Being an Afghan refugee in Europe: the impossible promise of a new life

When I was 15, I was plunged into a long depression that would last well into my twenties. My mother, my two brothers and I had just arrived in London and, because we were seeking asylum as refugees, we were taken to a hostel for vulnerable families in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, in the wealthy north-west part of the city.

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The journey to London had been so difficult that several months earlier we had been separated from my father, one of my brothers and my sister. The hostel was located on a tree-lined avenue connecting Swiss Cottage with the Hampstead district. A pleasant walk northward led to Hampstead Heath and Keats House, and southward to Regent’s Park, where we used to walk through the beautiful rose garden and sit by the fountain, our favorite spot.

Four years earlier, in the autumn of 1992, my family had left our home in Kabul, after the sudden American withdrawal from Afghanistan left militias fighting for power, making normal life impossible. Frequent family gatherings were reduced to funerals with very few attendees. Food and water were scarce. We hardly left the house: only the adults went out for the most essential errands. Sometimes my uncle would ride his bicycle across town in a hail of missiles to bring us drinking water while we waited anxiously for him to return.

My parents wanted to stay. They had been talking about peace in Afghanistan for a year as if they could make it happen by force of will. From time to time they discussed the possibility of leaving, but these were hypothetical plans that would only be undertaken if there was nothing else to do. My mother still went to work as a teacher, tended the garden, and made plans for an imaginary future in Afghanistan.

The bakery at the esquina

In the end, the decision was made all at once, when a bomb hit the bakery on the corner of our street, splitting the baker’s son in two, and my mother began to fear that one of us would be maimed or killed.

The morning we left Kabul for Mazar-e-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan, my mother said goodbye to my grandmother, saying we would be reunited soon. Something in my grandmother’s stoic gesture told me that deep down she didn’t think it was possible, but she still hugged my mother and said yes, we would be together again.

In the early 1990s, before the Internet brought the world together, before Facebook groups started helping migrants avoid the most dangerous routes, traveling through Afghanistan was an adventure. We didn’t know where we would sleep or what our next step would be when we reached a city. Our only plan was to escape the violence.

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Mazar-e-Sharif, after a long and difficult journey from Kabul. The road was littered with landmines (it still is to this day) and the route was lined with muddy graves with nameless gravestones where landmine victims lay. Every time we passed one or the bus went over a pothole, passengers prayed for the souls of the dead. But most of them asked to reach their destination safe and sound.

The first night away from home was the longest of my life. I had always slept next to my grandmother, and now, separated from the person I felt most secure with, I felt alone and adrift. My father took us to a foster home where half a dozen other families had found beds for the night. My family, which included my uncle, his wife, and their newborn baby, curled up to sleep on mattresses without sheets that had been passed over by many tenants. That night I listened for hours to my mother whispering to my father and did not fall asleep until dawn, a pattern that has stayed with me to this day.

The next night, we crossed a bridge into Uzbekistan. A rickety blue and white bus carried twenty people each way. From the Afghan side of the border, the Uzbek city of Termez gleamed in the darkness. “They have electricity,” my mother whispered to my aunt. They both took a deep breath, excited. It seemed almost like an adventure.

The next four years were a hustle and bustle of trains, towns and cities, people who opened their doors to us when we had nowhere else to go and people who looked on with hostility as our family of four adults and six small children passed by on their way West. I was the oldest and not yet 11 years old.

The Promise

When we settled into our room at Fitzjohn’s Avenue four years later, we did so with the promise that we would finally be safe. After an exhausting journey, there we were, in London, about to start a new life. However, our expectations were impossible.

We imagined an easier life. We imagined that somehow, as soon as we got there, everything we had been through would be behind us and we would turn the page and that the uncertainty we felt would evaporate as soon as we landed. And a lot depended on this fantasy. To survive the journey, we needed stories of hope. For us, that story was the safety of London, but the reality turned out to be very different.

Once the excitement of arriving in a new place had passed, exhaustion set in. At first, it was physical. The four of us slept until after noon and woke up feeling heavy and restless. Then the grief came, like a dense and very sudden wave. It would be years before any of us would get a break.

My mother took it upon herself to make sense of our new home. We depended on her for everything. Since she had studied some English, she managed in the supermarket or to catch the bus, but beyond that, she struggled quite a bit. She was faced with the arduous task of dealing with the bureaucracy of applying for asylum in the UK. Everything there required a form. Suddenly our life required us to have all our documents checked so that we could produce the necessary form whenever we needed it, whether it was a library card, a card for the local youth club, a transport card or a doctor’s appointment.

