Shinkai Karokhail, Afghanistan ambassador to Canada, with Governor General David Johnston. Provided By Master Cpl Vincent Carbonneau, Rideau Hall, OSGG

Afghan ambassador supports community

By Olivia Bowden

Afghanistan’s new ambassador to Canada has taken on an unusual mission — helping recent immigrants from her homeland adjust to life in Ottawa.

Shinkai Karokhail, a former parliamentarian and advocate for women’s rights and education, is Afghanistan’s fourth female ambassador. She arrived in Ottawa at the end of November.

The 54-year-old said in an interview that she believes unifying a community that is disjointed as a result of ethnic divisions back home is crucial to their success as Canadian citizens — and to their capacity to continue supporting their homeland from Canada.

“Other communities from different countries, they are organized and have access to different funding and other activities which keeps them connected,” she said.

Karokhail added that “more collaboration and co-operation will give them more strength and make them more useful citizens in Canada, and this will work for their original country, as well.”

Karokhail founded the Afghan Women’s Education Centre in 1991 and was active in developing legislation to stop violence against women.

She became a parliamentarian in 2005 and was a well-known opponent of a law that contained policies directed at Shia women that were seen as oppressive. The law was later amended.

Just after she arrived in Ottawa, Karokhail met a group of about 50 members of the Afghan community on Dec. 7, at a downtown welcoming event at the Albert Street Education Centre.

There are 1,660 Afghan ex-pats in Ottawa, according to the 2011 National Household Survey.

Currently more than 40,000 live in Canada.

The ceremony focused on promoting unity and how the embassy can help Afghan ex-pats.

She said she heard from the gathering that the community is scattered.

This has prompted her to begin using her embassy at 240 Argyle Ave. as a hub for community events and Afghan holidays to start.

“We’re trying to tell them, look, we are here. Look at our own Afghan community that exists here,” said Karokhail. “This is like our second home.”

She wants the Ottawa model to eventually be adopted by consulates in Toronto, Vancouver and other Canadian cities, she said.

This kind of investment in Afghan expats is not a normal practice for an ambassador, said Nipa Banerjee,  a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies.

Banerjee, a former diplomat and Canadian International Development Agency official, has met with Karokhail privately.

The ambassador spoke to Banerjee about how she believes a more active embassy could connect Afghans of different ethnic groups living in Ottawa.

“It is extremely unusual,” said Banerjee. “An ambassador usually doesn’t talk like that.”

Reaching out to the community so directly should be a goal of other ambassadors, said Banerjee.

“They never meet with the community,” she said. “(Karokhail) is trying to focus on profiling Afghans in Canada and help them integrate into society.”

There is some urgency to that need for integration as many Western nations are seeing an increase in nationalist sentiment that often can target immigrants, especially those from Muslim countries.

Changing the perception of Afghanistan and Afghans in a positive way is a priority for the ambassador, said Banerjee. Comments such as those from Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch about screening immigrants for “Canadian values” have an impact, Banerjee said.

“I think she understands the profile has gone down and she has to uplift it,” she said.

This story was produced in collaboration with iPolitics.