Earlier this month we invited Fahima Zaheen, Executive Director of Afghan Association Paiwand and Gulwali Passarlay, author and refugee rights activist to provide insight into their work with with newly arriving Afghans and the wider Afghan community. Alongside Fahima and Gulwali, Sumita Shah, a humanitarian consultant with wide experience of advising and training volunteers during the refugee crisis of 2015, offered practical tips and advice to those wanting to welcome the Afghan newcomers and others seeking sanctuary in the UK.
Guest blog by Seetha Tan, participant at the event.
‘What can I do?’ and ‘How can I help?’ are phrases I have found myself grappling with as the situation continues to unfold in Afghanistan. These questions can be paralysing, resulting in inaction. However, during the hot September heatwave, I was one of over thirty people across the UK who gathered online to listen to Fahima Zaheen, Gulwali Passarlay and Sumita Shah share their personal stories and offer practical advice on how to support the global Afghan community during this moment of crisis. Listening to their testimonies and experiences, I am reminded of the innumerable reasons why inaction simply is not an option.
Fahima Zaheen, Executive Director at Afghan Association Paiwand, spoke powerfully about her own personal story of migration from Afghanistan in 1996. She discussed the difficulties she faced upon arrival and shared her feelings of powerlessness and isolation. She was driven to join the Afghan Association Paiwand six years later in 2002, an organisation that endeavours to empower Afghan refugees by providing mental health and community advocacy, counselling, welfare support and supplementary education.
Gulwali Passarlay, a political refugee, author and activist left Afghanistan in 2006. Gulwali’s book, ‘The Lightless Sky: My Journey to Safety as a Child Refugee’ chronicles his own journey fleeing Afghanistan and claiming asylum, informing his continued political advocacy.
Humanitarian Logistics and Coordination Consultant, Sumita Shah shared her extensive knowledge regarding safeguarding, mental health and grassroots volunteering. Drawing on her experience working directly with refugees in Europe and the UK since 2015, Sumita offered important practical advice on different forms of advocacy and solidarity.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the legal quagmire of Home Office immigration policy. Strict eligibility criteria and complex bureaucratic jargon act like administrative barbed wire, making it increasingly difficult for people to access the help they need, and for volunteers to deliver the help needed. Sumita Shah gave an overview of the new Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme launched in August and about which information is still unfolding. She set it in the wider context of other core schemes relevant to Afghans seeking refuge that are currently implemented in the UK. Presently, these include the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) established on 1 April 2021, the points-based immigration system, the UK Resettlement Scheme and the Family Reunion Scheme. All of these routes have complex eligibility requirements and exclude the vast majority of Afghans currently in Afghanistan. Reading the strict criteria required to seek asylum, to seek safety, categorised on the Home Office website in bullet points is harrowing. Within those categories of eligibility, the shadow of all those deemed ‘ineligible’ is ever-present. The schemes presently available prioritise those who worked for the British forces in Afghanistan and individuals deemed to have significantly contributed to civil society, excluding many others who currently seek asylum.
While it is easy to feel helpless and lost in the chaos of government bureaucracy and legislation, there is so much we can do. Fahima, Gulwali and Sumita were able to offer concrete advice on how we can help and what we can do to support the global Afghan community and Afghan refugees arriving in the UK.
Remaining informed: fact-checking and safeguarding
Staying informed as the situation and needs develop and change is the first step to helping. Distinguishing between misinformation and facts and asking questions is key. Consider working with registered charities in your local area that are liaising with local government or supporting coordinated campaigns to confirm what is actually needed and how your assistance can be most useful. Remain aware of potential safeguarding issues when working with children and vulnerable communities, keeping in mind anonymity concerns.
Donations: giving time and resources
- Connect with established organisations and charities in your local area
Organisations like Fahima Zaheen’s Paiwand and Gulwali Passarlay’s The Bright Kite focus specifically on addressing the service gaps and meeting the local and immediate needs of incoming Afghans. These organisations are often already coordinating with local authorities and may have specific donation drives, infrastructure or programmes that you can support. A quick Google search for ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’ organisations will give you insight to services that might welcome your time, skills or funds in your area.
- Donate with dignity in mind
Donate to specific donation drives and confirm what specific resources are needed. Remember to donate clothes that are in good condition, culturally appropriate, washed and labelled and only new underwear and socks.
- Offering accommodation, skills, jobs, training….
Organisations such as NACCOM (the No Accommodation Network) allow individuals to provide accommodation and shelter to refugees and asylum seekers who face increased barriers to accommodation and access due to their immigration status. If you have other skills, run a company or can offer training or job opportunities to new migrants, this can be a valuable resource to organisations. Befriending and mentoring programmes, language interpreting services and supplementary education support through established organisations are other ways to help.
Building resilient and connected communities
Talk to your local community and connect with individuals who may display fear or uncertainty about welcoming incoming refugees. Building resilient and connected communities of solidarity that are informed and compassionate is essential to supporting and welcoming incoming refugees.
Throughout the meeting, I kept returning to something Fahima mentioned when sharing her own personal story. She described the emotional and physical weight of being a stranger, in a strange land, having to learn a strange language. Building cultures and communities of kindness, compassion and solidarity to make this transition easier, to support individuals as they rebuild their lives and their networks are some of the many steps we can take to help. As events continue to unfold and as the government’s plans become clear in the coming months, it is important to remember how much there is to still do and just how much can really be done.
This blog post is an abridged version of a wider conversation about Afghans, and others claiming asylum in the UK. You can watch or listen to the entire conversation here: Afghanistan: What can I do? How can I help? – YouTube
Seetha Tan has an MPhil in Sociology from the University of Cambridge, where she researched solidarity and citizenship by drawing on stories of migration in diaspora communities. Originally from Australia, Seetha completed her undergraduate studies in France before moving to the UK. She is a passionate story-teller, filmmaker, podcaster and researcher who has experience in media and audience outreach, event planning and video production.