Again and again, I had to fill out forms and present identification, which was complicated since we were basically stateless. Since the post office was fairly new to us, she tried to hand in as many forms as she could in person.

Write in all caps

Often she would come back with another stack of forms to fill out. She wouldI was trying to follow the instructions.“Please, write in block letters.” What did that mean? The dictionary didn’t help. We looked up“block” and“letters,” but together they didn’t make much sense. Sometimes the instructions sounded like a threat. The words “don’t go outside the boxes, otherwise your application may be rejected” filled her with dread.

The Home Office demanded that we constantly had to justify why we had left home. Proving you deserve asylum is complicated. It’s not enough for the news to say that civilians in Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq are under relentless attack: you have to prove that your life was in danger at a particular time .

For us, proving it was a long and gruelling process, and it was years before we could be comfortable with our situation in the UK. My mother would wake us up at the crack of dawn to catch a train to Croydon and stand in line for asylum interviews at the Home Office, alongside scores of taciturn, frightened people waiting to make their case for staying in England.

Like any place where matters of life and death are decided, the atmosphere in the immigration centre was dense and uncomfortable, there was barely room for anything other than fear. We would queue at the door until they opened and, once we were let in, we would follow our mother to a number dispensing machine. Then we would sit under the white light of the fluorescent tubes and wait to hear our turn.

When it finally came, my mother would try to explain our situation to a person behind a glass partition, who rarely showed any emotion, much less empathy.

Once, the cubicle official asked her “Why here? Why in the UK?”. My mother was struck dumb with shock. The three of us looked at her intently, understanding the urgency of the question, until she finally managed to get the words out, “It’s all God’s Earth.” The official didn’t even answer, just made a note in our file, which made us even more uneasy. After those sessions, we would return to our room on Fitzjohn’s Avenue and my mother would spend the rest of the day in bed with a migraine.

Out of place

In those early days, when England was not yet our home, we would walk around the neighbourhood with the hallucinogenic feeling that everyone was watching us. Feeling out of place makes everything fill with eyes that follow you wherever you go. If the cashier at the supermarket looked in our direction, we held our breath, preasking us if we had done something wrong.

Not being able to speak to explain our imaginary misdeeds didn’t help either. When we arrived in the UK, my chatty family lost their speech overnight. My brother, who used to give his opinion on everything, became mute and started to stick to my mother wherever we went. I was 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 my favorite movie at the time) without knowing it wasn’t even English.

When we had to ask for something at the store, like “Where’s the basmati rice?”, the whole family would figure out a strategy to divide the fear fairly among all of us. Who asked? Who did we ask? Who seemed nicer? What did we do if something went wrong? The task inevitably fell to my mother, who talked more than any of us, as the three of us formed a circle around her, offering our scrawny little bodies as a shield.

Most people were either indifferent or completely oblivious to the importance of every conversation to my family. I paid attention to every word, every gesture, trying to remember the sounds, to memorize the sensation I felt in my mouth as I tried to pronounce the th.

New social codes

To survive, we not only had to speak a different language, but learn new gestures, new stories and, most importantly, understand the currency that gave you access to society. In a country where your social capital is tied to class and race, learning the social codes could shape the trajectory of your life.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of being displaced. For people born in places that protect them from the pain of displacement, it is difficult to understand. Images of black or brown people on the news or in charity advertisements make them seem suspended in that single event (a famine, a war), as if there was nothing before the famine or violence, and nothing beyond it. People find it hard to identify with that misfortune because, looking at those images, one feels as if that person’s fate is inevitable.

In our case, there was a whole world before the violence came. Our home in Kabul, in my mind, was the best place for a child to grow up. The house itself was small, with several rooms and a kitchen, and on the outside, the yellow paint faded and peeled every year. Pae spent much of our time in the living room, where my grandmother gathered us around her for every meal and where we sat by the radio to listen to BBC International. The radio was indispensable because it worked despite the constant power cuts: with just a handful of fat batteries, we could sit and listen to the stories of One Thousand and One Nights on BBC Persian.

I remember those images with painful nostalgia, as a time when my family was still together, but the most magical place in my mind is still the garden: a green, open space, surrounded by trees and flower beds. In the summer, my grandmother would plant roses and purple basil, and their scent would perfume the sheets of our beds on the porch, where we slept to mitigate the heat.

