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Haven Islington: ‘Now we’re safe from the Taliban’

As borough opens its arms, Afghans tell of trauma at fleeing homes

01 October, 2021 — By Angela Cobbinah

Fereidoun and Wahida Ansari

AFGHAN refugees who fled unimaginable suffering at the hands of the Taliban have spoken to the Tribune of how they are now living in a hotel in north London having left their homes with nothing.

A couple explained how they do not want to be a burden, but had nowhere for their family to go as the Taliban took control of their country. A man was lashed mercilessly with a whip, while his wife was told she would be shot.

The Town Hall has said it is ready to play its part in aiding those forced from their homeland and has begun the process of trying to get back homes lost through right-to-buy options.

The Tribune is aware from comments on our social media channels that not everybody is enthusiastic about the refugees’ arrival – and it’s only natural for people who have lived here all their lives and have suffered through the pandemic to ask where their help and support is.

Our coverage is not based on an either-or. It is simply about having a human response to everybody who needs a helping hand in a time of absolute and terrifying crisis.

Fereidoun and Wahida Ansari, who spoke to the Tribune this week, looked like an ordinary couple enjoying a lovely autumn day as they sat in the park, mingling with relaxed crowds and office workers eating their lunch.

But just weeks earlier they had been locked in a living nightmare as they waited with their three children to be airlifted from Kabul airport alongside thousands of other terrified souls in the wake of the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan.

This was after a gruelling six-hour journey to the capital by car, followed by a tense stand-off with Taliban soldiers who initially barred their way.

With the help of British troops, the family was eventually escorted onto a military plane, their worldly goods packed into just three small bags.

“We were in great danger as the Taliban were picking and choosing people to target and who to let through,” says Wahida in an American accent.

“They lashed my husband with a whip and they threatened to shoot me. But we are safe now.

“The British troops were awesome and the hospitality of the British people has been awesome too.”

Wahida and her family are among Afghan refugees being temporarily housed in hotels in north London.

They arrived at Heathrow Airport on August 26, the very day suicide bombings at Kabul airport resulted in the deaths of scores of would-be evacuees, turning a scene of desperation into one of horror.

“We do not know what the future holds and we are in a completely different environment, but we feel protected,” Wahida declares softly.

She and her family lived a comfortable life in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where her husband ran a pipe-making factory and she worked as an English teacher.

They and their daughters, aged five to 14, were forced to flee after Kabul fell to the Taliban in mid-August following its speedy advance across the country in the wake of the US decision to withdraw its troops.

As members of the Tajik minority, they were an automatic target of the Taliban, who are predominantly Pashtun.

To make matters worse, Fereidoun holds a British passport, which he acquired as a refugee from an earlier Taliban regime.

“When we got to Kabul, we had to get to [a hotel] where the British still had authority. The Taliban said I could go through but not my husband.

“There was no way that could happen as we needed him by our side.”

As she talks Wahida constantly has to catch her breath due to an auto-immune disease that attacks her respiratory system.

Despite her condition, she managed to summon the strength to argue with the fighters, who, having whipped her husband, threatened to shoot her.

She recalled: “I said if you want to shoot me, then shoot me but you are shooting a sick woman, and they left me alone.”

But she had not given up.

“I approached a younger Talib and asked for his help. He felt sorry for me because I was clearly sick.”

In the end, the whole family managed to make it to British lines, where soldiers immediately attended to Wahida, getting her an inhaler.

Their ordeal was not yet over though. They spent hours in a parking lot waiting to be processed. Then there was another wait at the airport before being flown to Dubai.

After spending the night in the airport there, they boarded another plane for London.

Just like her husband, this is the second time Wahida has had to flee her troubled homeland.

In 1986, aged six, she arrived in America with her parents and six siblings to escape the conflict between the Soviet-backed government and the US-backed Mujahideen, precursors of the Taliban, hence her perfect English and forthright American manner.

In her teens, she returned to Afghanistan, where she met her future husband.

The couple have two older children, a son, who is studying in the US, and a married daughter who, for now, remains in Afghanistan.

“Our three daughters here are still in a state of shock, especially the youngest who was frightened by the Taliban gunfire,” says Fereidoun.

“But the main thing is that they now feel safe.”

While he is quiet and calm, Wahida is full of nervous energy, describing how, despite her illness, she is giving daily English lessons to refugees at the hotel.

“I now have a hundred students,” she says proudly. “It is a way of helping my fellow Afghanis be independent and enjoy life here, especially the children.”

As they look back on their incredible escape, the couple take a dim view of the US-supported government of Ashraf Ghani, who fled Afghanistan as Kabul fell.

“He was a professor before so what did he know about running a country? It is the same for [his predecessor Hamid] Karzai – he had only run a restaurant in America,” she says.

As for the Taliban, they are “so harsh and nasty and have not changed. My daughter attends university and a curtain has been placed in her class to divide the men from the women.

“We love our country and can only hope for the best.”

Islington Council has said it is ready to help refugees and is working on securing 20 new family-sized homes that were previously sold under right to buy.

What to do to if you want to help

NEWLY-ARRIVED Afghan nationals are being put up in hotels managed by the central government.

They are either in quarantine or with supported housing services to assess their needs. But volunteers, translators and donations to help are needed. The council is calling for more foster carers to help children and young people who are arriving in London after difficult journeys from Afghanistan and other war zones. For more information call 0800 073 0428 or email fostering@islington.gov.uk

Charities in the borough lending a helping hand in the crisis include Refugees at Home – a charity that arranges and supports hosting of refugees. For enquiries about hosting in Islington, contact weareislington@islington.gov.uk

The Islington Refugee Forum in Pentonville Road is a refugee-led organisation that works to ensure integration of refugees in the community through dialogue, partnership, advocacy and empowerment. For more information go to http://islingtonrefugeeforum.org/

Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants in Cross Street offers English language classes, practical support, and social activities to asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. For more information go to https://islingtoncentre.co.uk/

Manor Gardens Welfare Trust in Holloway provides services around physical and mental wellbeing to most vulnerable people in North London communities. For more information call 020 7272 4231.

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