Welcome to Britain … now what? Afghan families on their lives in limbo | Refugees

In late September 2021, Firas, his wife and four-month-old son have been checked in to a smart Hilton business hotel in London. With green velvet sofas in the lobby and pink orchids at reception, it seems designed to bathe visitors in an atmosphere of corporate calm; in sharp contrast, Firas, 32, a former guard at the British embassy in Kabul, exudes a jangling, nervous sense of distress. Six weeks after a dramatic evacuation from Afghanistan, he remains so shaken that he is waking most nights at 3am and pacing the hotel corridors in tears. “I can’t enjoy the hotel. I can’t concentrate on my new life. I’m too worried about the people I’ve left behind,” he says, bent over a table in the lobby, head in his hands.

A few miles away in another part of south London, Ali, 35, who spent eight years working as a programme and finance manager with the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) in Afghanistan, is isolating inside one room of a quarantine hotel with his wife Zohrab, his nine-year-old daughter and his two sons, aged six and five. A Taliban death threat forced Ali to flee to London a year before his wife and children were evacuated in August 2021, and their recent reunion in this small, sixth-floor room overlooking the Thames was incredibly emotional. “My kids were jumping all over me. I was just so relieved that they were safe,” Ali says. He found them dehydrated and hungry, still wearing the clothes they had left home in. The room is crowded, and the children are sleeping on the floor. They spend their days examining their new home out of the hotel window, trying to spot police boats on the river and finding enormous enjoyment in mimicking the unfamiliar words their father uses when he calls down to reception. “They find it so funny. They tease me, copying my voice, saying, ‘Good morning’ to each other.”

Meanwhile, in a shabby 1960s concrete hotel block in central London, Hussein, 36, his wife Hamida, their six children, his sister-in-law and her child are trying to make three adjacent third-floor rooms feel homely. With his first payment of refugee subsistence money, Hussein, a strikingly tall former translator for the British army in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, has bought a few small pot plants to balance on the windowsill. The children are still terrified by their recent escape. “We waited four days outside the airport, some of the time standing in a dirty canal. My children saw the Taliban firing guns. They had to be pulled to safety by US soldiers,” he says when we meet in the square outside. “I want them to feel safe now. They’re spending all day lying on the bed, watching cartoons on television.”

Over two weeks last August, 15,000 people were airlifted out of Afghanistan after it fell to the Taliban. The rescue was often chaotic. Desperate refugees were seen clinging on to the undercarriage of an overcrowded plane as it prepared to take off from Kabul; a bomb had gone off near the British evacuation headquarters, killing more than 100 people; it was clear that many people eligible for evacuation had been left behind.

Every week a man from the Home Office tells us: ‘We don’t know how long you’ll be in the hotel, if it’ll be weeks or months’

The launch of Operation Warm Welcome seemed to be an attempt to shift attention back to the positive. Almost all the Afghans were transferred to roughly 80 hotels around the country while officials began searching for permanent homes for them. “The UK has a proud history of providing safe haven to those in need,” said the prime minister, Boris Johnson. “I am determined that we welcome them with open arms.”

As time has worn on, though, the resettlement has proved sluggish. While 4,000 people have been housed to date, another 12,000 remain stranded in hotels (the figures are a bit fluid because more people were evacuated throughout the autumn and early this year). As tourists return to London, some of the hotels initially happy to accommodate refugees have asked them to leave, so families are being uprooted again and bussed to hotels in Leeds, Warwick and Manchester. For the first six months of their new lives in the UK, I kept in touch with three Afghan families to find out how welcomed they have felt, discussing their surprise at cultural differences, their struggles against bureaucracy, homesickness and lingering trauma. As a new crisis looms due to the war in Ukraine, Afghan refugees worry that their urgent need for housing will be forgotten amid the public’s surge of concern for the newly displaced. The government has developed a cautious approach to the new wave of refugees. Most of the new arrivals will stay with family and friends, and there will be no repeat of the mass hotel placements, in apparent recognition that the Afghan policy has not been a success.

