‘We tried to be joyful enough to deserve our new lives’: What it’s really like to be a refugee in Britain
During the summer I turned 15, I fell into a prolonged depression that lasted well into my 20s. My mother, my two brothers and I had just arrived in London, and because we were seeking asylum as refugees, we were moved into a hostel for vulnerable families on Fitzjohn’s Avenue in the affluent north-west of the city. The journey to London had been so difficult that we had separated from my father, one of my brothers and my sister a few months earlier. The hostel was situated on a tree-lined avenue that connects Swiss Cottage to Hampstead village. A pleasant walk north takes you to Hampstead Heath and Keats House, to the south is Regent’s Park, where my family would walk around the park’s ornate rose garden and sit by the fountain, our favourite spot.
Four years earlier, in autumn 1992, my family had left our home in Kabul when the sudden withdrawal of US interests from Afghanistan left militias fighting for power, making ordinary life impossible. Once-frequent family gatherings had been reduced to funerals attended by a few. Food and water were scarce. We rarely left our home – the adults only went out on the most essential errands. My uncle sometimes cycled across the city to bring us drinking water as rockets fell around him. We would be worried sick until his return.
My parents wanted to stay. For a year, they had talked about peace in Afghanistan as if they could make it happen with sheer force of will. Occasionally, they talked about leaving, but these were hypothetical plans that would only be pursued if all other options failed. My mother still went to work as a teacher, tended our garden and made plans for an imagined future in Afghanistan. In the end, the decision was made in haste. After a bomb hit the bakery at the end of our street and split the baker’s son in two, my mother became terrified that one of her children would be maimed or killed.
The morning we left Kabul for Mazar-e-Sharif, a city in north Afghanistan, my mother told my grandmother that we would see her soon. Something in my grandmother’s stoic face told me that she didn’t really believe this but she held my mother and reassured her that we would be reunited. In the early 90s, before the internet joined up the world, and before Facebook groups would help migrants avoid the most dangerous routes, travel in Afghanistan was still shrouded in mystery. We didn’t know where we would sleep once we got to the city or what our next step would be. Our only plan was to get away from the violence.
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Mazar-e-Sharif after a difficult, long journey from Kabul. The road was heavily mined – it remains so to this day – and the route was bordered with muddy graves marked by headstones with no names – victims of the mines. Each time we passed a grave or the bus drove over a bump, the passengers would pray collectively for the souls of the dead. Mostly, though, they asked for their own safe arrival.
The first night away from home was the longest in my life. I’d slept next to my grandmother all my life and now, separated from the person who made me feel safest, I felt adrift and alone. My father took us to a halfway house where a dozen other families had found a bed for the night. My family, which included my uncle, his wife and their newborn baby, huddled together and went to sleep on sheetless mattresses that had seen many other guests. In the night, I could hear my mother whispering to my father for what seemed to be hours. I lay awake all night, only falling asleep at dawn – a pattern that continues to this day.
We crossed a bridge into Uzbekistan the following night. A clunky blue and white bus carried 20 passengers at a time. From the Afghan side of the border the Uzbek town of Termez glimmered in the dark. “They have electricity,” my mother whispered to my aunt. They both took a breath in their excitement. It almost felt like an adventure.
The next four years were a blur of trains, towns and cities, people opening their door to us when we had nowhere else to go and people scowling with hostility as my family made our way westward – four adults followed by six little children. I was the eldest and not yet 11.
When we moved into our room on Fitzjohn’s Avenue four years later, it was with the promise that we were finally safe. It had been a devastating journey and here we were in London about to begin a new life. But our expectations of London were impossible. We imagined a life that was easier – that somehow as soon as we arrived here we would put all that had happened behind us and move on – that the uncertainty we felt would evaporate as soon as we landed. So much depended on this fantasy. To survive the journey, we needed stories of hope. For us, that story was safety in London, but the reality was very different.
Once the excitement of arriving in a new place had worn off, the exhaustion set in. At first, it was physical. The four of us would sleep well past noon and wake up feeling heavy and unrested. Some time later came grief, like a wave, heavy and very, very sudden. It would be years before any of us came up for breath.
