In 1986, Carol Off, a journalist for CBC television, arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, and witnessed a terrorist attack against an airplane filled with people, the very plane that she had exited just a short time beforehand. She had come to Pakistan to experience the thrill of reporting in a danger zone, not expecting to have her desire realized so quickly. That’s when she learned a lesson that remained with her for years to come: “Journalists all too often have their best moments when other people are having their worst.”
That day, Carol experienced for the first time the entitlement that journalists receive: “it gives you admission into the lives of others, into their most tragic, emotional and often degrading experiences. It permits – or even compels – you to ask personal questions, to probe, to intrude at the moment when people are coping with calamity.”
After that event, Carol asked herself, “What was my obligation to those whose lives I’d entered?” She’d been trained to remain impartial, “get your story, leave, and don’t look back.” And though she worked in the perimeter of that professional code for many years, everything changed for her after she met Asad Aryubwal.
In 2002, Carol traveled to Afghanistan with a crew of other CBC journalists to make a television documentary about the warlords who ruled that country, their crimes against humanity, and their relationship to the United States government. Through connections, she learned about Asad, a young Afghan man who had been associated with one of the most powerful warlords in his country. More important, Asad was willing to publicly criticize the warlord’s actions.
As Carol interacted with Asad, she realized what an incredible man he was considering the history of repression and war that he had experienced in Afghanistan. She points out that Asad’s “true value to our documentary flowed from his courage and his fundamental honesty, his passionate belief that Afghans were entitled to the same rights, the same quality of justice, that other people in the world, especially in Europe, America and Canada, take for granted.”
After Carol and the CBC television crew successfully acquired footage for the documentary, they left Afghanistan. Carol assumed that she would never see Asad and his wife and children again. Still, despite the delightful time that she had with them, she was plagued by “a tiny wedge of worry: What might happen to this man and to this family after we were gone? It was a question that my first visit to Pakistan had taught me to always consider.”
The television documentary, “In the Company of Warlords,” ran on CBC’s The National and won the prestigious Gemini Award. Though Carol was aware that her career – she later became the host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens – was enhanced by the success of the documentary, the same was not true for Asad who eventually faced the threat of death if he didn’t leave Afghanistan.
Through a series of complicated events, Asad was able to get word to Carol in Toronto that his family was in grave danger, exiled in Pakistan. Thus began Carol’s attempt, with the help of many others, to have Asad and his family accepted as refugees to Canada. Myriad obstacles barred their entry and at many times both the family and Carol gave up hope that they would ever be accepted as refugees, or, even possibly, survive life in exile in Pakistan where many of the country’s citizens despised Afghans.
For years, Carol, Asad and his family persisted. Finally, in August 2015, Carol received word that the family would soon be arriving in Toronto, Ontario, at Person International Airport. When Asad and Carol were reunited in a warm embrace after so many years apart, he “wept inconsolably as he released the pent up frustration and suffering of years, perhaps a lifetime. I felt his fear, anxiety, humiliation, rage, frustration, delight and sorrow as he sobbed and sobbed.”
All We Leave Behind is not an easy read as one considers the plight of refugees. It is an intimate portrait of the price this family paid to stand up for justice and to give their children a future. The book offers insightful critique of both Canada and the United States governments and their roles in Afghanistan, as well as of the vast, complex bureaucracy that handles the cases of refugee claimants.