In August this year, the government announced that it was closing all hotels housing Afghan refugees who had arrived in the UK following the fall of Kabul in 2021. We’ve had the privilege of working with the Afghan community in Bristol for the last 2 years, in partnership with Bristol City Council’s resettlement team, and this recent announcement has been difficult for many.
In this blog, Dan Morrice shares some of his personal reflections on working with Afghan families, and how the people he’s met have impacted him and the Bridges team.
In September 2021, the Taliban swept into Kabul like a sand storm, grinding down decades of progress in a matter of hours. In the chaos of evacuation, over 250 Afghans were resettled in Bristol, including some high-ranking officials and their families. A year or so later, a similar number of additional families joined them, having initially fled to neighbouring Pakistan and then waited a year to reach the UK.
For the last two years I’ve had the privilege of becoming friends with Afghan men who fought the Taliban tooth and nail, put their lives on the line to serve British forces and organisations, and gave everything to create a safe, fair and dignified society for their children. When that went up in smoke, the British repaid their loyalty with the chance to rebuild their lives in the UK. The ones we’ve met are those who made it out – many more were given the right to come but couldn’t get out of Kabul in time. Who knows where they are now?
My first contact was with an interpreter the British troops had nick-named ‘Jason’ due his apparent likeness to actor Jason Statham, with his strong arm, short bristling beard and wry smile. Our director, Dan Green, had invited him to give the team an introduction to Afghan culture and he gently led us through the triumphs and traumas of the last few decades, as well as the nuances of Afghan celebrations and traditions, from kite-flying to cake-throwing.
When they first arrived in Bristol, the families were temporarily crammed into hotels, and our resettlement support team at Bridges for Communities, Bushra, Hattie and Karen, quickly started organising activities for the families to help with the transition and connect them in with local communities and people. Anyone who’s made the shift to a new job or city can testify to how exhausting the first few weeks can be. Change is stressful. I can’t imagine what it must be like to find myself unexpectedly starting again in a new land, with a new culture, a totally new language and whole new set of societal rules.
Fortunately, we received a fantastic response from Bristolians offering a welcoming hand and from countless local businesses and organisations opening their doors; from Bristol City FC to Bristol Zoo, from the SS Great Britain to Tyntesfield. This enabled us to give people a break from the intensity of the hotels and start introducing them to people and to the local area. As the months went on, their temporary emergency accommodation began to feel more and more permanent. It was difficult to see people that we were getting to know in such a difficult situation – men and women who were already processing the trauma of war, now trying to settle in, learn a new language, get kids into school, and adjust as quickly as possible, but unable to do so because they didn’t know where they would live once out of the bridging hotel. At times it seemed overwhelming, yet even in the midst of the chaos, the resilience of the families was quietly inspiring.
A ray of light came for some when the children started school. Some were placed in local schools, but others had to travel some distance. One of our volunteers, Holly, met the children every morning and travelled with them on the bus, helping them navigate the public transport system, checking they remembered their lunchbox, and reassuring them that they’d enjoy their classes, make friends, and get on with their teacher. The first day can be daunting for any bright-eyed young child, as every parent knows, but for a girl raised in a country where going to school is a life-threatening act of resistance, it’s especially intimidating. We’re grateful to volunteers like Holly who helped to make this transition a little bit more manageable for the children.
Simple moments that we’ve shared have become real treasures in our memory of this time, and one more story stands out to me. We were helping with a Craft Event at the Arnolfini, a well-known gallery by Bristol docks that we have formed a partnership with and that has hosted regular sewing groups for women from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds so that they can make friends, hone their English and bring their textile skills to life. One woman’s husband was visiting the art gallery with his mother, who must have been 90, and in the joyful chaos of the day, she found herself overcome with tiredness. With her eyelids heavy, she was clearly fighting to stay awake, and Bushra, one of our team indicated that it was okay to close her eyes for a few minutes. She looked mortified at the idea of sleeping in a public space, but Bushra managed to communicate (despite the challenges of minimal shared language) that nobody would mind and that this was a safe space. Bushra took her jacket and gently laid it over her as she leaned on the arm of the sofa and got a few moments rest. A small tear rolled down her cheek, apparently out of relief and gratitude, a reminder to all of us that the smallest gestures can sometimes make a big difference.
It was moments like this that gave us glimpses of shared humanity and opened our eyes to a different narrative to the ones that often grab the limelight. The headlines portray stories of desperate last-minute attempts to house people who have come to this country to seek sanctuary, in anything from barges to bunkhouses, and at times it’s been depressing how far short the UK has fallen of the commitments we made to Afghans fleeing the Taliban.
But that’s not the only narrative.
The failures at the top have only highlighted the brilliance at the bottom, as ordinary professionals from healthcare workers, to local councillors, from charities to volunteers have moved heaven and earth to replace Westminster’s hostility with the Westcountry’s hospitality.
The Stitching Together class are selling cushions through prestigious London designer Christopher Farr and members of the public are flocking to see their masterpieces at an exhibition in the Arnolfini, open right now. Holly now works as part of the Bridges the Communities team and some of the children she was first shepherding to school have gone from being frightened and fraught, to high-fiving her as they get off the bus, singing and dancing on their way home.
It’s a worthy reminder that behind the numbers and politics we’re so often presented with, there are human beings, school-girls desperate to study, grandparents grateful to see the next generation flourishing, and every generation eager to learn about their new culture. I’ve never met people so determined to work, to be self-sufficient, to serve the country they now call home. And behind every face is a friendship waiting to be forged. Sometimes, all it needs is a shared moment to start a new story. Who will you share a moment with this week?
Bridges for Communities continues it’s work with the Afghan community in Bristol, in partnership with Bristol City Council. Although the bridging hotels have been closed, our team will continue to provide volunteer befrienders for families who have been moved into houses, as well as Welcome Events, support with practical tasks, sewing classes, and any other support we are able to.
If you’re interested in finding out more, volunteering with us or helping to welcome people who are seeking sanctuary in Bristol, check out www.bridgesforcommunities.com/get-involved.