In 1996, when I was three years old, my parents and I fled our native Afghanistan. Over the course of the next three years we made our way across Europe before we arrived in Britain in 1999. This is an account from my parents about why they did what they did and how they have come to react to the current refugee crisis from their perspectives of already having been through it. I hope this gives people a small idea of what it’s like to be a refugee.
Why did you leave Afghanistan?
Dad: We left, like all the people who left with us, because our lives were in danger. There was a civil war going on in the country. We could barely stand the Mujahedeen [an Islamist-led government that controlled Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996, following the collapse of the pro-Soviet regime] but when the Taliban took over Kabul we just had to leave. They were making people’s lives a misery. Their strict interpretation of Islam was not something we wanted to live with.
Mum: Had they found out that your dad was educated in the Soviet Union and had been in the old Afghan Army they would almost certainly have hanged him.
I had to wear a burka at all times and couldn’t leave the house without my husband. If your hands or feet were visible outside of your chador, they’d beat you. The Taliban were so bad we found ourselves wishing the Mujahedeen would come back! After years of war we tried to stay in the country but once the Taliban took over, it became unbearable for us
Dad: You should ask yourselves, why do people in England, France and Germany not flee their countries?
Because there’s no war in those countries?
Dad: Exactly. We didn’t want to leave, we were forced to. Afghanistan was our home but how could we live like that in such a country.
Mum: I still to this day can’t stand fireworks because it reminds me of being in Afghanistan during the war. You must understand what living in a warzone does to a person.
Why did you decide to come to England? Why not Russia or Germany?
Dad: We didn’t decide straight away that we wanted to go England. Initially we just wanted to flee and so we went to Russia because it was the closest European country and because we spoke Russian. Unfortunately the Russian government did not welcome us as refugees. We lived there for three years trying to get asylum status but they wouldn’t give it to us. Every day the police would beat us up and take our money because they considered us illegal immigrants. It was there that our daughter was born. Once we became fed up we decided to flee to Western Europe.
Mum: We were told that if we stayed too long in Poland and Germany they would keep us in the camps [refugee camps]. We hated it, we didn’t want to be treated like animals and we were told England was a country that had human rights and would treat people well so that’s why we went there.
How did you make your way here?
Dad: We gave all the money we had to people smugglers, whose identities we never found out. We went by car and by train to Russia and then across Europe on rail and on foot.
Mum: Walking through those forests was hell, I can’t even imagine how I was able to do that for so long. We were terrified so many times, thinking the smugglers had left us if a lorry we were waiting for hadn’t arrived.
Dad: I remember being freezing all the time and having to make sure you and your sister weren’t too cold or hungry.
How did you eat?
Dad: We got little bits of food from the smugglers. It was very little, nowhere near enough. We went for days without eating at times, so that our kids could eat, there was so little of it.
Mum: We were smuggled onto a lorry, and we didn’t even know if it was going to go through the tunnel or on a ferry. We just did what we were told and they would say “keep quiet until the doors are opened”. We think the lorry went on a ferry. It was hugely dangerous and we had no idea where we were going so many times.
What are your feelings towards the smugglers? What about the governments and their actions?
Dad: We have a difficult relationship with them. They’re criminals who exploited us, but then again without them we wouldn’t have been able to come here. It is hard for other people to understand these things
Mum: We were grateful that the UK was able to take us in. That is all we feel about the country.
Were you at all annoyed they didn’t give you more help?
Dad: We had no animosity towards the country, we were just so grateful to find a place. They were mostly helpful to us in Dover, this was back in 1999. I don’t think they are as helpful these days. I feel very bad for the people who are now trying to do the same as what we did. The government should help them more.
How did you find life here initially? What about now?
Dad: Initially it was difficult, the language was the main issue. I already could speak several languages but not English. The house we were given was very small. We weren’t ungrateful, we were happy for any shelter, it was just difficult to fit us all in.
Mum: I thought everyone in England lived like they did in old imperial novels or like in James Bond films. Our life experience was far from that. But we got used to it and now we are citizens and are very happy here.
What do you think about the current refugee crisis? What would you say to people who are concerned about the number of people coming into Europe?
Dad: We would say to the refugees, be patient. With God’s help you will get to your destinations. I believe there is still humanity in this world and hopefully you will soon be safe. The European governments cannot ignore you forever.
Mum: To the governments of Hungary and all the other countries, they should understand how lucky they are they have never experienced what the refugees are feeling. They haven’t had to flee war.
They should understand that no one wants to leave their home. They are forced to by poverty and war. People should understand that most would be willing to take any work they can once they get here, they don’t want to come here to get benefits. We were okay in Afghanistan but when we came here we were poor. However both of us work and we are proud to work here.
We are proud to be here, we are not criminals or anything like that, and these refugees I’m sure would be the same. They are not criminals, they are simply human beings.