I had been in email contact with Firas for several weeks before we met. He had contacted the Guardian in August to share the fears of a large number of British embassy guards whose evacuation applications had been rejected on the grounds that they were not direct embassy employees, but subcontracted by a Canadian outsourcing company, GardaWorld. Firas pointed out that this nuanced quibbling was not a distinction that would be made by the Taliban. “I am feeling insecure and hopeless. I am waiting for death at any moment,” he emailed in the first of a series of desperate messages. There had already been an attempt to set fire to his car, which he blamed on the Taliban. A few days later, the British embassy was closed, he was sacked from his job, and he began to worry about how he was going to feed his family.

Publicity about the government’s decision not to grant sanctuary to GardaWorld staff triggered a belated U-turn from the Foreign Office, and a promise that embassy guards would be helped to the UK. But the commitment came too late: the evacuation mission ended before the security staff could be flown out. Of his 120 colleagues, only Firas managed to push himself and his family through the crowds to reach the British evacuation processing centre. Teargas was fired, his baby got hit by the barrel of a gun and his wife fainted; concerned soldiers pulled them from the crush and they were granted places on a flight out.

‘My parents are still there. I shouldn’t have left them alone’: Firas, a former guard at the British embassy in Kabul, with his wife and son. Photograph: Mark Chilvers/The Guardian

Back in the hotel lobby, for much of the time we spend talking (with interpretation help from another refugee), Firas stares at the floor, his head bowed. He smiles only when his wife joins him, wheeling their baby in a pushchair donated by a charity. They have been given warm clothes, but have barely ventured outside; they have no money, and are too worried about the situation in Afghanistan to feel curious. After his departure, his family in Kabul were visited by armed men asking where he and his brother had disappeared to; unable to answer, his father was arrested and held by the Taliban for two days.

Firas and his wife spend most of the time sitting in their second-floor bedroom, looking out at the hotel car park, their baby lying swaddled in a blanket on the bed. Firas has registered with a GP and has been prescribed tranquillisers, which he says are not helping with the night terrors. “I’ve lived with my mother and father, sat with them, eaten meals with them, for 32 years, and I’ve left them there,” he says. “I shouldn’t have left them alone.”

After completing quarantine, Ali and Zohrab move from their riverside hotel and spend October in a huge, modern business hotel on a busy central London road. To begin with, the families from Afghanistan are mixed in with the tourists, and there is daily chaos in the breakfast canteen. Ali says he overheard startled guests asking reception if the noisy teenagers filling the lobby were in London on a school trip.

Zohrab’s experience of fleeing Kabul in August was nightmarish, and she is still distressed by memories of the violence they witnessed as they tried to leave. The first day they made their way through the crowds by the airport, they were turned away. “A soldier said, ‘If you don’t leave, I will fire on you.’ We left,” she says. They tried again the next day, and eventually the family were allowed through.

Zohrab needs winter shoes, but news of the distribution of charitable donations seems to her to be controlled by Pashtun men, and she wonders if there is some subtle discrimination against Hazara families, like hers. By the time she and her husband find out that there has been a new delivery of donations, only the most damaged secondhand items remain. “The children cannot understand why we never get told when toys are being handed out,” she says.

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She is also increasingly irritated by the patriarchal attitudes to women displayed by some male evacuees in the hotel. Recently, she reprimanded a man for pushing in during a queue for lunch, and was annoyed to be told: “Who are you to tell me what to do?” Ali has been impressed at her ability to stand up for herself. “She told him: ‘You can’t behave like that here.’ People here think everyone from Afghanistan comes from the same background, but there are lots of different people with different values stuck together in the hotel.”

Ali, who speaks flawless English and had a high-powered job with the Foreign Office, has started to notice chaotic aspects of the resettlement programme. He is puzzled by how long it has taken officials to register their arrival, and annoyed that as soon as this is done, another group of officials from a different government department arrive to begin the process again.

But despite the chaos, this is also a happy time for the family. Swiping through the images saved on her phone, Zohrab shows smiling pictures of the children at the zoo (the former British ambassador to Afghanistan is director general of the Zoological Society of London and let them in free); outside the House of Commons; feeding swans in Hyde Park.

By November, Hussein, the former British army translator, has had no news of where he might end up living permanently, but the local council in this part of central London has found temporary school places for his three sons and two older daughters, aged between 11 and five.

