Afghan asylum seeker Habib Zahori finds temporary haven in Wolfville

Wendy Elliott
Published on March 2, 2016

Asylum seeker Habib Zahori from Afghanistan spent six weeks in Wolfville and is hoping for entry into Canada.

©Wendy Elliott,

WOLFVILLE - If a war had not descended on his homeland, Habib Zahori would be a pediatrician in Kabul, Afghanistan. But fate had other plans for him – and his country.

A journalist, writer and recent Fulbright scholar, the 32-year-old is leaving Wolfville this week for an asylum hearing in Toronto. He hopes to gain permission to stay in Canada.

He’s been here six weeks after what some might consider a slightly comic escapade that took him across the U.S. border near Woodstock, N.B.

Zahori had completed a post-graduate degree in international relations that brought him to Denver, Colorado, but he was not allowed to remain in the United States.

Fulbright rules require recipients to return to their birthplace, but Zahori’s life would have been in danger. He had worked for the American media covering the war in Afghanistan. His work as a war reporter appeared in news outlets such as The Washington Post, BBC and The New York Times.

Initially, he says, he thought about heading into the Kootenay Mountains in B.C., but it was winter. So Zahori flew to New York, where he met a friend who drove him  to Maine. Then he got on a bike that was too small and started pedaling.

Crossing the undefended border, Zahori was not far from Woodstock, N.B. Chased by a pack of dogs, cold and tired, he took his chances on snowy roads with a GPS that didn’t work.

Forty minutes later, “My only thought was to get deeper inside. I was so tired by the time they arrested me.”

Despite being handcuffed, he says, the police treated him well, offering both food and drink.

“It was not like I’d done something wrong.”

Networking with the help of friends from a detention centre, he heard of Halifax immigration lawyer Lee Cohen and Judith Tod in Wolfville, who offered him a temporary haven.

“I didn’t know her, but she offered me a place in her house. It seems to me that is how a Christian should think,” he says.

After his hearing, Cohen has advised Zahori he should expect to wait four weeks for the verdict on his plea for asylum. If that is successful, he’ll have to wait another six weeks to apply for work.

In the meantime, he is hard at work on a novel. Wolfville writer Susan Haley has offered help with editing before Zahori approaches any publishing houses.

When asked what he would like Canadians to know about his homeland, he says Afghanistan is a normal country with normal people, despite its long discord and tension.

“It can go crazy like any other country due to a few fringe groups or individuals. But people want a normal life. Women want to work and children go to school,” he says.

Despite his short stay in the Maritimes, Zahori finds Canada very different than its neighbour to the south. Travelling in America, he was always careful to keep his beard short, to look inconspicuous and have his documentation close at hand.

“Canada is very similar,” he says. “But, at the same time, it is so different. The culture in Canada doesn’t have the tension of the United States. That may be due to the media. They have been at war for so many years.”

Like many Canadians, he is closely watching the primaries leading up to the U.S. election.

“It’s a very important country,” Zahori says. “What happens there affects the entire world.”

In Wolfville, Zahori found himself warmly accepted by those he encountered. One couple even bought him a new pair of boots.

“I’m so overwhelmed by all the support and kindness shown here living in this community.”

Looking into the future, Zahori quotes Paul Coelho’s novel The Alchemist: “Making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.”

This asylum seeker maintains he will be back to visit Wolfville someday. In the meantime, Zahori says he learned the concept of giving back here.

“Helping someone in the future, that is so rich. I will cherish that lesson I learned here all my life.”