Afghan family reveals bittersweet highs and frustrating lows of new life in Britain

Weeks after lawyer Sayed Hashemi fled Kabul with his wife and three sons, he tells 'The National' about starting a new life in Scotland

After fleeing Kabul in August, Sayed Hashemi and his family arrived in Birmingham in the UK, staying in holding hotels in Manchester and Canterbury before being settled in central Scotland. Photo: Sayed Hashemi
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Sayed Hashemi and his family are a long way away from the fear and violence they fled in Kabul.

It has been only a few days since they arrived in what is now their permanent home in Perth, a city beside the River Tay in Scotland, and the calmness is comforting if not a little disorientating.

A former political officer with the British embassy, Mr Hashemi qualified for the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme and was able to get on the UK government’s evacuation programme days before the Taliban swept to power and toppled the former government in Afghanistan.

He and his family flew into Birmingham airport on August 12, and, like the thousands of recently arrived Afghans, spent their first few days in the UK in a hotel room in Manchester waiting for the clock to run down on the government-mandated quarantine period.

After the required 10 days had passed, the family was moved to a hotel in Canterbury, a cathedral city in south-east England, where they stayed for another three weeks with 10 other Afghan families, waiting to be assigned a permanent home.

Employees of the local council would visit the hotel daily to check in on and update the families, but Mr Hashemi said he sometimes felt frustrated by the lack of concrete information on where they would be moving to next and what it would be like.

“In one way it was exciting, but also really nerve-racking not knowing what comes next,” he told The National.

It was also, he said, difficult to deal with the conflicting emotions over leaving their home country for the UK.

“I felt very depressed after losing our home and not knowing what will happen next and our sons felt like they lost everything. My wife knows being here is the right thing for our safety, but it’s difficult.”

A 'warm welcome' from Canterbury's community

Staying in a hotel with young children for weeks on end with no money, belongings or recreational activities was also challenging but a welcoming community spirit helped with that. During a walk through town with his three sons – who are 8, 14 and 17 – in search of a playground, Mr Hashemi, who speaks fluent English, quickly struck up a friendship with a local family picnicking in the park.

“They were so kind. As soon as they knew we were from Afghanistan they said ‘we’re so sorry about what happened to your country’ and offered my kids cookies and ice cream, it was so thoughtful,” he told The National.

“The children were so happy to see the ice cream.”

Soon the “kind and hospitable” couple, Richard and Corinne, were introducing them to their friends and invited the Hashemi family to their house for a barbecue.

“It made me feel hopeful and excited that people were helping us,” Mr Hashemi said.

When another dinner invitation came the following day, Mr Hashemi said he felt touched to be treated like “an old friend".

Eventually he got the long-anticipated news about where his family would be permanently settled, but it did not fill him with excitement.

Starting over in Scotland

Mr Hashemi’s family have been placed in the city of Perth in Scotland, 800 kilometres from where he had begun to feel a little bit at home. When he first found out he said it felt like “going into exile again".

A former commercial lawyer and chief executive, he hoped it would be in London or another of the UK’s big cities where jobs in his field were more plentiful.

But a few days into his arrival in the Scottish city he has warmed to the place, calling it “very nice, calm and quiet”.

“The question though, is whether I can get a job,” he said.

Specialised in oil, gas and mining contracts and with a masters degree in international trade from the US and, most recently, working as chief executive of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment, Mr Hashemi would love to work in his areas of expertise.

"I have the skills and experience and can work in any sort of administration, management or leadership work,” he said, but is unsure whether his qualifications or experience will serve him in Scotland. Fortunately, he has received several offers from working professionals to look at his curriculum vitae and advise on employment opportunities.

Ordinarily, it takes several years for asylum-seekers in the UK to be allowed to work, often leaving refugees in professional limbo and financially strapped. But the UK government has said that Afghans who arrived under the Arap scheme will be given indefinite leave to remain in the country, allowing them access to permanent jobs with unrestricted rights to work.

However, if finding work takes time, Mr Hashemi has a Plan B.

“I always wanted to study at Dundee University and now that I’m close by, maybe I study for another masters and advance my qualifications,” he said.

For now though, Mr Hashemi is more occupied with advancing his children’s education. Just days after they arrived in Perth and with the help of the local council and a “very effective” case manager, the two eldest children, Ramin and Shahyad, have already started school. The youngest, Masih, will begin at his school next week.

The challenges facing refugees rebuilding their lives

Opening a bank account, however, has been far more challenging. Required background checks will be difficult to obtain from Afghanistan at the moment and everything – from installing internet to paying for his children’s school lunches – needs a bank account.

“I wish the council or case workers would have made this process easier somehow by introducing us to the banks or writing a letter on our behalf,” Mr Hashemi said.

The start of a new academic year can be challenging for any child, but for these boys the adjustments will be much greater.

“They have mixed feelings. On the one hand they’re happy because they’re safe, but also a bit scared and hesitant. They’re happy to be in a school,” he said. “They’re struggling a little bit with English but I’m sure they’ll be fine after some extra studying.”

Sometimes they ask to go back to Kabul, he said, a thought he expressed himself during one of our many conversations. It remains unfortunately an unpalatable option given the current instability in his war-torn country.

The flat they have been given to make their new home is in the commercial centre of Perth; convenient in some ways, isolating in others.

“I was hoping to be in more of a residential area so we could engage with neighbours and have a sense of community,” Mr Hashemi told The National.

He hopes there will be some sort of an integration programme to help him and his family “learn British values”. Perth council and the local mosque have told him they will be inviting the family to various community events.

As is often the case with refugees, he has one eye on his home country, where his sister and other members of his family still live. “I hear them crying when I speak to them. They’re terrified. They just wanted an independent life for themselves and now people are suffering everywhere. It’s dangerous and chaotic and people can’t leave. It’s a disaster.”

While he longs to go back to his country, it is an impossibility with the Taliban in power, given Mr Hashemi’s associations with the British government. He recently found out that his bank account in Kabul has been frozen and he expects the Taliban will soon seize his assets.

Bittersweet as it may be, building a life in the UK is now the primary focus and that, he said, means leaving a part of himself behind.

“I love Afghanistan and the culture and I want to keep it with me as much as I can, but it is in the past and now I want to engage with the new culture and community around me and build a life.”

Updated: September 18, 2021, 6:16 PM