The Jewish Federation of Ottawa was honoured to recently present a J-Fellows' interactive online event with Lewis Retik, Jacques Shore, C.M., Dr. Farouq Samim, and Bram Bregman, which shared, for the first time, the amazing and heroic work of Operation Abraham and the daring rescue of vulnerable Afghans.
Operation Abraham was founded by a handful of concerned citizens in Canada and the United States, who were suddenly engaged in an initial plight to rescue a family in Kabul. From there, the mission of Operation Abraham grew to help evacuate hundreds of vulnerable people from Afghanistan and to assist in the resettlement of those desperate to seek freedom in other countries – including Canada.
“What started with [the rescue of] one family has grown to hundreds of families,” said Amanda Shore in her introduction of the speakers and the program. “This grassroots effort has illustrated how these values have transcended boundaries and connected those of seemingly different backgrounds together.”
In August 2021, Ottawa lawyer Lewis Retik got a call from a friend, asking for legal advice for another friend — Dr. Farouq Samim. Samim trained as a military physician serving the then-national defence forces in Afghanistan, and worked as a journalist. He is also the author of Laghman, a guidebook designed to support the counter-terrorism and rebuilding operations of the NATO forces in Eastern Afghanistan.
“I said ‘I don’t know what I can do, but let's speak to your friend,’” said Retik. The conversation was more than an hour and Retik learned about Samim’s sister with disabilities who was in danger — her only crime was being Samim’s sister.
“I called [my colleague at Gowlings WLG] Jacques [Shore] and in less than three minutes he said, ‘Well, we have to do something,’” said Retik. “We brought together this amazing team, who are all key parts in turning this into what it was. No one sat down and said ‘Let's start an organization to rescue refugees.’ The first string was rescuing Farouq’s sister.”
Samin said he had no other way to bring his sister to Canada.
“Then this miracle happened,” he said. “They came to our rescue. Lewis Retik and Jacques Shore … They tried to help me. They’re like my brothers now.”
“That first plane, 800 people got out. We were overjoyed,” said Shore. “This is just the start.”
Retik described part of the dramatic rescue of those first 800 people, of whom 60 were under the age of two.
“We were actually connecting with an undercover CIA agent in Afghanistan who was still on the ground…. And they were helping manage this loosely coordinated ferry of individuals - a van of three people, of six people,” explained Retik adding the situation was precarious “because we didn't want to tip off the Taliban.”
Retik reminded the session’s viewers of the infamous CNN video clips of six planes sitting on the tarmac at Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport. U.S. President Joe Biden was in the news calling on the Taliban to let those planes go.
“Of those planes six planes, two were actually our planes,” Retik explained. “Just so you understand the safety concerns at the time, at the very time they were loading people on the plane, Farouq's sister was arrested by the Taliban at the airport.”
Thankfully, another family member was able to negotiate her release in time for her to get on the plane.
Samin emotionally shared how he told his sister: "Don't worry, my sister, the Taliban have guns, but I have some brothers. They don't have guns, but they have a lot of power. We will get you out."
“And then we prayed,” added Shore.
“I love this name, Operation Abraham. It’s an intersection of my faith (Muslim) and the Jewish faith,” continued Samin. “These people, they instilled real humanity in me. This will never be forgotten.”
For Shore, he recognizes there is still much more work to accomplish.
“We’ve certainly not completed our work — [we are] working every day to achieve freedom for 130 Afghans still on our refugee list,” he said. “There’s still a lot more we have to do. We have achieved some success but this last stretch is not an easy one.”
Shore said at one point during the planning process there was this question ‘Why are we doing this?’
“And I knew it was a daunting task, but immediately at that moment I had to say, it was because of Abraham,” he said. “These are our brothers and sisters and Abraham was our patriarch. There was no question. We forged on.”
The team expected the operation to be quick, but still, 16 months later they are deeply engaged and have people coming to them asking for help. To date, they’ve helped 1,500 people.
Bram Bregman, president of Newfoundout Family Office, had been involved in other refugee projects and came on board in September of 2021. Since then he has helped with both fundraising and settlement.
“The biggest issue we had was that typically you’re involved in private sponsorship of just one family … we didn’t have government support at the time, so we had the responsibility of 10 family units.”
Government support programs did eventually come on board, and Bregman worked with Catholic Centre for Immigration and Jewish Family Services to help on the ground. When it came to the flights, Bregman applied and coordinated with Miles for Migrants, based in the U.S. to have the flights covered.
“We all worked together to get Muslims out of Afghanistan,” said Bregman. “It was a beautiful, team effort.”
Once the refugees had landed, they had to coordinate transportation, food, housing, and clothing.
“Even just the small things — adaptors and converters for their electronic devices. Having to go see a doctor for an infection; finding apartments … they had no budget,” said Bregman. “Every little detail had to be worked out.”
Operation Abraham can’t happen without help. They’ve engaged with The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.
“As we get more names, we pass them on to the Raoul Centre,” said Shore. “We also can’t thank our partners [at Gowling WLG] enough for how amazing they’ve been in backing us up and supporting us.”
Learn more about Operation Abraham and provide support: https://www.raoulwallenbergcentre.org/en/operation-abraham
Watch the J-Fellow event online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rSu-DbL99o