Fahim Zazai knows how difficult it is to leave loved ones behind and make a treacherous journey to a new country where you know no one. Twenty-two years ago, Zazai fled the Taliban and was smuggled to the UK illegally from Afghanistan in the back of a lorry. He was 18 and didn’t know a word of English.
Zazai, now 42, remembers feeling a mixture of trepidation and elation. “It was scary,” he admits. “I felt so much uncertainty about going to a place where I didn’t know the language and I was so sad at leaving all my family behind. But I also felt happy to be free of the dangers in Afghanistan and [about] the chance of a new life.”
He also felt fear, knowing his fate was in the hands of an “agent” who had been paid to smuggle him into the UK in the back of a lorry.
“They’re not like a travel agent,” says Zazai. “They don’t organise nice holidays for people – they are smugglers, and to them you are an object, not a human. They just view you as goods to transport so they can get their money. They don’t care what happens to you.”
On arrival, Zazai was taken to Walsall in the West Midlands. There were many challenges to face as he settled in, but he has now forged a new life for himself and lives with his wife and four children.
In 2007, determined to ease the path of other newly arrived asylum seekers, he founded the Afghan Community and Welfare Centre in Walsall.
“People who came here after me had some of the same issues I had and needed support with things like housing, immigration and school admissions,” he tells i. “I set up this charity because there was a real need and I know how difficult it was when I first arrived. The biggest barrier is the language and those who speak English are able to integrate better.”
Since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan earlier this year, the charity has been overwhelmed with pleas for help.
“We had families from Afghanistan begging for help with being evacuated, and we had people in the UK contacting us worried about their families in Afghanistan, and we were struggling to keep up with the demand,” he says.
“Most of the people who have come here from Afghanistan were working for the government and were fearful for their lives. They were desperate to leave as they did not know what the Taliban was going to do.
“They had good lives in Afghanistan, but because of all the chaos and how quickly everything happened, some of them could not even bring any personal belongings.”
With the Government pledging to take in at least 20,000 Afghan refugees and their families, including interpreters and those who have supported allied forces, Zazai wants to do all he can to help those suddenly plunged into a new reality.
“I want to help people as I know what they are going through and can share my experience and support them,” he says. “A large majority of those who have arrived are still living in hotels around the country and it will be challenging to find them homes.”
Zazai’s own story begins in Kabul. “I had to leave as my father had connections and was working with the government, and the Taliban were looking for young people to join them and become suicide bombers,” he recalls.
He admits he had little idea what to expect in the UK. “I thought the UK would be a white-dominated country, but I was surprised to see how multicultural it was. One of the first people I saw was a Sikh man driving a bus.”
His first challenge was to master the language. “I had to learn English because I knew I had to if I wanted to make a proper life here.”
Zazai told the Home Office his story. After two years, he was given discretionary leave to remain in the UK for four years, which later became indefinite leave to remain. In 2007, he became a British citizen.
It has taken hard work and persistence to make his new life and he is committed to offering support to make the adjustment easier for those who have come after him.
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Zazai works for the local authority as a cultural mediator for schools, supporting them to give children from refugee families the best start. But most of his free time is spent carrying out community work supporting migrants and refugees, many of them newly arrived and still floundering.
“It is shocking what is happening in Afghanistan,” he says. “Everything completely changed in a matter of weeks. It is heartbreaking to see people who had dreams for a better future for the country which have all vanished.
“A lot of people are very anxious and concerned and I feel Afghanistan has gone backwards and undone a lot of progress that was made. Many people who were educated and could have helped the country rebuild have been forced to leave.”
Zazai, who now speaks several languages including English, Pashto, Parsi, Urdu and Russian, wants to help newly arrived Afghans integrate so they can stand on their own two feet and become an important part of society.
He has been heartened by people’s positive response to the crisis. “The response from the public to help Afghan refugees has been amazing and we have had so many offers of help,” he says.
“The people who have come here from Afghanistan want to be a benefit to the UK, not a burden. Migrants and refugees are part of this country and when we needed things, people helped us.”