Published: 06:00, 15 September 2021
| Updated: 14:47, 15 September 2021
Sayed Hashemi is one of 106 refugees who has been housed in a Canterbury hotel after fleeing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Here, he tells Lydia Chantler-Hicks how his family have been welcomed by the people of Kent, how he fears for loved ones left behind in Kabul, and of the uncertain future his family now face...
Sayed speaks of his experience
Sayed Hashemi sits on a sofa at Abbots Barton Hotel in Canterbury.
It is late on Sunday and silent, save for tinny muzak being piped into the restaurant area and the occasional sounds of children playing in a distant room.
It has been a month since Sayed – formerly one of Afghanistan’s top mining and commercial lawyers – arrived in England with his wife, Lida, and three young sons.
They landed at Birmingham airport with nothing but suitcases filled with clothes.
They were quarantined in a hotel in Manchester for 10 days before being brought to the Abbots Barton in New Dover Road to be temporarily housed.
Moving from a war zone to the cobbled streets of Canterbury was a gargantuan adjustment and leaving their former lives behind has not been easy for Sayed’s family.
“Especially for him,” says Sayed, brandishing a thumb towards his youngest son Masih, who sits quietly beside him on the hotel sofa, understanding only odd words of his father’s English.
“He always misses home.
"He cries ‘Daddy, let’s go back. I don’t have any friends here, I don’t know what to do here, there’s no one to play with me or talk to me'.”
Yet as cities were falling one-by-one to the Taliban, Sayed knew he had no choice but to flee.
The beginning of the end
The “hell” Sayed’s family experienced before leaving Afghanistan contrasts starkly with the quiet darkness outside the windows of the Abbots Barton.
“Kabul is a kind of military city,” says the 42-year-old.
“People are walking with guns. There are soldiers, tanks, helicopters. This had become part of normal life in the past 10 to 15 years of war.
“But it intensified as the Taliban started taking over the districts, then the big cities.”
This Spring, as American and allied troops prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan following 20 years of occupation, the Taliban began advancing through the country.
They seized control with astonishing rapidity and soon closed in on Kabul.
“People were worrying as the Taliban came closer,” says Sayed.
“Every night outside my window I would see explosions, shooting, the horror.”
'Whenever I left home I would think someone will shoot us, or a random explosion will happen, suicide attacks.'
Sayed had sent his wife and children to live in Turkey in 2018, after his eldest son was attacked by kidnappers in Kabul.
“It wasn’t only Taliban, it was the corrupt system, the mafia system,” he explains.
“If you work for the government as a senior official and you are somehow threatening their interest, they would immediately threaten your life. Several times it happened to me.”
But as the Taliban’s grip tightened, his family returned to Kabul in May so they could attempt to gain refuge overseas.
“At that time, if I left home in the morning I really did not expect to come back home in the evening,” says Sayed.
“Whenever I left home I would think someone will shoot us, or a random explosion will happen, suicide attacks.
“You would always feel that people wanted to kill you. My kids were at home all the time. It was like prison. I told them do not go out. Do not open the door to anyone.
“It was like the scary movies of Hollywood - if you go out you don’t feel safe. Especially when the target-killing started.”
The risk to Sayed became apparent one morning in early May, when two improvised bombs were found beneath his car.
“I came out and my driver said ‘sir, go back in - run’ and pushed me back,” he recalls. “The Taliban were killing journalists, government officials. They just wanted to create terror. I was five when I lost my father and I didn’t want this to happen to my kids.”
As the Taliban gained ground, Sayed applied to refuge schemes in both America and the UK.
At the end of June, he was accepted for the UK’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) programme - designed to resettle thousands of Afghans who have worked with the UK Government, and their families.
Sayed recalls feeling “a mixture of happiness and sadness” when they were told their flight would leave on August 12.
“Sad because I’m leaving my family, my friends, my house, my life - everything I have built in the last 40 years,” he says. “But the situation was deteriorating.
'The most painful, sad thing is that some of us have left children behind in Afghanistan.'
“Attacks were getting close, cities were falling one-by-one to the Taliban. Some sense was telling me ‘this country is going to fall, so you need to leave. You need to take your family out'.”
Sayed and his family boarded their flight smoothly on August 12.
Just three days later, the Taliban captured Kabul and Afghanistan’s government fell, sparking scenes of chaos at the capital’s airport as terrified people scrambled desperately for flights to safety.