We had apple and pear trees, grape vines, an orchard where we grew scallions and tomatoes, and in the middle of the garden was a sturdy old almond tree in whose branches I spent most of my time during the warmer months. In the spring, it would put forth delicate white blossoms and a subtle, fresh fragrance that heralded the arrival of summer. With each passing year, this image seems more vivid, more permanent.

I grew up in a family that took citizenship very seriously. My parents had a strong sense of their role in society and were actively involved in trying to fight the injustices they saw. My mother’s job as a teacher took up a lot of her time: she knew her students in depth and did everything she could to help them in school.

Sometimes, when she made rounds of family visits, I would accompany her to their homes where she would patiently try to convince the parents to support their children’s education. I remember they seemed very scared. Usually, violence and poverty made them make decisions that were hard for us to understand, but it was never because they didn’t care.

My father, an avid reader, taught us about our history, our identity and the world. His was and still is a collectivist ideology. I grew up listening to his sermons (“for the good of the many, not the few”) and feeling the need to make my own contribution. I imagined myself living in Kabul and, like my mother, being an active part of society, perhaps as a writer or a doctor. However, all that was left up in the air when the war ravaged all areas of our lives, and our identity was reduced to people on the run, people on the outside.

The old home

That first summer in London, I found it hard to remember our home without an element of magical thinking. Memories of Kabul and our home lurked somewhere in my subconscious.feeding my nightmares and snatching my sleep. I only remembered impressions, nothing defined with profiles, corners or lines: just a chaos of color and emotion. My state of mind oscillated between exhaustion and inertia. Now that we had to build a new home, our old home wanted to come back, it was begging for attention like a dead child or a lover, and I didn’t know how to appease it.

Even though our new home was supposed to be a “safe” place, almost everything distressed and disoriented us. London was the first place I could go to school safely. In her good times, my mother would motivate us about getting a British education, saying, “you’re so lucky” or “you’ll be able to do whatever you want”. To me, both ideas were baffling – how could we say that luck was part of our lives? And being able to do whatever I wanted seemed like a distant fantasy.

School was a hard pill to swallow for a girl who had lived an unconventional childhood and didn’t speak the language. We didn’t fit into anything, not even our clothes.

On the first day of school, I arrived in my purple and fuchsia tracksuit, and immediately felt like I stood out in a crowd of teenagers dressed in jeans and dark T-shirts. As I joined the lunch line, I felt like I was a bouquet of artificial flowers placed in a dentist’s waiting room to distract patients from the pain awaiting them.

I sat in the back row of the science class, not understanding a word they were saying. Not knowing a language is like watching a foreign film without subtitles: no matter how dramatic it is, you end up lost in thought. In class, I isolated myself in the past, walking through memories of our trip and contemplating our lives. I had a lot of questions about what had happened. Violence aside, war is like a pantomime: ridiculous and absurd. To make sense of it, people who live surrounded by violence learn to tell stories that keep the pain at bay.

At the time, I found this obstinacy of human beings to look on the bright side of things, whatever their situation, pathological. I heard a woman say, “Thank God, they’ve found my son’s body: at least I know where he rests,” and I couldn’t understand how anyone could see themselves as so cornered in gratitude when what they should be feeling, I thought, was rage. It puzzled me that people attributed that attitude to something like courage: as a teenager, it seemed like a cowardly stance. Now I understand that we need stories to survive. We seem incapable of facing humanity as it is: naked and full of terror.

When your main occupation is to survive, other things fall by the wayside. During the journey, celebrations and family rituals began to disappear from our lives. In Islam, being on a journey exempts the obligation to fast, and since religious festivals revolve around the community, it was difficult for us to celebrate them while on the run. Arriving in London for us meant reaching our destination and the possibility of life beginning again.

Forgotten spices

The large Southeast Asian community in London had already made a place for themselves in the city. After several months in the north of the capital, in late summer we moved to the east of the city, near Green Street Market in West Ham. The bustling market sold sweets and spices we had almost forgotten about. Halal butchers, dozens of Southeast Asian food shops and stalls full of Indian treats awakened our senses.

After four years of surviving in places where fruit was sold by the piece, my mother was delighted with the abundance of fruit and vegetables. Bowls of apples, oranges and tomatoes sold for a pound. One day, she stopped suddenly in front of a shop where an old Bollywood song was playing: she stood there, holding my brother’s hand and listening intently until it was over. “I haven’t heard that song since I was little,” she told us.

