Afghanistan’s last Jewish family wants to join their relatives in Canada

Last Jewish family in Afghanistan
Tova Moradi, 78, en route to Albania with several members of her extended family. (IsraAID photo)

Zebulon Simantov was not, as it turns out, actually the last Jewish person to leave Kabul after the Taliban captured Afghanistan this summer. Despite the media attention given to the feisty caretaker of the Kabul synagogue who eventually was persuaded to leave this fall, an international rescue effort was underway at the same time to spirit out 35 members of the real last Jewish family.

The widowed matriarch, Tova Moradi, (we are keeping her married name confidential for security reasons), and some of her grown sons and daughters-in-law and their children have now been evacuated out of Afghanistan by air, in a series of secret operations that ended Monday night, Oct. 25.

Earlier this month, on Oct. 1, the 78-year-old widow was part of a smaller group of family members to be flown to Albania, where they are now staying in temporary accommodations. Then on Monday, two dozen more family members were able to leave their hiding place in a northern Afghanistan city and were flown to a friendly country in the region.

“Very happy that all the members of the extended last Jewish family in Afghanistan have been extracted,” wrote Sylvan Adams, on Tuesday. The Canadian Israeli philanthropist has been paying for the chartered flights for several hundred Afghan refugees, including the Jewish family. “Under the Taliban, their lives were in grave peril and they are all now safe and can look forward to their permanent resettlement.”

‘They are going to kill my mother’

With the arrival of the second group, which landed Monday, Thornhill, Ont. resident Yehuda “Joe” Friedberg could finally get some sleep. The Canadian Jewish man has spent the past two months raising private funds and pulling strings with his contacts in the Jewish community and abroad, to help make the rescue possible.

It all started with a chance meeting several years ago with one of Tova Moradi’s sons, who was already living in Canada, as a refugee. Friedberg recalled how the man noticed the kippah which he was wearing. Despite having an Arabic-sounding last name, the man insisted that he was also Jewish.

Fast forward to August of this year, and Friedberg ran into the man again: he had been working as a pizza delivery driver in Friedberg’s neighbourhood. The Taliban had just captured power in Afghanistan and the U.S. government and other western countries closed their embassies in a shocking withdrawal at the end of August.

“He looked very sad. He looked dejected. He was crying. And I said, ‘What’s going on?’. He said, plainly, to my face, ‘They’re going to kill my mother.’,” Friedberg recalled.

Further inquiries revealed the complicated story of why the Taliban had targeted Tova Moradi and her family for more than 20 years.

Saved another Jewish man

When the Taliban ran Afghanistan between 1994 and 2001, two Jewish men lived in the old synagogue compound in Kabul: Zebulon Simantov, and an older religious figure known as Rabbi Ishaq Levin. They had both spent time in prison due to their conflicts with the Taliban, who accused them of being spies.

According to Tova’s daughter Khorsid, who immigrated to Canada in 1999 and now lives in Ajax, Ont., her mother hid Levin for a year while the Taliban were hunting for him. She even lied and told investigators Levin had converted to Islam, so they would leave him alone.

Canada joined the U.S. led-invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States. The war forced the Taliban out of power. Ishaq Levin, also called Mullah Ishaq, was able to live the rest of his life freely and practise his faith as an observant Jew. He died in 2005, and is buried in Israel.

“When the Taliban came for the second time in Afghanistan, like just a few months ago, they found out about this story and they tried to kill my mom and my family,” Khorsid said in an interview Monday with The CJN Daily. [We are not using her last name, either]. “They said, ‘The first time you lied to us, you tried to hide.’ They were threatening all my family and they were all in danger.”

That is what motivated Friedberg to really become involved.

“I spoke to my rabbi, I spoke to some advisors, and they said, ‘If you can do something to help, help.’,” Friedberg explained. “So I decided, you know what? I was going to see what I could do.”