It was my mother’s responsibility to make sense of our new home. We depended on her for everything. She had briefly studied English and could get by in a supermarket or catching a bus, but anything more than that was a struggle. She had the arduous task of navigating the bureaucracy of claiming asylum in the UK. Everything required a form. Our lives suddenly required that we keep track of paperwork so we would be able to present the necessary form on demand – if we needed a card to access the library or the local youth club, a travel pass or a doctor’s appointment.
Every time, my mother had to fill in forms and provide proof of identification, which was difficult since we were essentially stateless. As the post office was something of a new phenomenon for us, she would hand deliver as many forms as she could.
More often than not, she was rewarded with a new set of forms to fill in. She would get exasperated trying to follow the instructions. “PLEASE WRITE IN BLOCK CAPITALS” – what did it mean? The dictionary didn’t help. We would look up “block” and “capitals”, but together they didn’t make much sense. Sometimes, the instructions sounded like a threat. The words “STAY INSIDE THE BOXES OR YOUR APPLICATION MAY BE REJECTED” filled my mother with terror.
The Home Office demanded that we justify over and over again why we had fled our home. Proving that you deserve asylum is a tricky business. It is not enough that the news is reporting that civilians in Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq are under constant attack – you have to prove that your life was in danger at a specific moment. For us, establishing this proof was a long, exacting process and it would be years before we could relax about our status in the UK. My mother would wake us at dawn to take an early morning train to Croydon to stand in line for an interview at the Home Office, joining scores of scared and sullen people waiting to plead their case to stay in England.
In those early days, when England was not yet home, we wandered around our neighbourhood with the hallucinatory feeling that everyone was watching us. There is something about feeling out of place that furnishes everything with eyes that follow you wherever you go. In the supermarket, if the cashier glanced in our direction, we would all draw a breath, wondering if we were doing something wrong.
It didn’t help that we couldn’t speak to explain our imagined wrongdoings. Overnight, on arriving in the UK, my garrulous family lost its speech. My brother, who usually offered his opinions on everything, was rendered mute and took to following our mother very closely wherever we went. I felt exhausted at the thought of learning another language. All I knew how to say in English was “thank you” and “hasta la vista baby” – Terminator was a favourite film then – not realising that it wasn’t even English.
When we had to ask for something in the shop, like, “where is the basmati rice?”, the whole family would strategise to try to spread the dread fairly among us. Who would ask? Who would we ask, who looked friendliest? What to do if anything went wrong? The task would inevitably fall to my mother, who could speak more than any of us, and the three of us would form a circle around and offer our scrawny bodies as protection.
Most people were indifferent and completely unaware of the significance of each interaction for a family like mine. I paid attention to every word, every gesture, trying to remember the sounds, memorise the way my mouth felt when I tried to pronounce th. To survive, we needed not only to speak a different language, but to learn new gestures, new stories and, most important, understand the currency that gave you access to society. In a country where your social capital is bound up in class and race, learning the social codes could determine the trajectory of your life.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of dislocation. People who are born in places that protect them from the misery of displacement find it hard to understand. Pictures of brown and black people on the news or on charity fundraising advertisements make them seem as if they are suspended in this one event – a famine, a war – as if nothing preceded the hunger or the violence and nothing will. People find it hard to relate to such wretchedness because, looking at those pictures, you feel as though this person’s fate is inevitable.
In our case, there was a whole world before the violence came. Our home in Kabul, to my mind, was the best place a girl could hope to grow up. The house itself was small – a few rooms and a kitchen – and on the outside, yellow paint faded and peeled with every passing year. We spent most of our time in the main room where my grandmother would gather us around her for every meal and where we’d sit by the radio listening to the BBC World Service. The radio was indispensable because it worked despite the continuous power cuts – with just a few fat batteries we could sit around and listen to the stories of One Thousand and One Nights on BBC Persian.
I remember these images with painful nostalgia – a time when my family was still together – but it’s the garden that holds the most magic in my mind: a green, open space surrounded by trees and flower beds. In summer my grandmother would grow roses and purple basil, and their scent would perfume the sheets on our beds on the porch where we slept for some respite from the heat. We had apple and pear trees, grape vines, a kitchen garden where we grew spring onions and tomatoes, and in the middle of the garden there was an old and sturdy almond tree in whose branches I spent most of my time in the warmer months. In spring, it flowered with delicate blooms of white and a subtle fresh fragrance that signalled the coming of summer. With every year that passes this picture feels more vivid, more permanent.
