The refugee journey and adapting to a new place

We hear a lot about refugees. They are on the Polish border. They are on the beaches of Kent. They are encamped for years on end in Beirut. They are fleeing from wars and conflicts too numerous and depressing to list.

Friday, 19th November 2021, 4:11 pm
Updated Friday, 19th November 2021, 4:11 pm
Safely ensconsed in Uig

Behind all these reports, lie the individual struggles of people and families. The one common factor is the dislocation they endure; forced by circumstances beyond their control into environments that are utterly unfamiliar and seeking to make the best of it, always on the assumption that it must be better than what they left behind.

By many standards, the Afghan family now temporarily ensconced in Valtos, Uig, through their association with the Linda Norgrove Foundation are among the fortunate ones. They got out of Afghanistan while many did not. They have ended up in a safe and caring environment. They still have contact through the wonders of modern communications with the people they left behind.

Still, the sense of lives changed irrevocably, with no prospect of return or reconciliation, is inescapable. For this family like so many others, it is the start of a new existence in an unfamiliar place, vastly different to their former home. Compared to life under the Taliban, that is an infinitely preferable option yet every day they must think of those they have left behind.

The thread that runs through this story and has given Lewis an ongoing, poignant link with Afghanistan is the Foundation, founded by Linda’s parents, John and Lorna, in memory of the aid worker who grew up in Mangersta and was kidnapped by the Taliban. She died in 2011 when the effort by US Navy SEALs to rescue her went tragically wrong.

Dedicated to promoting women’s rights and education in Afghanistan - the cause to which Linda was devoted - the Foundation works with, among others, Gawharshad university in Kabul. Frishta Matan says: “In the university, I was working in the women’s empowerment centre. We had projects from different countries providing scholarships for our students.

“I was in touch with John to give reports for some years. In 2018, I received an e-mail asking if I would like to work for the Foundation. The following year, I went to Germany for a four months progamme and was asked to identify someone who would cover for me, so I introduced my sister as well”.

Frishta says: “Most of the sponsors from different countries are now saying they will not continue to support the students because they can’t send money since the regime change. It is only the LNF that says they will continue supporting its work”.

John Norgrove confirms that is their intention to continue supporting the students they sponsor though they too are having difficulty in getting money through to the university. “We owe them $100,000 in fees,” he says, “but the banking system has closed down so we are looking at alternative routes”. Pre-Taliban, they were sponsoring 163 students but more than 20 have either left the country or are too afraid to come out.

Frishta explains: “The Taliban have no problem with women becoming doctors or nurses. Other courses are more problematic. Sometimes they insist on lecture rooms being partitioned to separate males from females. They also want female lecturers to teach female students. We don’t have many female lecturers for all fields”. The National University is closed completely while the Taliban’s ideologues work out what to do about such issues, all part of the fear and uncertainty that prevail.

The sisters had no experience as children of the previous Taliban era, the family having fled to Pakistan and remained there until 2001 when the regime was toppled by an American -led invasion after the 9/11 attacks. Their younger brother Zaker was born a couple of years later. Kabul as they knew it for these 20 relatively peaceful years was transformed into something quite different on August 15th, 2021.

Frishta - now 29 - says: “We knew that one day the Americans would leave the country and go back. In the last few months we were expecting to have an interim government but not for it to happen like this, with the Taliban as the only ruler. Even when the Taliban were taking over the provinces, we still thought Kabul would survive, at least for a few months.

“It is difficult even now to understand what happened. It was surprising for the Taliban that they took over Kabul so quickly. It was ok in the morning. Then a few hours later It was a nightmare. Nobody was ready for that. We weren’t expecting the President to leave the country. That changed everything. We thought they would not take control until there was some agreement in Qatar. Then when the President left, they just walked in”.

President Ashraf Ghani had hot-footed it to the United Arab Emirates, leaving behind an apology that he “could not make it end differently” while allegedly taking with him copious quantities of the nation’s funds. In the absence of any binding agreement coming out of negotiations in Qatar, it had been a question of when, not if, the Taliban would take over.

