I was living a normal life as a child with my family in Kabul, Afghanistan until everything suddenly changed after the collapse of the Communist regime in April 1992.
When the different factions of the so called Mujahideen or ‘freedom fighters’ took over the city, they soon started fighting one another and as a result the once beautiful city of Kabul was reduced to mere rubble. I had never seen men shooting one another. The only fighting I had experienced as a young man was quarrels between people on the streets of the city or fist fights between men, when we had to queue up to purchase bread from the bakeries as all the supplies to Kabul were stopped by the Mujahedeen. But now I saw men fall. I saw my classmates die and I saw children and families die. I participated in my neighbours’ funerals when they were killed by shells launched by the different factions of the Mujahideen. War was something new for me. I had no choice but to watch the atrocities, and the horrible memories haunt my soul to this day in my adopted home Coventry, the city of peace and reconciliation, where I now live with my wife and two children.
As the fighting became fierce, my family had to leave Kabul for Jalalabad, the south eastern city bordering Pakistan. We waited for days, weeks, months and years hoping that peace would prevail and we could go back to our demolished family home in Kabul, but things only got worse. The many years of war had now impacted on almost everyone. The country swelled with orphans, widows and men with no limbs. The signs of man-made destruction were so obvious. The city of Jalalabad now became home for almost half the population of Afghanistan and even the deserts surrounding the city were full of UN tents, the refugee camps stretching right up to the road linking Afghanistan and Pakistan. Corruption, inequality and mistreatment of those who lived under the Communist regime were every day occurrences. It came to a point where I had to make the most difficult decision of my life: to leave my family behind in search for peace.
I arrived in the UK in December 1999. It was a life changing experience. It was a cold foggy winter day when I arrived in Dover. With my family left behind, not understanding the language and the culture, it was one of the most difficult ordeals I had faced. The following day we were put on a coach to Coventry, a city that I had never heard of before. I then realised that the city was associated with peace and reconciliation. What could be a better gift for someone in search of peace than to find himself in a city that is closely associated with peace?
I was welcomed by the local community, which gave me a great start on my journey from a stranger to a citizen. I spent the first year learning English and doing odd volunteering jobs. Later on, I got involved in local community initiatives, setting up the Afghan Society of Coventry, helping other immigrants completing forms and with general advice. I then co-founded the New Communities Forum in Coventry. In my second year in the UK, upon receipt of my Leave to Remain, I started my first job, working as a language assistant in a school in Coventry. I have since been in continuous employment, previously working with the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, and then managing the Migration Impact Fund programme with Voluntary Action Coventry, and now managing ‘Sorted’, an improving financial confidence programme at Coventry Citizens Advice Bureau.
I also contribute to a number of organisations through my trusteeship. I am a trustee/director of Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, and vice-chair of Coventry Ethnic Minorities Action Partnership. Since arriving in the UK, I have worked really hard to settle, make a living and contribute to the local community. In year 2010, I graduated from Coventry University with a degree in Human Resource Management.
This year, on 22nd November, I graduated once again from Coventry University with an MA in Community Cohesion Management; a subject closely related to the role I play in the local community. My research for the MA is titled “The Journey from Stranger to Citizen” and focuses on the importance of social relations in immigrant integration. The research was highly marked and my findings will contribute to local social relations and community cohesion initiatives. I will be doing some further work in this area by publishing academic journals that will hopefully further strengthen community relations in the UK.
Reflecting back on my personal journey as an immigrant, one thing I have observed is that people often assume that refugees are similar to tourists. I disagree. As a tourist you understand when you can see your family and loved ones again but as a refugee you don’t have that choice. As a tourist you understand what you may eat and which star hotel you can stay in but as a refugee you may end up destitute and not have anywhere to live. So the choices are pretty narrow as a refugee and if I personally had the choice I would not have claimed asylum in the first place.
Britain is my home now and I am a proud Coventarian. I am fascinated by the diversity of my adopted home. I strongly believe in its values and I am fortunate to be living in a country with a long history of welcoming immigrants, and giving sanctuary to those fleeing persecution and atrocities. Through my interactions with people, I have learnt that there is something special that bind us all together and make us British. And that is the long history of immigrants’ service and contribution in multiple ways to the nation. We all share the same journey and the same story but the only difference is that some of us joined the journey at a later stage.
I often reflect on how Coventry was re-built after the war. In 1960s when the new Coventry Cathedral was built, the city’s first Gurdwara, Mosque and Mahinder were also built. This is a good example of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and faith coming together and rebuilding the city and the country after the war. It is therefore important to celebrate the fact that we are a nation of immigrants and we need to be proud of our diversity and multicultural values. 18th December marks the International Migrants Day and it is an opportunity to reflect on the talents, skills, the rich cultures and liveliness that immigrants bring to our diverse society. But it should not only stop there. We need to use this day and highlight its importance to our friends, colleagues and neighbours. But most of all remember that newcomers don’t always need food and shelter they may just need a welcoming happy face.