Diary of an Afghan family in the UK: “We can’t apply for jobs, drive or open a bank account—we have nothing”

·6-min read
 (Sayed Hashemi)
(Sayed Hashemi)

“My wife, three sons and I arrived in the UK four weeks ago.

Unlike many of our friends and relatives, we were able to flee Kabul before it fell thanks to the UK Government’s evacuation programme, because I used to work for the British embassy as a political officer. We flew into Birmingham airport on August 12 and were taken straight to a quarantine hotel in Manchester by coach. After 10 days, we were moved again, to a hotel in Canterbury, where we’ve been staying ever since with 10 or so other families, waiting to be assigned a home.

As a former commercial lawyer and CEO, I hoped it would be in London, where the most professional jobs are, but we have now been told we are being relocated to Perth in Scotland, which we are nervous and upset about. We’re the only family from our hotel being sent there.

My wife, Lida, and I feel very depressed after losing our home and not knowing what will happen next. Our sons - aged eight, 14 and 17 - feel they have lost everything: their friends, their country. Even though they won’t talk about their feelings with me, I can see their emotional posts on Facebook saying they feel depressed and hopeless.

My youngest was crying last night. He doesn’t have any friends here and he doesn’t know about the culture - apart from a family from Kent who invited us into their home last night, people look at us like we are refugees and we’re not part of the community, which we are not. My son asked if we could go back to Kabul last night and I had to tell him we couldn’t. Leaving Afghanistan is a one-way road. We have come here to be safe.

Mercifully, we are comfortable and have clothes with us, unlike many of those who’ve fled Kabul since it fell. The British people have also given us a glimmer of hope - last night we went for a walk and an English family with four children approached us in the street and invited us for a barbecue in their back yard when we told them where we had come from. They showed us real humanity, expressing their sympathy for Afghanistan and crying when we told them our story. It was amazing. They even gave our children games and offered us their bikes to cycle to Whitstable. That kind of thing never happens in Eastern communities.

Of course, there have been negative messages too. Some people on a local community Facebook group said we were clearly looking for easy cash, but that is a normal response if you move country and I was flattered that people stood up for us.

Sayed Hashemi, his wife Lida and their three sons at their hotel in Canterbury (Sayed Hashemi)
Sayed Hashemi, his wife Lida and their three sons at their hotel in Canterbury (Sayed Hashemi)

Luckily, the majority of messages have been supportive and the kindness of the British people has been amazing. Details of our situation ran in the Evening Standard last week and since then I have had hundreds of messages on Facebook and LinkedIn, from local families inviting us for tea and a karate club offering free classes for my sons.

But we are not the only family in this position — we need more support and leadership from the UK Government as there are many like us, helpless and stuck in our hotel. The Department for Education visited us a few days ago, asking about my sons’ previous schools. But there’s been lots of ambiguity since arriving here and it all feels rather mismanaged: we were promised pocket money, kids’ activities, identity cards and information on what happens next, but we haven’t had any of that yet and have been told it could be anywhere between a week and two months before we do.

Without ID or a credit card, we can’t apply for jobs, drive or open a bank account. We were promised support for four months. But what am I going to do after four months? I have a masters from the US in international trade and have always had a professional career, including jobs in law, at the British Embassy in Kabul and most recently as CEO of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment, but I don’t know whether I’m going to find an employer over here. I know a former Afghan government minister is now delivering pizzas after relocating to Germany.

We also need things like integration programmes and social gatherings so we can feel part of the community. We’ve been assigned case workers by the government, but we need cultural programmes on how to integrate and learn British values.

Sayed Hashemi in his former job as CEO of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment (Sayed Hashemi)
Sayed Hashemi in his former job as CEO of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment (Sayed Hashemi)

But we are safe and that’s the main thing. We are worried for our friends and relatives left in Kabul. I’ve lived there for the last 20 years and the last few months were getting scary as the war intensified and districts started collapsing. Right now I am sitting in a room with some of the other families and many of them are very emotional. One of the other fathers has two kids over the age of 18, who weren’t allowed to come with him so they are trapped in Afghanistan and in hiding.

Their mother is crying next to me. She is worried about her son being recruited by the Taliban and her daughter being forced to marry their soldiers. People are coming over and taking women and girls to Pakistan, using them as leverage to recruit people. It’s very scary for women and girls at the moment. We don’t want them to go back to sitting at home like they did in the past, but at the moment it’s like a prison. They are hostages of the Taliban.

I am fearful for the future of my country now. For the last few months, anyone who had the opportunity to fly was leaving. As part of my work for the Afghan Chamber of Commerce, I have watched investors fleeing the country over the last year - we used to receive about 10-15 visas requests a day but as the situation got worse, thousands of people started requesting them and taking their families out of Afghanistan. Everybody started rushing towards Iran and Pakistan. The rich were mostly heading to Turkey for the investment opportunities. Poor people were fleeing illegally to Iran or Pakistan. Some got shot, some got put in prison, some came back.

Sayed Hashemi and his sons back in Afghanistan (Sayed Hashemi)
Sayed Hashemi and his sons back in Afghanistan (Sayed Hashemi)

Now, when I speak to people in Afghanistan on the phone, they don’t have jobs or homes or anything to eat - they are literally starving. People are dying. It’s a disaster and it is literally paving the way for extremists to recruit people because they need to survive. It doesn’t matter where they get the money, they need to feed their family.

In Kabul I was working in the development arm of the government and we had to lose 50 per cent of employees when the government cut our budget. Everyone was worried about their job, including me. I wasn’t a close ally of the president or the palace, so of course I was worried about my job and feeding my family. I still am, even in the UK. We may be safe from the Taliban, but without more support from the government, I don’t know what we’re going to do.

Sayed Hashemi, 42, is the former CEO for the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment. He was one of the top mining and commercial lawyers in Afghanistan until he and his family had to flee Kabul last month.

For suggestions of how you can support Afghan refugees in the UK, read our list here

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