I grew up in a family that took citizenship seriously. My parents had a strong sense of their role in society and actively took part in trying to address the injustices they saw. My mother’s work as a teacher occupied a great deal of her time – she got to know her students and would do anything in her power to keep them in school. Sometimes, when she would do a round of family visits, I would accompany her to her students’ homes where she would patiently try to convince the parents to support their children’s education. I remember how afraid they seemed. It was mostly violence or poverty that frightened people into making choices that we’d find difficult to understand, but it was never because they didn’t care.
My father, an avid reader, educated us all on our history, our identity and the world. His was, and still is, a collectivist ideology. I grew up listening to his sermons (“for the benefit of many not the few”) and feeling eager to do my bit. I imagined a life in Kabul where, like my mother, I would be a participant in society – maybe a writer or a doctor, I thought. But all that was suspended when the war took over every part of our life, and our identity was reduced to people on the run – people without.
That first summer in London, I found it hard to remember home without an element of magical thinking. Memories of Kabul and our home were skulking somewhere in my subconscious, feeding my nightmares and taking away my sleep. I could remember only impressions, nothing came through with edges or corners or lines, just a mess of colour and emotion. My mental state oscillated between exhaustion and inertia. Now that we were supposed to make a new home, our other home wanted back in – it wanted attention like a dead child or a lover, and I didn’t know how to put it to rest.
Our new home was supposed to be a “safe” place, but most things made us anxious and disoriented. London was the first place where I could safely go to school. In her good moments, my mother would give us pep talks about getting a British education. She would say, “you’re very lucky” or, “you can go on to do whatever you want”. I found both these ideas bewildering. How could we claim luck as any part of our lives? And being able to do anything I wanted seemed a distant fantasy.
School turned out to be difficult for a girl with an unconventional childhood and without language. Nothing fit, including our clothes. On my first day in school, arriving in a purple and fuchsia shell suit, I immediately had the uneasy feeling that I stood out in a crowd of teenagers wearing combat jeans and dark T-shirts. In line for my school lunch, I felt like a bunch of fake flowers placed in a dentist’s waiting room to distract people from the pain to come.
I sat in the back of a science class, not understanding a word. Being without language is like watching a foreign film without subtitles – however dramatic it may be, you drift off into your own thoughts. I would sit in class and retreat into the past, wading through memories of our journey and contemplating our lives. There were so many questions about what had happened. If you take out the violence, war is like a pantomime – nonsensical and absurd. To make sense of it, people living in the midst of violence learn to tell stories that keep the pain at bay. At the time, it seemed almost pathological to me that human beings are so intent on finding a silver lining, no matter their situation. I’d heard a woman say: “Thank God, my son’s body was found – at least I know where he is resting,” and I couldn’t understand how you can be cornered into gratitude when what you should be feeling, I thought, is anger. I felt puzzled when people would ascribe this attitude to something like courage – in my teens I thought it a cowardly way. Now I understand, we need stories to survive. We seem unable to confront humanity as it is – undressed and full of terror.
When survival is your main occupation, other things fall by the wayside. While we were on the road, celebrations and family rituals started to disappear from our lives. In Islam, if you’re travelling you’re exempt from fasting, and since religious festivals are very much about community, it was hard for us to mark them when we were in transit. Getting to London meant that, technically, we had arrived at our destination and life could resume.
London’s sizeable south Asian community had carved its own place in the city. After a few months in north London, by late summer we had moved east, close to Green Street market in West Ham. The vibrant market offered sweets and spices that we had almost forgotten about. Halal butchers, rows of shops selling south Asian food and stalls laden with Indian sweetmeats stirred our senses. After surviving four years in places where pieces of fruit were sold individually, my mother delighted at the abundance of fruits and vegetables on offer. Bowls of apples, oranges and tomatoes were sold at one pound a pop. A shop playing an old Bollywood song stopped my mother in her tracks – she stood outside holding my brother’s hand and listening intently until the song finished. “I haven’t heard that song in years – since I was a young girl,” she told us.
