THE BLOG

Different Pasts, Shared Future - What The Theme Of This Year's Refugee Week Means To Me

20/06/2017 16:08
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My 'shared future' began in 1998 when my wife and seven and 10-year-old boys were forced to flee our home and our 'past' in Afghanistan. At the time the Taliban was occupying most of the country, including the capital city, Kabul. We heard news that they were headed for our city of Mazar-i-Sharif, so we left in July 1998 and managed to cross the border to Uzbekistan, which was the closest and safest route.

Over the following two months, we made our way by plane through Russia and Europe, helped by an agent. We were lucky enough to have the money to do this, many didn't and therefore didn't have the choice to leave. The journey was stressful, my wife cried a lot, but we did our best to hide it for the sake of our young boys. We finally arrived in Gatwick Airport on 16th September 1998, very thankful to be safe.

Consider, we knew hardly anyone in London, we did not speak any English, we had no possessions and little money, yet we began to re-build our lives here. Raising a family in a place you are so unfamiliar with presents its own unique and complex challenges. One issue ourselves, and others in the community, faced was a fear that our children were exposed to so much more than they would have been back home, where it is far less liberal. We found ourselves worrying about our children becoming involved in anti-social behaviour, drugs, and even gangs.

At the same time, our children were learning English and integrating into their new society, as a much faster rate than us. They would often choose to communicate at home in English over our native language, so even the basic act of communicating and connecting with our children was slowly being challenged.

Many people responded by sending children to their local mosques in the hope that faith would help reinforce discipline and strengthen their sense of heritage.

I wanted to be able to send my children to a place that wasn't faith based, but community driven. I wished for a place that would inspire them, support their aspirations and help integrate them into the wider community. I wished for a place that could help parents and children to learn and grow together.

But that place didn't exist at the time, so myself and five of my friends set about trying to create it.

In 2002, we persuaded a local primary school to let us use their classrooms on a Saturday, and supported by a group of volunteers, we offered classes in Afghan languages - Dari and Pashto - for refugee children, and English classes for their parents. We quickly broadened out the subjects to Maths, Science and English as it became clear that these children needed a little extra support to help them in their mainstream education.

It was a brilliant example of a community supporting each-other and of parent/child engagement. It was becoming a lifeline for many families and an environment that offered understanding and friendship.

Early on we also found many people needed help with things like accessing local services, with immigration applications and with legal support. So we grew again. We recruited more volunteers and started to offer these basic services.

While I was still learning English I was also learning about how to set a charity up in the UK. I was reading mind-boggling policy documents, with a dictionary constantly by my side. It often seemed like an impossible task, but we knew we had to keep going because so many people relied on us.

15 years later our charity, 'Paiwand', now helps over 2,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and vulnerable migrants a year, who have come from all over the world. We help 500 children through our Saturday Schools who are taught a range of curricular subjects as well as the Afghan languages, by professional teachers. We offer extensive support to unaccompanied minors including housing, mentoring, youth clubs and help gaining employment. We also have a very busy Advocacy team that helps people to navigate the stressful immigration process and access basic services.

For me, the concept of 'Different Pasts and Shared Futures' starts with friendship. And that's what see at Paiwand; we show people solidarity and unity which gives them hope and confidence. This in turn helps them to engage with their new communities and to actively contribute to a shared future in their new homes.

Follow Paiwand's work on Facebook.

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