For Afghan families living in Europe and across the world, deciding how much they heat or eat will be underlined by how many family members they can save from the icy grip of winter in Afghanistan.
This winter, according to Save the Children, in Kabul alone more than 800,000 Afghan children face freezing conditions, which risk causing illnesses, hypothermia and death. Plastic sheeting and the clothes the children wear are all that separate them from sub-zero temperatures as low as -25°C.
While the global cost of living deepens, Europe's Afghan refugees will not just worry about the cost of covering their own heating bills but sending money to family members and friends in Afghanistan. My daughter’s friend and her family – who fled Afghanistan – raise funds in preparation for winter to send back to the country they once called home.
An Afghan woman I know in the UK fled the Taliban as a child with her family. She said: “Every year when the temperature plummets it’s a struggle and now it’s only worse with the Taliban in power. Families can’t afford to accommodate the harsh weather. People tend to burn anything that they can get their hands on to have a source of heat, and this can often be detrimental for the environment and health of the people, but they have no option. For Afghan refugees living in the West, they wrap up more and eat less so they can send a little money to families at risk of death by the winter threat.”
There are thought to be as many as 6 million Afghans living outside of their home country across the world, and the remittances they send are a lifeline to their families in Afghanistan. This year, Afghans face another devastating winter under the Taliban rule in the backdrop of a broken economy, shrivelled international development aid and climate threats. The country is ranked as the sixth-most affected by climate change but with jobs and livelihoods disappearing, women unable to work and its precarious economy collapsing, the UN Mission in Afghanistan said at Cop27 the country is, “one of the least prepared against climate shocks”.
As one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, Afghanistan is suffering greater frequency of floods, earthquakes and drought, often displacing people and adversely affecting farmers. With no plan in place by the Taliban, the Afghans are facing harsher winters and are struggling to find a balance between feeding their families and keeping warm, with heavy snowfall isolating remote communities.
Following the Taliban’s sweep to power, Germany admitted approximately 38,100 Afghans into the country. The country recently pledged to take in 1,000 at-risk Afghans every month, yet those who have never worked in German organisations and don’t speak German are facing financial hardship, in addition to displacement – sometimes more than once. Italy granted 6,000 Afghan nationals international protection this year. But despite being offered sanctuary, their struggles continue.
Qader Kazimizada and his family have lived in Italy since 2020. They currently live in a temporary apartment in Rome, but when they arrived, they spent two weeks in a hotel before being sent to a refugee camp in southern Italy. Mr Kazimizada’s wife and children found it difficult as there was no privacy, and anti-social behaviour and violence occurred every night. And as one refugee said: “Though we struggle as refugees with little to eat ourselves, our heart worries about our families in Afghanistan living in the cold without food – we try to send some money back so that they can keep warm, eat a little and survive the bitter cold.”
Najia, who attends the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association – an organisation that works with Afghan communities in the UK and abroad – sends money to family in Afghanistan, as does her brother who lives in the Netherlands. She said her family does not have enough money to buy warm clothes or to heat their homes. The shortage of food, unable to access medication and incapable of keeping warm, rely on money from family outside the country. The difficulty for Najia, her brother and the Afghan diaspora living abroad is deciding how much and to whom they can provide in a climate of soaring living costs.
With help from international charities, there is a glimmer of hope for people like Sara, a 57-year-old woman from Afghanistan’s Ghor province, who said: “I can manage to buy flour, oil, basic food and heating items; this will prevent my family from facing hunger and cold.”
Yet, I am reminded of Washington Irving’s words, “In the dead of winter, when nature is without charm”. Against this backdrop Afghan children warm their small hands, on plastic jerry cans filled with hot water, covered with blankets.
Afghanistan has often been called the “graveyard of empires”, but the West will be known for raising hope during the 20-year war and then turning its back on the Afghan people once the Taliban regained control.