We were doing our best to make our new house a home. It was a small apartment on a residential street between Plaistow and West Ham, and my mother did her best to brighten it up. She bought a strawberry-print tablecloth for the dining table and I, who was becoming obsessed with Bollywood, bought a poster of Shah Rukh Khan for my room. We went for sweets at Ambala, the best Indian confectionery shop in London.

Yet all the improvements in the house were overshadowed by the pain we felt. Every family meal was tinged with sadness, and though we all tried to stay cheerful to deserve our new life, joy was always just out of reach. For the first time in my life, I could move to another room, away from my family, and as the days and weeks passed, I began to do so more and more. Families torn apart by war rarely find their unity again. There is too much to carry, too much to bear, and sometimes it is easier to retreat to another space than to try to heal together.

The new neighborhood was very different from the first. West Ham and Plaistow had a complex history that we didn’t know. Although their population was generally diverse, the communities were divided into distinct sections. The area where we were housed was predominantly blanca, a fact that we did not pay much attention to when we arrived.

In Kabul, our community was multiethnic and multilingual: my parents came from different ethnic backgrounds and spoke different languages, so we were used to being surrounded by people with a different identity from our own. Also, we were in a majority white country: why shouldn’t our neighbourhood be white too?

From the beginning, however, we noticed that something wasn’t right. It all started with mild acts of aggression that my astute mother noticed right away. The feeling that we were being watched grew more and more acute. When she tried to explain our concern to a bright young teacher who had taken a liking to the family, she didn’t immediately understand. She tried to reassure us that it was the normal anxiety of moving to a new place and that we would soon begin to feel at ease.

But reality told us otherwise, so my mother forbade us to go out without her and insisted that we do as much as we could together. We went to the market together and tried to go to school together, even though my brothers’ school was nowhere near mine. We stayed home as much as possible and avoided going to the neighborhood park.


This didn’t stop the hostility of the neighbors. One day, shortly after settling in, we were returning from Sainsbury’s supermarket in Stratford when a young man shouted “Paki!” looking in our direction. His companions simply burst out laughing loudly. We walked past them quickly towards our front door. The next day it happened again, and again several days later. My mother didn’t know what to do and turned to our next door neighbor, a kindly old man, to ask him about it. He tried to calm her down by saying that they were just bored teenagers and we should ignore them as much as possible.

Obviously, we had already felt racism during our trip, but this was the first time we had experienced it openly, and no one seemed to be fazed by it. It didn’t take long for that hostile attitude to turn into action, and they started shoving rubbish through the mail slot in the front door while we slept.

The sight of one of us on our knees cleaning it up was truly pitiful. It awakened in all of us a sense of subdued panic that we had already lived with for years because of our insecurity. Survival makes it hard to differentiate paranoia from the premonition of disaster, until anxiety erodes your sense of self. And I, being the oldest child, feared for the safety of my siblings.

One day, my mother and I were assaulted in the street. The attacker took off his belt and started hitting my mother. Seeing that was beyond me, and I exploded. I screamed as loud as I could and tried to hit him. I didn’t do much, but my screaming got the attention of his friends, who started chasing me. I ran as fast as I could, and as I was running, a police car passing by saw what was happening and intervened.

Once at the police station, an officer took a statement from my mother and me, taking careful notes and told us to wait. The assailants had also been taken there. I was exhausted and upset, but glad that the incident had ended with their arrest. My mother was silent and expressionless, neither of us said anything as we waited. I don’t remember how long we were there, but after a while the officer returned and offered to take us home.

My mother asked him what was going to happen and what we could expect. The officer sat down and explained that they had let the attackers go because there was not enough reason to hold them. Besides, he added, “they’re young and stupid, they’ll get over it”. Tears began to stream down my mother’s face. The officer tried to reassure her, “If they come back, you can call us again, Mrs. Halaimzai,” he said, but she continued to cry, just sitting there.

When I got home, I went up to my room and lay down on the bed. I was convulsing with pain that I couldn’t understand. I thought about our lives and began to understand my father’s reluctance to leave Afghanistan. How you feel about the land where you were born and the land where you ended up are different things. It’s not about patriotism, it’s not about loyalty to one versus the other. It’s about feeling that, when you are there where you were born, no one can question your right to be there. Asking for asylum makes you insecure about your own existence. There is a feeling that permeates all your interactions, as if you need to constantly justify your presence.

