan is a landlocked region bordered by countries including China, Iran, and Pakistan. Its strategic position has often made it a site of conflict and war. "The Soviets and the West have culpability for using the country as a proxy battlefield," Robin says.

"Canada deployed armed forces to Afghanistan in 2001 to fix a problem that had festered since the end of the Soviet invasion in 1989. On the political left there's a lot of opposition to NATO," he continues, "but in some countries, the civil order has been demolished and average citizens suffer. That's why they need capacity building – teachers, doctors, administrators – things NGOs were unable to provide without security."

While Robin was in Afghanistan, the rehabilitation of the Dahla Dam north of Kandahar was the Canadian Force's signature project. This achievement was undermined when Ahmad Wali Karzai – a half-brother of Hamid Karzai, the then-president of Afghanistan – managed to acquire most of the newly arable land created by the project, replicating a problem seen far too often over the years.

"When Karzai was re-elected in 2009, Afghans realized that they were just trading the Taliban for the warlords and oligarchs."

In 2011, as the situation deteriorated, Canada ended its military mission, putting thousands of its Afghan employees in danger of reprisals from the Taliban.

Jamy received repeated threats and Zarif Mayar – a construction crew supervisor and interpreter that Robin worked with at Camp Nathan Smith (the Provincial Reconstruction Team site) – nearly died after having his throat slashed.

"Afghans expected to make a decent living working for us, they didn't expect to live in fear," Robin says.

"We have an obligation 'to make these folks whole,' as they say in labour circles. Also, if we don't look after the people who work for us, local nationals in the next conflict won't help us."

A battle of a different kind

Robin and his interpreter Jamy in Afghanistan

Robin (left) with his interpreter and friend Jamy (right): "Jamy is a very capable all-around good guy. There was a gravitas to his bearing that stood in contrast to his age – he was only 21 when I met him."

When Robin returned to civilian life in 2009, he didn't forget the people left behind. He tried to secure Canadian visas for Jamy, Zarif, their families, and other Afghans. It has been a frustrating process, taking 11 years and the total collapse of Afghanistan in order to secure a path to safety for those who helped him.

"In Kandahar, we had 5,000-7,000 people working for us, plus their families. That's about 45,000 people. And the immigration process is entirely too slow."

Robin's efforts only gained traction years later with the assistance of backbench MPs like Marcus Powlowski and James Bezan.

U.S. withdrawal leads to catastrophe

In the spring of 2021, the United States and other western allies began pulling their troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban quickly retook the entire country.

"Afghanistan has a very real prospect of tearing itself apart at the seams," Robin says. "The Taliban became a big tent movement for people tired of the corruption, and now ISIS is coming, and they're even more brutal than the Taliban."

Jamy and Zarif were among those left stranded. In the end, it was media attention that spurred the Canadian government to issue them visas – but not a way out of the country. Jamy and his family only escaped when a U.S. marine put them on a plane headed to an air force base in Germany.

Military vets take action to save Afghans

Zarif and his family were told to go to Kabul Airport. When they arrived, there were no Canadian officials to get them on a flight. Instead, it was the non-profit organization Aman Lara that stepped up and arranged a secret overland convoy to Pakistan for the frantic Afghans. Aman Lara, which means "Sheltered Path" was founded in August 2021 by a group of veterans, former interpreters, and volunteers whose aim is to "get good people out of bad places."

Since the 2021 U.S. withdrawal, Aman Lara members have been arranging safe houses and convoys to get refugees past numerous Taliban checkpoints and into Pakistan. The cost of running a safe house is $10,000 a day – money that the Aman Lara pays for through donations from private citizens.

Jamy, Zarif and their families landed in Canada on different flights in November 2021. When they stepped off the plane, Robin was there to embrace his friends for the first time in over a decade.

"I was relieved," he says, "now Jamy and his siblings' children will have the same opportunities as my kids."

How can you help Afghan families in danger?

Lakehead alumni can contact their MPs to put pressure on immigration officials as well as reach out to local settlement organizations to help refugee families. In Northwestern Ontario, it's the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association.

You can also donate to Aman Lara. They are accepting donations to evacuate Afghan interpreters who served in Canada's mission.

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