Yalda, the winter solstice celebrated with poetry and fruit in Afghanistan, was a much more staid occasion for Nasima Karimi this year, in her London hotel room.
The former human resources employee at the British embassy in Kabul tried to create some pomp and cheer for herself and the other Afghan residents who have been living in bridging hotels for months following their evacuation from Afghanistan.
Nasima is one of the 12,000 Afghans who had worked with the UK government or British forces and therefore eligible for resettlement under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme.
This is the third hotel Nasima and her mother have stayed in since they arrived in the UK in late August. Located in the heart of the capital’s financial district, there are few parks, community activities or attractions near the hotel.
“I wanted to organise something to celebrate the night for us because we are all very stressed and we don’t really have a place for us to gather and sit,” says Nasima, who asked the hotel if they would allow them to congregate in the lobby to observe the evening.
In this hotel, where about 20 families have been staying since the beginning of the month, residents are served meals together three times a day in the dining area but are otherwise expected to stay in their rooms, where they are not allowed to take food.
Nasima asked the hotel for their daily fruit to be replaced with watermelon or pomegranate — the traditional fruits eaten to commemorate the longest night of the year — or if residents could buy their own to eat in the hotel, but both requests were rejected. Borrowing a speaker from reception to play some traditional music was also, she said, out of the question.
“It was sad,” Nasima told me the following morning, with a picture of the hotel’s nightly dinner of rice and chicken served in a foil box with a banana next to it. “I wanted to celebrate it here because the Taliban didn’t let us do that in Afghanistan and I wanted to teach the children about this part of our culture.”
For Nasima, not having the space or permission to eat the fruit she wants is more than just a matter of taste, although she says that eating the exact same thing day in, day out for months has not been easy. Requests for changes have been ignored or rejected, adding to the general lack of welcome she has felt from members of the hotel staff.
“Some of them are not very kind, some of them say mean things like ‘we’re paying for you to be here’ and that sort of thing,” says Nasima. “It feels like a prison for us here, I find it difficult to be here, we all do.”
This difficulty is compounded by Home Office delays in processing permanent housing and residency cards for the 12,000 new arrivals.
“Everyone expected to start their new life by the new year and to celebrate with their families but it’s been four months that we are in the hotel and waiting for residency cards and accommodation and we have the same type of food every day and no one can bear it any more … we are just eating to survive at this point.”
The frustrations are echoed among other Afghans across the country, who say they are simply “waiting for their turn” to start living normally. Even among those who have been housed, a feeling of being settled remains elusive.
“For me it is challenging, not having a job and sitting at home and [I] don’t feel useful or effective,” says the one-time chief executive of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and former political officer with the British embassy, who was resettled in Perth in northern Scotland with his children in October. “I’m highly educated and experienced but then in a small town, there isn’t a lot of opportunity which makes me depressed and disappointed, but I’m staying hopeful and using my network,” Sayed Hashimi tells The National.
Sayed wishes he had more support and that the government would focus on training and employment programmes that will help refugees “stand on their own two feet” and build an independent life.
Ideal as that autonomy sounds for all concerned, the Home Office’s resettlement plans have been plagued by delays and criticism over poor planning and communication. For its part, the government has repeatedly lauded undertaking its “biggest and fastest” emergency evacuation in recent history, and the “huge effort now under way” to get families permanently housed to “rebuild their lives.”
For the thousands of Afghans with only the four walls of their hotel room to stare at and mounting worries about those back home in Afghanistan, piecing together a life of their own seems a long way from beginning.