An Afghan woman’s new life in London - and fears for the daughter she left behind in Kabul

They were hand in hand at the airport and heading for freedom...

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When Latifa Sekandar rushed to Kabul airport to escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, she found herself squashed among thousands of others desperate to flee.

But while panic was high because of the militant group’s return to power, it was nothing new for the 61-year-old, who had faced its threats for years.

Six months on from that fateful day, the former resident of Kabul opened up about the bitter feud that tore her family apart.

Wiping away tears, she told The National how her world turned upside down when her daughter’s hand slipped out of hers in the chaos at the airport last August. She found herself being escorted on to a plane by Royal Air Force personnel and whisked away to Britain.

“When I left Afghanistan I was scared,” she says. “I am happy in London. I just hope that my kids and husband can come.”

Fashion illustrator Kathy Whyte sketches an Afghan woman at a female empowerment class run by the Afghan and Central Asian Association in Feltham, West London. Victoria Pertusa / The National

Ms Sekandar is staying in a hotel in Feltham, west London, with fellow asylum seekers as she awaits more permanent accommodation. A local charity is helping her.

She is determined to set down roots in Britain and is a regular face at women's empowerment workshops run by the Afghan and Central Asian Association near by.

She also hopes to start taking English classes within months, having never been able to attend school in Afghanistan.

The social aspect of the gatherings and the assistance staff and volunteers offer, has given her hope as she tries to imagine her future in Britain.

“I have met other Afghans here who have been helpful and I’ve made friends, which has lifted my spirits,” she said through an interpreter.

“I have confidence. I used to not even worry about what I’m wearing, but now I am noticing myself coming alive again.”

The charity has also helped Ms Sekandar, who has diabetes, to seek treatment for her condition.

The ACAA does not receive funding from the government and operates solely on funds from British donors and trusts including BBC Children in Need, Big Lottery Fund and City Bridge Trust.

Fourteen staff and 95 volunteers help to provide a wide variety of classes. Adults and children can learn English, Pashto, Farsi and Arabic, and take lessons on the Quran. A supplementary school is also run to help pupils keep up with the national curriculum of England.

Ms Sekandar and her husband first incurred the Taliban’s scorn many years ago, when one of her relatives married without obtaining the blessing of the bride’s father.

The Sekandars suspected that the man had close ties to the Taliban, and threats were made against her own teenage daughter. To make amends, elders in the bride’s family suggested they offer the schoolgirl as a wife to one of their grandsons.

Linda Duberley and Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi, founder and director of the Afghan and Central Asian Association. Victoria Pertusa / The National

This led Ms Sekandar and her family to live in constant fear for the safety of their daughter, who is now about 15. In Afghanistan, it is common for people not to know their exact ages given several changes to the official national calendar over the decades.

“When my daughter used to say to me ‘What if they come and take me?’, I used to say to her: ‘Over my dead body.’ But now I am no longer there to protect her,” she said.

“I want to be there to console her. I constantly cannot sleep and when I start thinking about [my family’s situation], I cannot stop crying. I have nightmares about people coming to take my daughter away.”

Since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan last summer, there have been several reports of fighters forcibly taking women and girls as wives.

Things took a turn for the worse a few days before the Taliban returned to power, when one of Ms Sekandar’s two sons was abducted in Kabul by a group of men.

She has not heard from him since and has strong suspicions it may be connected to the Taliban-linked feud. Her husband, daughter and grandchildren have gone into hiding.

Ms Sekandar says she is immensely grateful to the UK for rescuing her from the militants and offering her a new life. Her hope now is for a reunion with her relatives on British soil.

“I will never go back to Afghanistan because my life is in danger,” she said. “We need people to help [my family] get out. I don’t know if I will ever see my husband again. Even if I die [in the UK], that will be my last wish.”

After flying out more than 15,000 people from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul last August under Operation Pitting, the UK announced a programme to help Afghans to bring family members to Britain.

“The government provides a safe and legal route to bring families together through its family reunion policy and will continue to uphold our international obligations. More than 39,000 family reunion visas have been granted since 2015 under our refugee family reunion policy, with over half issued to children,” a Home Office representative said.

In January, Shukria Barakzai, a former Afghan ambassador to Norway, told The National the UK government had a responsibility to step up its efforts to reunite Afghan women and children with their relatives in Britain.

Half a year after being flown to the UK from Afghanistan, tens of thousands of refugees continue to languish in hotels awaiting homes. Hotel accommodation had been intended as a temporary measure, but due to a chronic shortage of suitable housing options the situation has dragged on. This has caused refugees' mental health to suffer, and has raised concerns about the cost to taxpayers.

Last week, the Home Office wrote to Afghan evacuees to say that as of February 11, they would no longer be given £5 ($6.77) a day for snacks, toiletries and medicine. Instead, the letter stated, they would have to use their Universal Credit, a monthly welfare payment issued to help with living costs, to pay for such items. A monthly standard allowance for single people under the age of 25 is £257.33 ($349.15) while over 25s get £324.84 ($440.75). Couples get slightly less per person.

Days earlier, it was revealed that the government spends £4.7 million a day accommodating asylum seekers in hotels, which breaks down to about £127 per person.

Of that, £1.2 million is the cost of accommodating Afghan refugees while an additional £3.5 million is being spent on asylum seekers from other countries.

About 37,000 asylum seekers and refugees, including 12,000 Afghan national evacuated last August, are staying in hotels in Britain owing to a shortage of social housing.

Last week, Home Secretary Priti Patel said the government was struggling to find permanent accommodation for the thousands of Afghan evacuees. Ministers are looking at better ways to work with local councils to find long-term housing, including converting military barracks into living quarters.

Speaking to the Home Affairs Committee, Ms Patel described the existing policy as “thoroughly inadequate” and said efforts were under way to make Ministry of Defence buildings suitable for accommodating asylum seekers

“We do not want people in hotels. We are looking at dispersed accommodation,” she said.

Updated: February 18, 2022, 6:16 PM
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