Author: Frederica Miller
Thousands of Afghans have fled their homeland fearing for their lives over the last 30 years and many of them have found safety in London.
In the 1980s refugees sought to escape the communist regime, in the early 1990s they fled Jihadists and then later that decade, the Taliban.
London is home to the UK’s largest population of Afghans – 58,000 according to the Trust for London charity.
We spoke to three men who fled Afghanistan and laid down roots in London. One hopes to become the next mayor of Hounslow, one wants to get work as a London cabbie and the third has his sights set on becoming the next president of Afghanistan.
The Afghan refugee who wants to be mayor of Hounslow
Nooralhaq Nasimi – has lived in London for 19 years
Nooralhaq or Dr Nasimi fled Afghanistan’s Taliban regime for London nearly two decades ago.
As a recent law graduate he settled in Lewisham with his wife, Mahboba, in November 1999 when neither of them spoke a word of English.
According to Nooralhaq there was more help available for refugees in London back then than there is today.
He said: “Our situation 19 years ago was much better than now. Today refugees face more challenges to get housing, to access legal aid and to get enough support from the local authorities – this is mainly down to council cuts and the new government policy towards immigration.”
While he and Mahboba struggled with the language they got help to find housing from the British Council and had a Red Cross mentor who visited them weekly and accompanied them on regular trips into the city.
After just 14 months in the UK, Nooralhaq secured a grant and founded a charity to help Afghan and Central Asian refugees.
Nooralhaq set up the charity, the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), in Hounslowbecause it has the largest Afghan population in the UK.
He said: “I wanted to help people who were in the same situation as we had been. Some of the challenges we faced were the same as those faced by refugees today: lack of understanding the language, not understanding the system and not having access to central services.”
Nooralhaq claims the language barrier is the toughest bit about coming to London from Afghanistan.
He added: “It’s impossible to understand British life and British culture if you don’t speak the language. And it’s impossible to understand the values and the opportunities available to you.
“The UK is one of the best countries in the world at providing opportunities to its people but if you don’t speak the language you can’t access them.”
Nooralhaq says he’s hardly experienced any racism since living in London, but says the times he did were when he still hardly spoke English.
He said: “I think not speaking English properly can sometimes cause problems. But generally I have had only good experiences.”
‘I’ve never felt sad about being here’
While Nooralhaq misses the weather in Afghanistan, he’s never been unhappy in London.
He said: “I’ve never felt sad about being here. London has a multicultural society, living here is like living back home because there are so many nationalities.”
The best thing about London is its residents’ hospitality and tolerance.
Nooralhaq said: “There’s freedom of expression and freedom of religion so you can follow the same traditions and maintain your cultural heritage, which isn’t possible in other places.”
Now aged 50, Nooralhaq has his sights set on becoming the first Afghan to become mayor of Hounslow.
Asked what he’d say to people who are against immigration to the UK and don’t want refugees to settle in London, Nooralhaq said: “We are all human beings and having refugee communities in the UK will help British society. It will help British business.
“People with refugee backgrounds often have different qualifications and different knowledge – they can contribute hugely to the British economy.”
Nooralhaq added: “I’ve been standing up for the rights of refugees and migrants in Hounslow since 2001 and hope to stand up for the interests of Hounslow as a whole starting in 2022.
“I would like to become mayor of Hounslow because I am dedicated to serving the public and fostering a sense of community for those living in Hounslow. I have worked towards integrating and empowering the many refugee and migrant communities in Hounslow.
“I believe there has been little to no representation for the refugees who have made their lives in Hounslow, and hope to address this issue as a mayor and bring a sense of unity to Hounslow.”
Nooralhaq’s political ambitions don’t stop there – he also has his sights set on becoming Afghanistan’s president one day.
He said: “Afghanistan is more than the image presented in the media, it is its ancient culture and a brave people. I want to show the world the Afghanistan that is dear to me.”
What is the ACAA?
The ACAA (Afghanistan and Central Asian Association) was founded by Dr Namesi in 2001 and provides a long list of support services to Afghan and Central Asian immigrants and refugees.
From free English classes to a women’s-only training workshop, Farsi and Pashto classes and an after school homework group for kids, it’s a safe haven for Central Asians and Afghans from all over London.
It has a second branch in Deptford as well as its original home at 169 Staines Road, Hounslow.
You can find out more about the work the ACAA does on its website here.
The Afghan refugee who wants to be a London cab driver
Abdul Nouri – has lived in London for four months
Abdul, 43, has been in the UK for 18 years but moved to London from Doncaster, South Yorkshire just four months ago.
He made the move to Feltham with his wife and children (an 11-year-old, an eight-year-old and a five-month-old baby) because they have family here.
Abdul grew up in Kabul and fled Afghanistan because of the Taliban regime, he said: “They destroyed everything, the whole country. There wasn’t any peace, there were no schools, the only options were to fight or go to prison. It was a bad life – that’s why I left the country and came here.
Abdul left school aged 12 and had to work to support his family. Other than English classes he hasn’t had time to study in the UK because of work.
Abdul said: “I’d like to some courses to become a plumber or electrician but I don’t have time – I’ve always been busy with work, so I could only do the English courses.”
Abdul came to the UK alone, while his mother, brother and sister stayed in Afghanistan. He returned to Afghanistan after a few years, to marry, and returned with his wife to Doncaster.
For the first five years Abdul was in Doncaster, he worked on factory floors and in warehouses but then became a cab driver.
He said his best moment in the UK so far is when he first got a job: “My best moment was when I first got work. It didn’t take long, about two months, I had to wait until I go my visa of course. But since I got to London I’ve been unemployed.
‘It’s harder than in Doncaster’
“It’s harder here than in Doncaster because there’s more people, the city is really big, it’s been a bit hard.”
Abdul worked for 10 years as a cab driver in Yorkshire and recently took the TfL test to become a London cabbie – he is currently waiting for his results.
Abdul said he’s finding London busier than South Yorkshire but is enjoying being closer to family, he said: “It’s nice to see family more and the kids are happy. They’re enjoying school.
He said ACAA was a huge help in getting his children into local schools, he said: “This office helped me a lot with my kids’ education. We moved to London in July and all the schools were full. They told us there were no places for the children. Then ACAA helped arrange places for my children by ringing the council and the schools.”
‘Learning English was hard’
Abdul claims thing he found hardest about coming to England was learning the language, he said: “Learning English was a bit hard for me, for a while I could only answer questions with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – I just had to listen and there was a lot I didn’t understand.
“I learnt on the course and then in the workplace too.”
One of Abdul’s favourite things about London is its shopping centres, he said “There are so many different cultures here and lots of shopping centres.
We normally go to quality foods in Hounslow, there’s loads of fresh fruit and vegetables, Asian things. You can find everything we had in Afghanistan here, there are foods from everywhere in all these shops.”
Abdul’s favourite Afghani dish is Qabuli pulao (rice Pilaf, with meat, sultanas and carrot), which he still eats often in Feltham.
He said: “It’s great in London because you can get everything – in Doncaster there weren’t many Asian shops.”
Asked what he misses about Afghanistan he said: “I was born there so of course I miss it. I miss the countryside, my friends and family, my cousins and the weather. Here’s really cold, Afghanistan was hot.”