The day before they start, we meet in a tree-lined square near the hotel; Hussein is unflustered by the prospect of talking to me while supervising five children, who race each other around the pathways on donated scooters. Hussein has a commanding parental presence, calmly intervening in squabbles, distributing biscuits, occasionally standing up to signal that the youngest child should stop scooting while holding an iPad under her arm (another charitable donation).

His wife is stuck upstairs in the room with their one-year-old baby; he knows she is finding things harder than him, without any English. She was brought up in a conservative part of rural Jalalabad, was not sent to school and is finding the move to London a culture shock. She was taken aback to see that all the families in the hotel are expected to eat together in the dining room, with no separation of men and women. “She noticed a woman arguing loudly in the street with a man, and said: ‘In Afghanistan you’re the king, but here, it’s the women who are the kings,’” Hussein says.

Many of the evacuated adults have started attending weekly cultural acclimatisation classes run by two women from Afghanistan who have been in London for a number of years. “We were told that people here don’t let their children go to school alone, they have to drop them and collect them,” Hussein says, adding that many families in his old neighbourhood were accustomed to letting even very young children make their own way to school. “They told us not to talk in the street to girls. And that beating your wife or your children is a crime in this country. Some of the people from Afghanistan didn’t know this. I’ve said to them: this is England, we’re starting a new life here.”

The national effort to welcome the 15,000 evacuated in August has been both extraordinary and underwhelming. Amazon wishlists were set up by councils, inviting members of the public to buy everything families needed – from nappies to nail clippers. For the first few weeks, council staff worked overtime making sure baby food was distributed to the right hotel rooms. British diplomats who had worked in Afghanistan formed WhatsApp groups to offer practical and moral support to their former colleagues, fundraising and helping them write CVs and apply for jobs. Staff working for big hotel chains, such as the Hilton and Radisson, found themselves organising GP appointments and babysitting for the children of unwell refugees. In most families only the men, who had had jobs with the British, speak English. Hotel staff became adept at using Google Translate on their phones.

Nothing could be taken for granted. Some local colleges began running cultural training sessions, explaining the rules of zebra crossings and what a flashing green man means, and teaching people how to respond to a fire alarm. “We noticed only the men came downstairs during a fire drill, so we had to explain that everyone needs to leave the room,” a teacher says.

But the response has been patchwork. Some councils worked hard to get children into schools by October; elsewhere it took longer. There were delays in getting people registered for benefits and issued with the crucial biometric residence passes that allow them to start looking for work. Everyone was wrestling with the chicken-and-egg problem of not being able to start thinking about work until they had improved their English, had somewhere to live and had settled their children in schools. But council-run English classes were only funded to begin once people were settled in their permanent home, so thousands have been abandoned in hotel rooms with nothing to occupy their time.

While everyone accepts that the August evacuation was an inevitably rushed response to a crisis, councils across the country were furious that the Home Office gave them little warning that families were being moved into hotels in their area. Some were based on busy roads. When a five-year-old fell to his death from a window of a hotel in Sheffield, questions were asked about whether the correct health and safety checks had been made.

The initial distribution of people was uneven, and 4,000 were sent to London where there were the most big, empty hotels because of the pandemic-induced slump in tourism. Some were housed in stucco-fronted buildings, with marble corridors and 19th-century oils; others were sent to “cheap as chips” establishments, described by charities as “accommodation of last-resort”.

Operation Warm Welcome, the Labour leader of Newcastle city council says, has been ‘about as welcoming as a cold bucket of sick’

One London council had just a couple of days’ warning that 2,000 people (including 900 children) would be housed in its hotels. It has worked steadily to find temporary school places, while making it clear that permanent homes will have to be found elsewhere, because of chronic housing shortages in the capital. But the longer people remain in hotels, the more complex it is to resettle them in towns elsewhere. “They start to put down roots. It’s not entirely clear what the strategy is for getting people out now,” says a senior council official responsible for the resettlement programme.

There is rising dismay among people who work in the refugee sector. Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, warns that “many of the people who fled Afghanistan to the UK are still not getting the warm welcome they were promised”. Nick Forbes, head of the local government association’s asylum, refugee and migration task group, and the Labour leader of Newcastle city council, is more forthright: Operation Warm Welcome has “turned out to be about as welcoming as a cold bucket of sick”.