Lying there, I wondered if I had any right to expect the police to protect my family and me, and I couldn’t come to any conclusion. I didn’t yet understand racism well enough to feel resentment for what was happening: all I felt was shame for who we were.

British identity

It didn’t take me long to learn to speak English. First it was a handful of single words, which soon turned into sentences. Soon I started to be able to carry on basic conversations with my classmates. I swapped my tracksuit for military trousers, cut my hair short, and by the time my father arrived in London a few months later, I had discovered drum’n’bass.em>. Somehow that sound, which my parents found alarming, made a lot of sense to me. I used to go into my room and listen to tapes of raves I couldn’t attend.

As my siblings and I got our bearings, my mother’s role in our lives began to change. We went from copying her English words to correcting her pronunciation. While we developed a distinctly British identity, she still struggled to see herself as part of her society, despite her best efforts to integrate. She enrolled in English classes at the local university, and enthusiastically welcomed the Jehovah’s Witnesses who visited us each week, ignoring my warnings about their proselytizing.

Those 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 bemoaning the state of the world while my mother offered them figs, nuts and samosas. When I think back to those meetings, I think the three of them found solace in each other’s company.

It took me a long time to understand why my mother found those interviews at the Home Office so hard. When we arrived, I was so consumed by my own anxiety that I was unable to pay attention to hers. This woman had lost everything that gave her life meaning: her family, her community, her livelihood, her language.

All her friends were far away or dead, and while she was trying to convince an official in Croydon that we couldn’t go home because our lives were in danger, the Taliban were wreaking havoc in Afghanistan, banning everything from music to wearing white socks. Anyone who defied their savage rules was threatened with public execution in the Kabul stadium, where justice had been reduced to a blood sport. And women and girls had been declared invisible and useless.

What could be more terrifying for someone like my mother, who had devoted her career to educating girls and encouraging them to stand up for themselves? How could I go back to that? Yet to the official handling our case, all this was not obvious, and so my mother had to endure hours and hours of interrogation, trying to explain in broken English that her children needed a chance to live without violence, and in doing so she lost some of her light.

The road in Greece

Today, almost three decades after fleeing Afghanistan, I run a non-profit organization in Greece that works to help refugees deal with trauma, and I have seen the pain and anguish that refugees families trying to circumvent the asylum process. Greece has created a system deliberately designed to be hostile, thereby reducing the attractiveness of settling in Europe.

In the groups we organised for men, women and children, participants described the feelings of panic and despair they experienced when faced with bureaucracy. One woman in a group was so distressed about her asylum interview that she began to self-harm. She told me that cutting herself relieved her, as if by pressing a blade to her skin, she was releasing the pressure she was feeling. She couldn’t bear the thought of being denied, or the prospect of being sent back to her half-destroyed, still-warring city.

Young people in a theatre group we set up in Greece often spoke of the feeling of betrayal that flooded them when they saw the images and headlines about refugees. It was as if that event, that circumstance, had erased their whole identity, their whole history. They kept saying “my future” as something completely imaginable and feasible, and that the current suspension of their hopes and dreams was purgatory. But they insisted that pity was even worse. No one wants pity when they have experienced the humiliation of violence. What they needed was for people to try to understand.

When I talk to Afghan mothers in Greece, as determined as my mother was to make a future for her children, I see the same silent suffering in their eyes. I know what it takes to keep a family together in their situation.

History repeats itself

The fact that Afghanistan is now back in the hands of the Taliban does not help. History repeats itself as they take over the country and enact the same savage decrees against the people, confining women and girls to their homes. Afghans, still fragile after decades of violence, are powerless before the forces that decide their fate.

The past few years have seen some of the worst civilian killings in a decade. I was paralyzed with horror at the news of an attack on a maternity hospital. The images of dead newborn babies in the arms of their dead mothers made me feel nauseous. And despite so much death, those who have tried to flee so far have been sent back, as countries like Greece, the UK and Germany deemed it safe to return to Afghanistan. It’s as if we deserve all this violence.

I call my mother on the phone. In her voice, I hear the same stoicism I heard in my grandmother’s. I tell her of my despair. I tell her of my despair at what keeps happening to people like us. I tell her about the case of an afflictedgano who is facing jail in Greece because her son drowned as they approached the Greek shores in a crowded boat, seeking asylum. She listens attentively to my speech half in English half in Farsi, and when I finish, she says, “Whatever they face, people have to survive. We have no choice.

Translation by Ana Momplet

Previous Afghan orchestras in danger: "I can't imagine a society without music.
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