“Is there anyone here from Afghanistan?” I asked the Pakistani owner of a local shop. “Yes, yes,” he replied, “we have O… he is very much worried ’bout his family there. I will call him.”
O came, and he showed me the video on his phone of his hometown. There was gunfire, and frantic individuals scattering, clutching bags and boxes, what they had been trying to sell in the town centre. He told me the name of the town which he said was the last to fall to the Taliban before Kabul. It looked like a small unremarkable market town.
O was willing to answer my questions but did not want his name published or the interview recorded on my phone, as he is afraid the Taliban will come for his family.
His mother is living there, with his two brothers and a sister, his wife and two children.
“Everything stopped now. The firing. Everyone waiting. All very frightened. The Taliban.”
Slowly I elicited the personal details.
How O came from Afghanistan to Ashford
O said he came to England sixteen years ago. He must have been a teenager then, as he kept referring to his “social.” He said he did not study much because he needs to earn money for his family. He cannot read or write in his native Pashtun nor in English. His wife also never went to school, and she has some mental problems because of … war.
One of his brothers can read and write, as he went to school for a little while, and can also speak some English. Both brothers work in the meat trade. O is now a part-time assistant at the butchery counter in the Pakistani shop, having learned Urdu to be able to communicate with the other staff. He does not earn enough to send money now to his family – he showed me on his phone that he has only £5 in a Barclays account.
Uniting the family
However he has been back to Afghanistan to visit his family. His mother told him then that she wanted to leave the country. O has tried to contact the UK Home Office about his family. But they ask for papers, and O cannot read or write. When I said there may be a problem with getting visas, he said that he told the Social about his mother and brothers. I noted he did not mention his wife in that sentence.
So when did he marry? I did not want to probe further on this point. Was he already married when he arrived in England as a teenager? But both his children are young, so were they conceived on two separate trips to Afghanistan?
Leave Home Office to do their own work
This is beginning to sound like a Home Office interrogation for immigrants, an experience I had years ago as the wife of a refugee. So enough of that line of inquiry. The point to emphasise, repeated several times by several of his co-workers, is that O is frantically worried about his family, his wife and young children. They cannot come to England because he does not have money and he is illiterate and does not understand the visa system.
Asian people all different
He is also, bizarrely, very mistrustful of fellow Asians. He thinks that people from Iran are hostile to him. I asked if this is because of Sunni and Shia in Islam. He said no it is not religion. He held up the palm of his hand.
“Look at my fingers….all different.”
“Yes, different,” I agreed.
“Asian people like that,” he said, widening his fingers apart.
Find the near end of the problem
A wise Methodist cleric, much experienced in compassionate social activism, once advised “get hold of the near end of the problem.” My conversation with O has provided a near-end perspective on Afghanistan. This helps when trying to make sense of facts that filter through the news networks, or that can be googled.
A highly diverse country
Afghanistan is a country with a population of some 37 million, 74% of them in rural (ie undeveloped areas) and 3 million of them as refugees in Pakistan or Iran. Pashtun and Tajik ethnicity are claimed at 37% each, with Hajara another 10 %. But Dara, related to Persian, is the most widely spoken official language. Looking at the ethnicity list, it is clear that this is a country where tribal allegiances are strong, in a mountainous country with poor communications and hazardous roads. Male literacy is 55% and female 29%. Average life expectancy has increased from 28 years in 1950 to 63 years in 2020. Some 61% of the population is under 24 years of age.
How many of these are hoping to come to the UK? Actually only some 1 500 sought asylum last year, so that Afghanistan is ranked as seventh in the list of sending countries, almost the same as Pakistan, and below Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea and Albania and Syria.
The graph from 2001 shows a dip at that time (when the US-led coalition pushed out the Taliban) and a gradual decline in refugee numbers since, perhaps because of the efforts of that foreign coalition and investment. However we know that there are Afghans in the camps on the other side of the Channel, always young men who are used to trying their luck on the lorries and now are braving the waves on inflatables. At a guess, I reckon O was sent by his family in mid-teens to attempt this difficult route and secure a foothold of hope for them.
Latest government policy
Now the UK government has decided to let in 20 000 Afghans, but there is a priority list which starts with those who worked with the British Embassy and military, and then likely includes English teachers linked to the British Council and cultural workers. Ashford MP Damian Green has been a leading voice in Parliament to call on the Government to make it easier for such Afghans to settle in the UK.
This is, of course, advantageous to the UK, to accept the most highly educated and those with resources. There have been many waves of highly skilled, even wealthy, refugees that have enriched British society, from the Huguenots fleeing Roman Catholic France in the seventeenth century to the Asians fleeing Idi Amin in the twentieth century, the latter group of shop-owning families producing our current Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Incidentally Uganda is now a generous country for refugees, where many South Sudanese have settled, and it is accepting some 2 000 Afghans this year.
Taking the longer view
So nowadays when the anti-refugee voices hurl abuse at the inflatables on Dover beach, it is as well to have a long view of history as well as a more global view of how refugees spread across the world. Also, from a UK point of view, although KCC is complaining of the burden of resettling unaccompanied migrant children/youths, the South East has fewer asylum seekers or settlers than other regions: 3 per 1 000 of the local population compared to 2.3 per 1 000 in the North East (Figure 8).
But the particular problem of O still worries me. His family are unlikely to be at the top of any visa selection list. With a mentally affected wife, they might even become a burden on the benefits system. Yet, as I watch him slice meat expertly and serve customers in the old-fashioned way at the counter I question a ranking system that excludes people like him.
A refugee journey that tests endurance, physical fitness, and sheer determination has already selected him as a winner: he got here, and he has secured a job. A brutal Darwinian obstacle race on the refugee trail or algorithms based Home Office assumptions: which will deliver a better outcome for Afghans who will make their homes in Great Britain?
Your support is welcome
Note – if you want to help the family of O in this emergency, hand your donation to Ali, the manager of the Pakistani shop in New Rents, near to Lidl in Ashford.