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Langford humanitarians working to help Afghan firefighters, families stay alive

Former fire chief Bob Beckett working to help colleagues in Afghanistan
Afghan firefighter Atiqullah Jamshedi Mohammadullah stops for a quick photo while training with firefighters from the City of Langford during a visit to Canada in 2008. He died after battling a fire connected to a terrorist attack in 2017. (Courtesy Langford Fire Rescue)

The thought that assisting firefighters in Afghanistan would take a turn for the worst 18 years later never crossed Bob Beckett’s radar screen.

In 2004, the then chief of Langford Fire Rescue led a mission to the war-torn country to assist firefighters limited by a lack of training and equipment. Working with the Canadian Armed Forces in Kabul, Beckett coordinated the delivery of about $250,000 worth of medical supplies and firefighting gear donated by fire departments from across the province. Langford Fire Rescue also hosted firefighters from Afghanistan for training sessions in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

“During one of the delegations here, I got to know the fire chief in Kandahar well,” Beckett said. “He was an extremely conservative Muslim and just an amazing individual. Seeing how he connected and shared laughs with our firefighters despite the language barrier was extremely powerful. Sadly, my friend and colleague died bravely fighting a fire at a hospital in Kabul that had been attacked by insurgents. In honour of our special and unique relationship, on the birth of our youngest daughter, we gave her an Islamic middle name.”

ALSO READ: Langford mourns Afghan firefighter killed in the line of duty

The alliance the Afghan firefighters forged with Langford Fire Rescue and the Canadian Forces has long incurred the wrath of the Taliban.

It has escalated since they seized complete control of the country, and put them and their families at greater risk following the takeover in 2021, Beckett explained.

“The 16-year-old son of one of the fire chiefs we brought over was recently stabbed for wearing a T-shirt the Taliban didn’t approve of,” Beckett said. “His mother’s been laid off work and his sisters can’t go to school anymore. They had seen their lives improve dramatically during the past 15 years – education for the girls and a sense of security – the future looked reasonably promising until the Taliban seized control. Although they never thought of leaving their country before, they reached out to me in October to see if I could help them get to Canada.”

Beckett and his wife, Laura, have been working hard to sponsor several families since then.

“It’s so draining emotionally, given the frustration of not being able to have tangible results,” Beckett shared.

“Laura and I are doing this off the corner of our kitchen table, and there’s so much bureaucracy and red tape trying to manoeuvre through the immigration and visa process. It’s challenging, frustrating and worrisome as well because every week of delay is another week in danger.”

They have managed, however, to get a doctor and his family from Kandahar to Canada with assistance from Gord Johns, the MP for Courtenay-Alberni.

Efforts are now focused on getting the families of two firefighters over as well.

“We’re looking for help to have as much support as we can in place within the community to assist with their transition. Laura’s talked to some church groups to see what they can do. Maybe there’s an immigration lawyer who can help with the paperwork. We’re not looking for money, we’re looking for the support the families will need when we get them here,” Beckett stressed.

“The Taliban has taken over Afghanistan and there’s a war in Ukraine no one predicted six months ago. As a father and a humanitarian, I can’t help but feel the weight of that, and a sense of responsibility to do whatever I can to help.”

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Members of Langford Fire Rescue, including former fire chief Bob Beckett (second from right) in Afghanistan in 2004. (Courtesy of Langford Fire Rescue)