Over six days, the lives of Afghan researcher Mohammad Ehsan Saadat and his family turned upside down: enough time to fill out an asylum application and flee to Canada just before the Taliban walked into Kabul.
Since then, he has often said to himself how "lucky" he is to have the opportunity to start anew in Canada, but "weeps" for those left behind.
"From the beginning of July I was thinking that this country (Afghanistan) was going to fall," he told AFP days after arriving in Toronto with his family — though, he added, he had not imagined that the Taliban would take Kabul as quickly as they did.
The Afghan capital fell on Sunday, after a lightning offensive by the Taliban which saw president Ashraf Ghani flee as they entered the city and took control of the country, 20 years after their first regime was toppled by the US-led invasion.
As the advance gathered pace last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would take in 20,000 Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban.
Ehsan's research work "on corruption, women's rights, human rights, and children's rights," could make him a target of Taliban reprisals, he said.
The application process was completed in record time, less than a week. "It was unbelievable," he says. "We were very excited, very much."
The family quickly packed their bags. Ehsan made sure not to leave behind cherished traditional Afghan garb, which he hopes to bequeath to his son some day.
His wife, meanwhile, dreamed of learning how to drive in Canada, as well as registering for English language classes.
"Sometimes I stand in front of the window and I think about how I got here and how I'm lucky that I'm not in Afghanistan now," Ehsan, who like all international travellers to Canada is having to quarantine for 14 days due to Covid, confides.
Several of his nine siblings still live in the Afghan capital, and he worries for their safety.
"Yesterday I was afraid the United States would start bombing Kabul and I asked my family to move to different places," he said.
He's followed from afar developments in Afghanistan over the past few days, as well as Monday's public address by US President Joe Biden, in which he said he did not regret his decision to leave and put the blame for the Taliban's victory on the failure by Afghan leaders and the military to fight.
Harrowing images of people packing into the Kabul airport and clinging to a US military plane triggered a deep sadness. "I started crying," Ehsan said. "The US and international community were there for almost 20 years and we didn't learn anything from them."
"It's a dark future for Afghanistan," he said, concluding from Biden's remarks that "the international community didn't want to help us anymore."
His joy suddenly and visibly blurred by feelings of dread, he wondered aloud whether countries like Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran could step in to fill the void left by the United States' departure to "help Afghanistan" and "save the development and achievements of the past 20 years."
He admits sorely, however, that he is "not optimistic."
Safe in Canada
While sharing his story with AFP by videoconference, his children amble over to the camera, the youngest brandishing a mischievous smirk as he looks over his father's shoulder trying to determine who dad is talking to.
They appear tired after a long journey. They too are subject to quarantine. Like his wife, his son and three daughters speak neither French nor English.
"I told them that here (in Canada), everything is safe. No, explosions, no suicide attacks, no bombing, nothing. Just you should focus on your education," Ehsan says.
Despite his anxieties, Ehsan presents himself with an air of confidence, filled with hope.
"Who doesn't want to go to Canada? Yes, it was my first choice," he says with a laugh, although he admits to having also filled out immigration applications for the United States, Europe and other nations just in case Canada rejected him.
The family's quarantine will be lifted next week. Ehsan says he hopes to start looking for a job, and use his skills perhaps at a local university.
He also doesn't rule out resuming his own studies. "I'm trying to work on another masters degree in conflict resolution," he says.