“I was lucky to get out before the collapse of Kabul,” says Sayed, who watched the scenes unfold on TV from the safety of England.
"Thank God we left before that chaos. I would never, ever have been able to make it through that crowd with my family. I would have just sat at home and said ‘I can’t go through that crowd’. And I know that Taliban would definitely have come to find me.”
Those left behind
Sayed says he and other Afghan families in the hotel fear for loved ones left in their home country.
“The most painful, sad thing is that some of us have left children behind in Afghanistan,” he says.
Children aged 18 and above are not eligible for resettlement under the ARAP programme.
Sayed himself was not able to bring his eldest son.
“But thankfully he got evacuated,” says the father-of-four. “He’s in the US now, in Wisconsin. He was lucky.
“One of the families here has two kids left in Afghanistan. The mum was crying the other day, and the girls and boys left behind in Afghanistan are crying there.
“The Taliban has promised they will let their soldiers marry the young girls from Kabul. Now girls are hiding, they don’t want to go out.”
Sayed’s mother, four brothers, three sisters, and many nieces and nephews are still in Afghanistan.
One of his brothers was shot by the Taliban as he tried to reach the airport, after Kabul fell.
Many of his relatives are now in hiding but are struggling to find food as bank accounts have been frozen and panicked people are stockpiling supplies.
“They don’t have anything to eat,” says Sayed. “It looks like people are starving. My brother called this morning and he was so sad.”
But Sayed’s Afghan bank accounts have been frozen by the Taliban, and he is powerless to help them.
“I feel sad,” he says. “I was the person they could call for anything. But now I can’t do anything for them.”
The next chapter
Sayed and his family have been saved from certain terror but are now faced with daunting uncertainty.
“We feel safe,” he says. “But there are so many other questions. What’s going to happen to us? Where will we be residing? What kind of job am I going to get? What’s going to happen to my kids, to me? Am I going to get a job according to my qualifications?”
On arriving in the UK, Sayed was told his family will receive ID and permanent residency, will be registered with GPs and supported as they seek jobs, while his children will be placed in schools.
“But this wasn’t timetabled,” says Sayed.
So the family remains in limbo.
Without permits, they have no access to bank accounts and cannot work or drive.
Holding two masters degrees, Sayed led an illustrious career in Afghanistan with jobs in law and at the British Embassy in Kabul. He was most recently CEO of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment.
But he knows a former Afghan government minister who was relocated to Germany and is now delivering pizzas.
Keen to find a suitable job, Sayed wanted to live near London, where he has a network of contacts and work opportunities.
But the family was dealt a disappointing blow at the weekend when they were told they are being resettled in Perth, Scotland – more than 450 miles from England’s capital.
Touched by kindness
Sayed has been touched by the kindness of people in Kent, who have opened their hearts and homes to his family.
“People are so friendly, so nice,” he says.
Last week, a family from Canterbury approached Sayed and his sons in the city centre.
“They offered us cookies, then invited us to their house and made a barbecue for us,” says Sayed, his face lighting up with delighted astonishment.
“Yesterday, another family living one hour from Canterbury invited us for lunch in a restaurant.
“He brought all his family, and a lot of very nice gifts – a computer for my son, cookies, chocolate, biscuits.
“He had two boys so after lunch he said ‘let the kids play football’. They became friends, then he bought us all ice cream.”
A friend and ex-colleague of Sayed’s from a UK law firm has also visited them in Canterbury, and gifted his sons three bikes.
The compassionate gestures have bolstered Sayed’s faith in humanity, and made his children feel brighter about their future in the UK.
'We believe in humanity - it doesn’t matter which lands you belong to, which religion you belong to.'
“I feel a little bit confident now,” he says. “We found out that people are so friendly, so nice.
“We feel that we are not in a strange place, with strange people. We found ourselves among a lot of very good, friendly, nice people.
“Now I feel that I’m leaving another home, like I’m leaving a lot of friends behind in Canterbury.
“We believe in humanity - it doesn’t matter which lands you belong to, which religion you belong to. There are a lot of very good people out there.”
On Monday morning, Sayed’s family said farewell to fellow Afghan refugees, who huddled outside Abbots Barton to watch them leave.
Their cheery Scottish driver helped squeeze their suitcases and bikes into the minibus.
It was a bittersweet moment, as the Hashemi family waved goodbye and boarded the vehicle, stepping once again into the unknown as they departed for their new lives.
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