We did our best to make the new house our home. It was a small place on a residential road between Plaistow and West Ham and my mother tried to cheer it up as much as she could. We bought a strawberry printed tablecloth for the dining table and having just started my own lifelong obsession with Bollywood, I bought a poster of Shah Rukh Khan for my bedroom. We bought sweets from Ambala, the best Indian confectioners in London. But improvements to our new home were always overshadowed by the grief we felt. Every family meal was tinged by sadness and though we all tried to be joyful enough to deserve our new lives, joy was always out of reach. For the first time in my life I could retreat to another room, away from my family, and as days and weeks passed I did this more and more. Families riven by war rarely find their unity again. There is too much to hold, too much to bear and sometimes it’s easier to retreat into a new setting rather than try to heal together.
The new neighbourhood was very different from the first. West Ham and Plaistow had a complicated history we knew nothing about. Although the population as a whole was diverse, communities were divided into different sections. The area where we were housed was predominantly white, a fact that we didn’t pay much attention to when we arrived. Ours was a multi-ethnic and multilingual community in Kabul – my parents came from different ethnicities and spoke different languages, so we were used to being around people that didn’t share our identity. Plus, we were in a white majority country – why shouldn’t the neighbourhood be all white?
But there was something off from the very beginning. It started with minor acts of aggression that my hypervigilant mother noticed straight away. The feeling that we were being watched heightened. When my mother tried to explain our anxiety to an effulgent young teacher who had taken an interest in our family, she couldn’t immediately understand it. She tried to reassure us that it was the natural anxiety of settling into a new place and that we would feel comfortable in no time. Experience told us otherwise, so my mother stopped us from going out without her and insisted we do as many things as possible together. We went to the market together, we tried to walk to school together even though my brothers’ school was nowhere near mine. We stayed at home as much as possible and avoided going to the local park.
This didn’t stop the hostility from the neighbours. One day, not long after we had moved in, as we were walking back from Sainsbury’s in Stratford a young man shouted “Pakis” in our direction. The rest of his company burst out in laughter. We hurried past them towards our front door. It happened again the next day and a few days after. My mother, not knowing what to do, called on our nextdoor neighbour, who was a friendly old man, and asked him about it. He tried to reassure her that this was just the behaviour of bored teenagers and that we should ignore it as much as we could.
We had of course experienced racism on our journey, but this was the first time it had been overt, and no one seemed to bat an eyelid that it was happening. The hostile intent turned into action and soon we were waking to find piles of trash that had been pushed though our mailbox as we slept. It was such a pitiful sight when one of us would get down on our knees to clean it. It triggered in all of us the low-level panic we’d felt for years about how unsafe we were. Surviving makes it difficult to discern between paranoia and genuine premonitions of disaster, until anxiety erodes your sense of self. Being the eldest of my siblings, I felt a sense of dread about their safety.
One day, my mother and I were attacked on our street. The attacker took out his belt and started to hit my mother. Seeing this was more than I could bear and something in me snapped. I screamed as hard as I could and tried to punch him. I didn’t do much damage but my screaming did catch the attention of his friends and soon I was being chased by a group of them. I ran as hard as I could and somehow, as I was running, a police car that was driving by saw what was happening and intervened.
At the police station my mother and I were interviewed and the police officer who spoke to us took detailed notes and told us to wait. The attackers had been brought to the same police station. I felt exhausted and upset but I was glad that the attack had ended in the arrest of the culprits. My mother sat expressionless – neither of us said anything as we waited. I can’t remember how long we sat there but after a while the police officer came back and offered to take us home. My mother asked him about what would happen next and what could we expect. He sat down and explained to us that they had let the attackers go because there wasn’t sufficient reason for them to be held. Besides, he added they are young and stupid, and will grow out of this behaviour. Tears rolled down my mother’s face. The police officer tried to reassure her, “You can call us right back, Mrs Halaimzai, if they come again,” he said, but she just sat there crying.
Back at home, I went up to my room and lay in bed. My body was convulsing with pains I couldn’t understand. I thought about our lives and began to understand some of my father’s reluctance to leave Afghanistan. You feel differently about the land you’re born into compared to the one you’ve ended up in. It isn’t a question of patriotism, or loyalty to one versus the other. It’s about the feeling, when you’re in the place you were born, that no one can doubt you have the right to be there. Seeking asylum makes you feel self-conscious about your very existence. There is a feeling that pervades all your interactions, as if you constantly need to justify your presence. Lying there, I thought about whether I had any right to expect the police to protect me and my family and I couldn’t work it out. I didn’t yet understand racism enough to feel resentment for what was happening – I just felt shame for who we were.