After a short-lived mood of determination to stay in the country, the sisters decided it was simply too dangerous. “You don’t know when the Taliban will knock your door or take you out of the house,” says Frishta. “If someone hates me, they will tell them that I worked for an NGO and that can be the end of my life. It is difficult for us here that we cannot do anything for our family – it is the same for them and many others”.

The dramatic story has been told of how they finally found their way out of the country after several failed attempts to make their way through the chaos at Kabul airport and onto a flight to safety, which their credentials should have entitled them to. They eventually had to go into hiding in Mazer-i-Sharif, north of Kabul, where they found a way on board an American mercy mission. “John and Lorna worked very hard to get us on the list,” says Frishta.

As well as the work the women did, the family was vulnerable because of their Hazara ethnicity. As history has repeatedly shown, Afghanistan is an endlessly complex society in which ethnicity matters a great deal. The Hazaras are the third largest ethnicity with about 15 per cent of the population. They are Shi’ite Muslims. The Taliban are Sunnis.

“Being Shia is problematic”, says Frishta, “not just to the Taliban but ISIS as well. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, there were a lot of explosions at Shia mosques. Yesterday there was a car explosion near to the area my family lives. Friends died in it. Being Shia or Sunni was not a problem the last 20 years. Now it is getting started”. A religious war, on top of an ethnic one, is her greatest fear.

For the Hazaras, the dangers are particularly well sign-posted. They have long been persecuted by the Pashtun, the major ethnicity from which the Taliban are drawn. After 2001, the Hazaras emerged to become associated with the movement towards greater personal freedoms, particularly for women – which sets them at even deeper odds with the Taliban. The sisters are representative of that movement.

Farzana says: “For those who become Taliban, the mentality is the same in the home as in the way they rule. They don’t name the wife. It’s a matter of honour. They treat their wife as a slave, a thing – the same mentality as the Taliban. That is why it was so difficult for us to stay”.

So what news do they have now of conditions back home? Frishta says: “Our friends tell us things have changed a lot in Kabul. Especially, the food price has doubled or trebled in some areas. The problems are security and a shortage of food. People are afraid of the winter. Before, there was someone in every household earning money, but not now”.

Is there any prospect of the Taliban changing and becoming less rigid and ruthless? They are skeptical. “When the Taliban came to Kabul”, says Frishta, “it was so scary for us to see them. Now they are trying to receive money from other countries. Deep down they do not change but maybe at the top they will change because they have to change”.

The family – Frishta, her husband Murtaza and baby son Kia, Farzana and 18 year-old Zaker – have a house in Valtos only for a month to give them time to decide on what they want to do next. They are acutely aware that most of the Afghans who came to Scotland are still in hotel accommodation in Aberdeen. They have also found the people they have met in Lewis to be “so friendly and kind”, and they want to stay.

All in all, their preference would be to settle in Stornoway. Farzana and her brother have visited Lews Castle College. She says: “It has a lot of features that appeal to us. Zaker wants to do IT and I want to do management. There are a lot of courses for us.”

At the mundane level, their biggest challenge has been the weather. Frishta laughs: “Sometimes, John was sending us postcards but we really had no idea of where we were coming to. I was not expecting so much wind and rain….”. Alongside the Taliban, it seems to them a very minor issue.

Meanwhile, the work of the Linda Norgrove Foundation continues – a small charity making a big difference. As well as sponsoring the students, they have projects supporting women’s education in various parts of Afghanistan. John says that these are “ongoing at a slower pace”. But at least they haven’t been closed down.

He adds: “People are going very hungry. We have come across a person to person money transfer system which is still operating and we are sending $3000 a week to people we trust, to make up food parcels for households where women are on their own and struggling to feed their families”.

Where humanitarian objectives are involved, unlike politics or the military, there is never a point at which it is possible to say: “The job’s done and we’re pulling out”.