In late October, six weeks after our first meeting, Firas and his family have been moved to a new hotel. Approximately 200 refugees from Afghanistan have been transferred from different hotels around London to this inconveniently placed block, 20 miles from the capital. It’s an ugly, one-storey, 1980s conference centre off an A-road, designed for business delegates with cars. There are no nearby shops, bus stops or train stations.

“The Home Office didn’t say why we had to move,” Firas says, sitting in the hotel restaurant, still looking shattered by the trauma of abandoning his home and family. This hotel is much noisier, and in the lobby there are about 15 children squashed on sofas, their heads tilted together over shared iPads, while younger ones sit around a low table working on colouring sheets.

“Yes, this place is a bit cheaper than the last place,” he says, pointing to a dining room table where the laminate has peeled off to reveal crumbling, splintering chipboard. “The problem is not that this is a worse hotel. What we’re worried about is our families stuck in Afghanistan, and when we’re going to get permanent housing.”

Every week, a Home Office representative visits to talk to residents. “He sees every family separately, but just tells us: ‘We don’t know how long you’ll be here. We can’t tell you if it will be weeks or months.’ All he says is: ‘You have to wait.’” Every time he meets an official, Firas wants to talk about whether his parents will be allowed to join him in Britain. “They usually say: ‘We can’t talk about your family in Afghanistan. We’re here to take your details.” Current rules make it very unlikely family members will be given permission to reunite in the UK.

There is very little space to move around in his hotel room, between the cot, double bed and pram. Every surface is covered with clothes or nappies, tidily stacked. Firas stays up as late as possible, talking to the other men in the lobby, to try to hold off the insomnia that hits when he goes to bed. “If I stay in the room, I disturb my wife and son. Sometimes I stand in the car park for an hour or two, waiting until I think I will be able to sleep.”

Aware that the process of moving people into houses is going slowly, Ali quickly decides to take matters into his own hands and informs Home Office officials that he wants to move back to the Midlands, where he had been based before his wife and children came to join him. A house has been found, and they move in late October.

His years of experience working alongside Foreign Office staff in Afghanistan have made him adept at leaping over bureaucratic hurdles. His own difficult experiences on arrival in the UK in 2020 taught him not to trust British officials to make things easy for refugees. When he received a death threat related to his work for the Foreign Office, he knew he needed to leave Kabul immediately; he said goodbye to his wife and three children, bought a ticket, flew to Heathrow, where he showed the UK visa in his passport (granted for a work conference) and immediately claimed asylum. He assumed that his long service with the British government would mean his case would be taken seriously. Instead, he was locked up in an immigration removal centre. “I told them I worked for DfID, I showed them the death threat, but I was treated like a prisoner. I was held with criminals, smugglers, people who were about to be deported. I was very frightened,” he says. It was months before he was recognised as a refugee.

By November, when I visit, the family has moved to their new home in the Midlands – an unloved two-storey redbrick end of terrace house, with scrubby weeds flattened by huge green bins in the front yard. They have bought furniture from the British Heart Foundation and the house is beginning to feel a bit like home, with small shoes lined up on a rack by the front door and plants on a table in the front room. Looking around at the bare walls, Zohrab says she wishes she had been able to bring even a few photographs of her family when she fled, but they were told there would no room for luggage on the evacuation flight.

Former Foreign Office worker Ali (not his real name), sitting on a bench with his wife and children, backs to the camera‘A soldier said, “If you don’t leave, I will fire on you.” We left’: Zohrab with her husband, former Foreign Office worker Ali, and their children. Photograph: Mark Chilvers/The Guardian

Ali has begun a part-time job as an adviser with the charity Refugee Action; all three children have started school and, compared with many of the other 15,000 evacuees, the family has made enormous progress in settling into their new lives. But new worries are emerging every day. After months out of school, his nine-year-old daughter had invested a lot of hope in the prospect of being back in a classroom, and was badly disappointed. “She feels like people are making fun of her, teasing her because she can’t communicate with them,” Ali says. “She said: ‘You promised me that things would change and I would get friends here.’”