It wasn’t long before I learned to speak. First it was a smattering of mispronounced words, “veesh” instead of wish, or “beech” instead of bitch, but slowly it developed into sentences. Soon enough I could have rudimentary conversations with my classmates. I discarded the shell suit for combat jeans and very short hair and by the time my father found his way to London, a few months later, I’d discovered drum’n’bass. The sound, alarming to my parents, somehow made perfect sense to me. I’d retreat to my room and listen to tapes of raves I couldn’t go to.
As my siblings and I learned to find our way, my mother’s role started to change in our lives. We went from copying down English words with her, to correcting her pronunciation. While we were forming a distinctly British identity, it remained hard for her to see herself as part of this society, even though she did her best to integrate. She signed up to English classes at the local college and enthusiastically entertained the Jehovah’s Witnesses who would visit us every week, dismissing my warnings about their proselytising. The two women and my mother would sit for hours, answering each other’s questions – they were as interested in Afghanistan as my mother was in the UK – and lamenting the state of the world while my mother fed them figs and walnuts and samosas. Looking back, I think all three women found solace in each other’s company.
It took me a long time to understand why it had been so hard for my mother to sit through those interviews at the Home Office. When we arrived, I was so consumed by my own anxiety that I couldn’t pay attention to hers. Here was a woman who had lost everything that helped her make sense of life – her family, her community, her livelihood and her language. All her friends were either far away or dead, and as she sat in Croydon trying to convince a case worker that we were unable to return home because our lives were in danger, the Taliban wreaked havoc in Afghanistan, banning everything from music to white socks. Anyone who defied their barbaric rule was threatened with public execution in Kabul stadium, where justice had been reduced to a blood sport. Women and girls had been decreed invisible and worthless.
What could be more terrifying for someone like my mother, who had spent her career educating girls and encouraging them to stand on their own two feet? How could she go back to that? But this was not immediately obvious to our case worker, so my mother endured hours of questioning, trying to explain in broken English that her children needed a chance to live their lives without violence, and in that process lost some of her shine.
These days, almost three decades after fleeing Afganistan, I run a charity in Greece that works to help refugees deal with trauma, and I have seen the pain and anxiety suffered by other families trying to navigate the asylum process. Greece has created a system deliberately designed to be hostile, to reduce the allure of setting up home in Europe. In groups that we run for men, women and children, participants describe the feelings of panic and despair they experience when they engage with bureaucracy. A woman in one group was so anxious about her asylum interview that she started self-harming. She told me that cutting herself comforted her, as though, when she pressed a razor against her skin, she was releasing the pressure she felt. It was too much for her to think that her claim would be denied, and that she would be sent back to her half-destroyed town that was still at war.
Young people in a theatre group we ran for refugees in Greece often talked about the sense of betrayal they felt when seeing images and headlines about refugees. It was as if this one event, this circumstance, had erased all their identities and histories. They continued to refer to “my future”, as fully imagined and attainable, and this present suspension of their hopes and dreams was purgatory. Even worse, they said, was the pity. No one wants pity when they’ve experienced the humiliation of violence. What they needed was for people to try to understand.
When I speak to Afghan mothers in Greece who are just as determined to secure a future for their children as my mother was, I can see the same quiet suffering in their eyes. I know what it takes to hold a family together in their situation.
It doesn’t help that Afghanistan is now going back to the Taliban. History is repeating itself as they take over the country and issue the same barbaric decrees against the people, confining women and girls in their homes. Afghans still reeling from decades of violence are powerless against the forces that decide their fate. The past few years have seen some of the worst civilian casualties for a decade. I froze in horror at the news of an attack on a maternity hospital. Pictures of dead newborn children in their dead mothers’ arms made me feel dizzy. Scores of people are dead but those who try to flee are sent back, since countries including Greece, the UK and Germany deem Afghanistan safe for people to return. It is as though we deserve all this violence.
I call my mother. I can hear in her voice the same stoicism that I heard in my grandmother’s. I tell her about my hopelessness and despair at what keeps happening to people like us. I tell her about the Afghan man who is facing prison in Greece because his child drowned as they approached the Greek shore on an overcrowded boat, to seek asylum. She listens intently to my half-English and half-Farsi speech, and when I have finished, she says, “No matter what they face, people have to survive. We have no other choice.”