The last names of some people in this story have been omitted for safety reasons.
The Rev. Canon Nicola Skinner, incumbent of Grace Church, Markham was reading the Guardian one evening when an article caught her eye. The article was about Fatima, a former Afghan police officer who was targeted and beaten by the Taliban.
Fatima was forced to marry at the age of 12. Her husband was abusive but because he was unable to work, he encouraged her to join the police force. Fatima loved her job, and it allowed her to save up enough money to divorce her husband and support her two sons, now 10 and 13. In 2020, she went public with allegations of sexual assault within the police force and left her position after publicly burning her ID. Fatima was abused online and physically attacked for speaking out, and her family refused to help her.
The Guardian article recounts how the Taliban came to Fatima’s house, demanding that she hand over her weapons. When she told them she didn’t have any, they ransacked her house, beat her and held a knife to her son’s throat. They left, telling her they would be back. Fatima immediately went into hiding and was able to flee to Pakistan with her children. But she had only a 60-day visa, and her applications for refugee status in Pakistan and asylum in western countries were met with silence.
Going to bed that night, Canon Skinner was certain that God wanted more than thoughts and prayers. Unable to sleep, she emailed Emma Graham-Harrison, the journalist who had written the article, offering to help settle Fatima and her sons in Canada.
“I read the paper every day, and every day you see story after story after story and you feel helpless,” says Canon Skinner. “For some reason, I just thought, surely there’s something we could do. So, I emailed the journalist. Sometimes, if God has put something in your heart, by just stepping into that, God will make things happen.” For Canon Skinner, the story also felt personal as her husband, Tim Skinner, is an inspector with the York Regional Police (YRP).
Ms. Graham-Harrison replied to Canon’s Skinner’s email and asked her to send a letter to the IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada). She also put Canon Skinner in touch with Mellissa Fung, the former CBC journalist who was captured by bandits while reporting in Afghanistan. Ms. Fung had helped submit the asylum applications on behalf of Fatima and was also paying for her safe house in Islamabad.
Canon Skinner immediately got to work on a letter on Grace Church letterhead to send to the IRCC. She also decided to help Ms. Fung with paying for Fatima’s safe house. Canon Skinner has been making soap for many years and put a call out on Facebook asking friends and family to consider buying 12 months’ worth of soap. The response was overwhelming and raised $3,000.
Canon Skinner doesn’t know for certain whether sending the letter helped, but not long after, Fatima was approved as a Government Assisted Refugee. Fatima and her sons arrived in Canada in June. They were initially flown to Edmonton, where some vacationing members of Grace Church welcomed them. Then, on July 14 the family flew from Edmonton to Toronto. They spent their first month staying with Canon Skinner and her husband, and they attended a church camp in Innisfil. Canon Skinner says the camp gave Fatima a much-needed opportunity to relax while her boys rode bikes, made friends and learned to swim.
In mid-August, Fatima and her sons moved into their new home in Markham. Affordable accommodation is difficult to find in the area, and Canon Skinner asked Grace Church to pray for the family. Not long after, a parishioner’s neighbour offered to rent out his basement apartment.
“This is not a story about me,” says Canon Skinner. “A lot of things have fallen into place: the parishioner’s neighbour offering to rent his apartment for a good price, a Canadian colonel who paid for the family’s flight from Edmonton to Toronto, the YRP women who are helping Fatima. I have seen God at work all the way through this process.”
Sarah Riddell is an inspector with YRP and active in the YRP’s Women in Leadership Internal Support Network. The network focuses on recognizing the contributions of women in law enforcement. However, Ms. Riddell summarizes their remit as “ensuring every girl and woman knows she has a sister in her corner” and the network also has an international focus. This seemed to dovetail perfectly with Fatima’s situation, and the Women in Leadership have been helping her in a number of ways, including connecting Fatima with a cultural community and finding a volunteer who is working with Fatima and her sons on English as a second language.
Ms. Riddell and the Women in Leadership are also passionate about supporting women who want to work in policing, a profession in which just 22 per cent of Canadian police officers are female. Fatima has expressed an interest in working in policing again one day and through the network she will have access to mentoring.
Zabi, who is from Afghanistan and is a police officer with the YRP, has also been helping to settle Fatima and her sons by providing translation. Zabi runs a non-profit that has helped settle more than 300 Afghans. Unfortunately, he has been unable to get a visa for his own family to come to Canada.
“If churches cooperate with other organizations, then we can leverage our position in the community,” says Canon Skinner. Now, Canon Skinner, along with AURA (Anglican United Refugee Alliance) and the congregation at St. John the Baptist, Oak Ridges, are using that leverage to try to get Zabi’s family to Canada.
Ordinary things in ordinary time