A teacher told him at pickup that his middle son has refused to eat lunch again. “The council says there will be English classes from January, but what’s going to happen until then? I asked my son: ‘What did you learn today?’ He said: ‘I don’t know. I didn’t understand anything.’” Privately, he is also worried about how Zohrab is coping. “She has no friends here, so I’m trying to step in. Sometimes I say: ‘Come on, let’s go for a walk to the park.’ I have to keep reminding her, the most important thing is that now the children are OK and we are safe.”

Four months after the evacuation, a gloomy routine of sorts has been established in most hotels. Babies have been born, marriages have broken down under the strain, a few evacuees have died from longstanding illnesses. Every morning in the lobby of an east London hotel, an 82-year-old two-star general sits by himself in a long black coat, hunched over sheets of paper and a cup of black tea, using his military strategising skills to compile lists of children who need English classes. Occasionally he is joined by other men, who are also trying to fill their aimless days. “Everyone feels depressed and tired,” he says.

A well-known former MP in Afghanistan (who asks for her name not to be printed) greets him politely, and pauses on the other side of the reception area to offer advice to a group of mothers waiting for medical appointments, organised in the hotel’s business centre. In the dining room, families queue up for slices of white bread, fruit and an unpopular, hard-to-identify lentil dish ladled out of a steel vat. “If the government is paying for this, why can’t they get the hotel to make Afghan food?” the former MP asks.

She is anxious to disabuse people of the idea that any of the hotel’s residents are thrilled at finding themselves in the UK. “Everyone is happy that our lives have been saved but our hearts are still in Afghanistan. Imagine one day you have everything in your life, and the next day you open your eyes and you have nothing. That’s how we feel,” she says. “No one chose to leave their homes and if it became safe there again, most of us would go back. When I speak to people and they say, ‘Let’s catch up’, I say, ‘Yes, let’s meet for coffee in Kabul.’ We have to keep that dream alive.”

In early January, Firas is in touch with happy news: his brother, Omar, a journalist who also worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the old regime, and who fled Kabul a couple of weeks before him, has managed to make his way to Britain in a small boat with 22 other asylum seekers. But Operation Warm Welcome extends only to people who came through the official evacuation programme. Despite the fact that he has fled exactly the same threats in Afghanistan, Omar has been plunged straight into the Home Office’s hostile environment.

On arrival he was taken immediately to an immigration centre, where everyone’s clothes, shoes, socks and money were put in plastic bags and locked away. He was held in a custody centre for several days before being transferred to a basement room in a hotel by London’s Victoria station. While Firas has begun receiving universal credit payments, and has had a meeting with the jobcentre about roles he can apply for, his brother is not allowed to study or work until his asylum application has been cleared. The hotel where he is staying is full of other asylum seekers – from Morocco, Afghanistan, Iraq – and many of them have been waiting months for a decision on their claims. “When I say I’m feeling frustrated because I’ve been waiting for five months for a decision on my claim, they laugh and say: ‘We’ve been here for a year,’” Omar says.

We don’t know if the next move will be where we end up, or if we’ll be moved again. When will we be able to start our new life?

Omar is worried about the effect of new legislation currently being debated in parliament, which will make it possible to sentence people who arrive in the UK by small boats to four years in prison. “Will I be criminalised because I came in a boat?” he asks.

No one is saying that allocating houses to 15,000 new arrivals is a simple task, but refugee charities point out that these numbers should be manageable if every local authority stepped forward to offer empty homes to Afghan families. Germany accommodated more than one million asylum seekers between 2015 and 2016. Analysing the pace of rehousing, refugee organisations estimate that, at the current rate, it will be another year and a half before everyone is moved out of hotels. Last year the British Red Cross published research on the damaging effects of housing refugees for protracted periods in temporary accommodation, highlighting the negative impact on mental health. People who work with the Afghan refugees in hotels say they become increasingly institutionalised the longer they stay, unable to start building independent lives. As well as being unsuitable, the cost is exorbitant: it has been revealed that the government is spending £1.2m a day on hotels for evacuees from Afghanistan (and a total of £4.7m a day on hotel rooms for all asylum seekers).

Seven months on from the evacuation, no one wants to take responsibility for the slow progress. Defensive officials mutter that it is the fault of the refugees themselves for being too picky about where they will agree to live, and say the available housing stock is not designed for larger families. The government says it is “proud this country has provided homes for more than 4,000 Afghan evacuees in such a short space of time”.