Friedberg devoted countless hours to logistics and to contacting non-governmental agencies and lobbying politicians to make the rescue possible. At times, the family and Friedberg thought the operation would fail.

Controversial marriage to a Muslim

Tova Moradi was born to a well-known Jewish family who had business interests in Kabul and Iraq. When she was a teenager, she defied her family’s plans to make an arranged marriage. Instead, she wed a much older Muslim man. The marriage led to her estrangement from her Jewish relatives, including her parents and several siblings who moved to Israel.

Nevertheless, according to Khorsid, one of nine children, her mother continued to practise her faith, despite the ostracism which her children felt growing up in Kabul.

“And I remember when I was in Afghanistan as a child, I remember I had no friends. Nobody wanted to play with me. They called me, like, ‘You’re Jewish.’,” Khorsid recalled.

For the last few weeks, as The CJN has reported, an international rescue effort was being mounted to save members of Afghanistan’s women’s cycling team, and robotics team members, and other at-risk women and their families. Several Canadian and Jewish groups were involved in bringing them out to the United Arab Emirates and Albania.

The Moradi family was rescued as part of this initiative, but the details had to be kept secret until all 35 of the extended family members cleared Afghan airspace and landed safely.

Video provided by IsraAid, the relief agency that helped in logistics for several rescues of Afghan women at risk.

“As soon as I found out today that they left Afghanistan, I was crying,” admitted Khorsid, adding how grateful she is for the help of her “angel” Yehuda “Joe” Friedberg and the team from IsraAid. “They are free and they can live freely after this. And their life is not in danger anymore.”

Getting visas is the next challenge

While Tova Moradi’s daughter and three adult sons who live in the Toronto area can also get some sleep, now that the scariest part of the evacuation was successful, the fate of their family is in limbo. No country has agreed to take them in permanently. The United Arab Emirates and Albania are housing the refugees, but don’t want to be stuck with them, long term.

Tova Moradi told the Israeli aid workers who greeted her in Albania that she would like to go to Israel soon to say Kaddish for her late parents who are buried there. It is not clear if Israel’s Law of Return and permanent citizenship applies to the extended family, since their late father was not a Jew. However Khorsid insists Canada is where they should end up, and soon.

“We live in Canada, which is a very multicultural country. There’s lots of freedom of rights, for women, for men, for children. And we are lucky to be in here. And we are here. And I hope we get the Canadian support for my family to come here,” she said.

Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to take in 40,000 Afghan refugees, including those who worked for the Canadian government or military, and other at-risk people, negotiations have been unsuccessful to date to get officials to issue Canadian visas to the Moradi family.

The government has several programs to help speed up processing of applications for Afghan refugees, including for those priority cases of Afghans who worked for the Canadian government or the Department of National Defence. However, the Moradi family will likely have to find a different route to try bring their mother and siblings to Toronto, although that will certainly take much longer.

That’s why politicians including Gila Martow, a Conservative member of the Ontario legislature from Thornhill, is open to launching a letter-writing campaign to the new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. Sean Fraser was appointed Tuesday to the post, replacing Marco Mendicino, who had been in charge of the Afghanistan file until Justin Trudeau called the snap election on Aug. 15, 2021.

“I have been in regular contact with Yehuda Friedberg and share his concerns for the welfare of the approximately 35 Jewish family members that were recently rescued from Afghanistan,” Martow said. “Many members of the Canadian Jewish community want to support this family in their efforts to relocate to Canada.”

For Khorsid and her siblings and their own families here in Canada, that can’t happen soon enough. Except for a visit back to Kabul a decade ago, Khorsid hasn’t seen her mother or Kabul-based siblings in person in 10 years. For her three brothers who have lived in Canada longer, their last time together was 15 years ago.

“[Their relatives] are doing good because I can say they are a little bit younger. But my mom, she’s very old,” Khorsid said, explaining why she is worried about her mother living as a refugee. “She’s very old and she has had a very challenging time, so hopefully she comes to Canada soon because it’s not easy for her to be there.”