I don’t remember much of life under Taliban rule. But I do know that had my family not fled Afghanistan almost twenty years ago, my life would be a world away from where it is now.
Currently, I balance my PhD studies at Cambridge with my role as a Strategic Development Manager at a charity. In parts of Northern Afghanistan still under Taliban control, some young women continue to be denied an education after the age of 12 and girls’ schools are being shut down. It’s common for women of my age – 25 – to be homemakers, with several children and to know little of life outside the home.
My family, who firmly believe in equal opportunities for both genders, had become targets of the Taliban. We saw the UK as a place of freedom and safety and were attracted by the welcoming nature of the British people, the country’s commitment to helping those in need, and the freedom to express identity and religion.
When we arrived in the UK, none of our family could speak English or were familiar with British culture, although my parents were educated to university level. The tolerance and openness to other cultures here is something that has allowed me to learn so much about Britain – beyond ‘fish and chips’ and The Beatles. Those in my new community were also keen to learn the same about the culture of Afghanistan.
Here in the UK I have been able to flourish in the education system and carve out an active role in society. This is all thanks to the dangerous journey my brave family took.
When I was five years old, we travelled across continents on the back of a refrigerated lorry. I can only begin to think how fraught my parents must have felt, packing their family and lives up and not knowing what would await them or where we would end up, when the lorry door opened. It was an incredibly dangerous passage that, sadly, other groups did not survive.
In school, I was aware that my background was different to my class mates and our situation meant that at first we struggled to understand the school system or how to acess local services – issues which we worked hard to overcome.
These challenges led my father to set up the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), as a support unit for refugees struggling with the anxieties and logistics of living in a new country. At the charity, we help people integrate in to their local community and navigate the services in this country.
Cultural gaps are difficult to bridge on your own. I knew all too well the feeling of fear and despair at your home being ripped from beneath your feet and having to navigate a new country. Now, I feel both the UK and Afghanistan are my home. I hope my story will inspire people, especially women, that there are no limits to success here, no matter where you come from.
Women can feel particular anxiety when they come from cultures where they’re not expected to play an active role in society outside the home, or are denied an education. We offer women tailored and culturally sensitive support to learn the language spoken around them and to integrate in to the community. By offering classes such as English lessons, workshops and current affair discussions it gives women the confidence to speak to people and make connections.
The right support can be transformative. I’ve experienced it first-hand. It’s key to help people find their way and create a life for themselves they might never have dreamt of.