But the vast majority of those airlifted out are still being shunted between hotels around the country. At the start of March, the owners of the huge central hotel where Ali and Zohrab spent a few weeks decided not to renew its contract with the government and 400 refugees were put on buses and driven to more remote hotels around the country. “My five-year-old daughter has been in a local primary school here for four months. Her teacher was crying on Friday, and she cried, too. It’s so hard for her to move again after making new friends,” a former British embassy administrative worker says, despondent as he packs for a new hotel in Warwickshire. He will miss the language exam he was due to take at a local college, and will have to find a new GP, make new friends, settle his daughter in a new school. “We don’t know if the next place we move to will be where we end up. Or will they move us again? Everyone is wondering when they are going to be able to start their new lives.”

Here, my children can become scientists, pilots, politicians … They will work here and pay back the support they get now

Some people with good English have started working; a former military policeman, who worked alongside the British, says he is delighted (after interviewing for six or seven jobs) finally to be working at a fashionable pub in Chelsea, while another young man in the same hotel has found work as a shop assistant in Zara.

A couple of weeks after the launch of Operation Warm Welcome, a council official working on the resettlement programme said success would mean having all the new arrivals accommodated, self-sufficient and living happy, independent lives. This still seems a distant prospect. With news that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could see up to four million people flee their homes, prompting Europe’s largest refugee crisis for decades, it’s clear that the government’s frequently repeated mantra about Britain having a proud history of welcoming refugees needs to be backed up with more convincing action.

At the end of January, Hussein is cheerful. He has had no news about when his family could be moved from the hotel, but he has been to the jobcentre and is thinking about applying for work as a translator. He has cut his hair into a shorter English style and bought himself a smart suit. A charity has given the family £100 of Primark vouchers and his children all have new clothes. They are finding school interesting, coming home with new phrases to try out on their mother. “Nice to meet you”, “Oh my God!”, “Bring some water.” At the weekends, Hussein enjoys visiting the British Museum with his family.

Occasionally his children cry from homesickness. “We had a big house in Afghanistan, with a garden with orange trees, apple trees, a lawn,” Hussein says. “They would play outside all the time. Sometimes they’re very sad in the hotel. They miss their toys, their grandparents, their bicycles. So I have to explain the situation again. You saw the shooting on the way here? Our neighbours would have killed us if we’d stayed. That’s why we came.”

He feels it is his responsibility to buoy up their mood by reminding them of the positives. “I don’t think Afghanistan will ever be rebuilt in my lifetime. I’ve told my children that here they can become scientists, dancers, pilots, doctors, politicians, engineers. They will work here and pay taxes here, and pay back the support they’re getting now,” he says.

When we meet in late January, Firas shows me a new video he has been sent by relatives that shows armed men coming again to the house where his father has been hiding, tying his father’s hands with rope and leading him to a truck. Firas has had no information about where he has been taken. News about the collapse of the economy and looming famine has intensified his fears for his family; the UN has warned that 23 million people, more than half the population, face starvation.

He is still waiting for an update about when he and his family will be moved from the hotel. Both he and his wife are impatient to start studying English, but there are no classes. “No one can tell us anything about the houses. They said it would be before Christmas, then they said by mid-January. Everyone is depressed. We feel we are wasting our time.”

In the Midlands, Ali feels frazzled, working part-time while his children are at nursery. He is suppressing a sense of frustration that his skills as a development expert are not being called on by former Foreign Office colleagues confronted by the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Zohrab has started a 10-week course of English classes, with afternoon sessions on British law and culture, but his children are still not getting any language support at school and continue to struggle.

His daughter had been thriving academically in Kabul, but is increasingly withdrawing into herself. “I’m trying not to be pessimistic but I can see they’re still not enjoying it. The middle one often says, ‘I’m not going to school. I don’t like it. They’re not friendly.’ I say: ‘I know it’s hard but you will get friends.’”

He is doing his best to motivate them. “My son wants to be a policeman. I say the best way is to integrate, learn to speak English, be bright. He asked me, ‘Are we going to be English?’ I said, ‘You are already English. You have to adapt, but this is your home now.’”

All names have been changed.


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