Survival is all Khalil* has ever known. Bitter conflict has ravaged his homeland for as long as he can remember. Sweltering summers made way for bitterly cold winters and food and water supply were not always a guarantee. Danger lurked around every corner.
“Five years ago in Afghanistan, it was very unsafe because in every province there was war. This made finding a job really difficult. I got a job in a private bank in a different province that provided accounts for soldiers. I did that for two years but it was full of danger because working with the army meant that people who were against the government were against people who worked with them like me. Every day I was scared that something could happen.”
Khalil worked in the bank for over two years, but after becoming increasingly frustrated with the dangers that came with the job, he decided to continue his studies, this time abroad in India thanks to an education scholarship. After graduating with a Master’s degree in economics, Khalil was soon to realise that home, as he knew it, would never be the same again.
The withdrawal of coalition forces in the country marked the end of the UK’s 20-year military campaign and quickly saw the Taliban, themselves ousted from power following the US-led invasion of 2001, make rapid gains across the country.
“I returned home to Afghanistan in 2021 and I saw how dangerous the situation was. Everywhere I looked, all the news from social media was saying that the Taliban had captured this place and that place. They were taking over every place day by day. At this moment I was really scared because for a person like me that had an education and worked where I had, it was dangerous. Everyone at this time was thinking about how to escape and find a way to leave the country to feel safe.”
Kabul soon fell and Taliban forces controlled the majority of Afghan territory. Fearful over possible reprisals, those on the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme were included in Operation Pitting evacuations, offering a new life in the UK for those that had supported British troops deployed during the conflict.
Khalil, along with other members of his family, were granted eligibility and quickly made their way to the airport. Thousands of citizens desperately gathered outside the terminal building, each frantically looking to escape the horrors that would soon become normality under militant rule.
“The airport was so crowded,” he explains, still visibly upset by the events. “You could not even find a place to stand, because everyone was trying to get out. My parents are over 65 so it was not easy for them. My brothers were with their family and kids. I went to the airport and I saw the situation was not suitable for my family. We did not know where we needed to go or which people we needed to see. People were running to every different place in panic.”
As night fell, Khalil’s family returned home whilst he stayed, hoping to find the correct personnel to speak to. After hours fighting through the crowds, he eventually spoke with the appropriate staff and presented the required documents. Told to wait until morning, Khalil spent the night in conditions so cramped he remained standing for a further eight hours until soldiers collected him.
“At this point, I started to feel like I was actually going. I called my family, told them I was fine and had gotten through the queue. The soldiers took me to their base to look through the documents and make sure I was the right person and was eligible. The checks took a long time and were very strict. I saw some people were turned away because their documents were not clear. Everyone was just trying to find a better way for themselves.”
As crowds continued to gather, a devastating suicide bombing took place outside the airport, tragically killing 183 people. Khalil, going through the document checking process, heard the blast but initially was not aware of the attack. The chaos that ensued was unforgettable.
“I saw the soldiers were running around and shouting on their radios asking what had happened. My brother called me and asked if I was okay. He told me that there was an explosion outside the airport. My family and he had returned to the airport and they were stood very close to where the bomb had gone off. They were about to reach that place in the queue when it exploded.
“Many people died and many people were injured. It was a very bad situation and he told me that he was trampled on when people ran away but another family member managed to grab his hand. When I knew there was the explosion, I was calling everyone I knew that was there asking if they were okay.”
Rushed onto a military plane, Khalil left the country he had called home for over twenty years alone, terrified, and clinging on to just a handful of clothes in his bag.
“When we landed, it was night and I remember how cold the weather was,” he laughs. “I only had a thin jacket because I thought the weather would be the same as back home. There was one woman who was airport staff that gave me her jacket and told me to take it, as it was a gift from her. I really appreciated that because it was so cold.”
Khalil completed the mandatory quarantine period in a nearby hotel and remained in temporary accommodation whilst waiting for updates on his case.
“I could not even leave the hotel but it I kept telling myself it was okay because it was much better than being in Afghanistan. I had internet, television and a safe place.”
The same could not be said for his family back home. The airport bombing had put a halt to emergency airlifts from the country and, despite having qualified for the ARAP scheme, Khalil’s relatives were facing the dangerous prospect of living under Taliban rule.
“At this time, the Taliban were telling the world that people who had worked for the government would be allowed to live in peace but that was a lie. Behind the media, they were arresting people and killing some.”
Whilst the military evacuations had ceased, eligible Afghan nationals were still offered safety in the UK should they come through a third country.
“The Taliban took the house from us because we lived there. They followed everyone that had worked with the government and knew we had worked with British troops as well. They sent a notice telling my family they had to clear the house in five days so that is when they fled to Pakistan.”
After safely evading multiple checkpoints and crossing the border, his family reached the British embassy where they were eventually granted entry to the UK. The journey from the initial blast to this moment had taken months with Khalil feeling powerless thousands of miles away, but he remembers the feeling of relief knowing he would soon reunite with close family members he feared he might never see again.
“I was very happy at this moment because I was so worried about my family that were still in Afghanistan, so when I heard they were coming to the UK, I was so happy for them. When my mother saw me for the first time after seven months, she was so happy and was crying a lot. We were all so happy. All my family are here.”
Now reunited, Khalil and his family are being supported by Horton Housing Association in Bradford as they wait for suitable accommodation.
“When we got to the UK and saw the lifestyle and people, everything was different. All the people are so helpful, especially the support that we have been given. We really appreciate that help; it is the best thing we have seen in our lives. Setting us up with the NHS, finding accommodation, supporting us in every aspect of life, it has been great for us. These were the things we really needed. My parents have health issues so our support workers always check on their health and arrange appointments. All we need to do is ask for things.”
A speaker of six languages, Khalil is also looking to find employment, similar to previous roles back home. After attending multiple different interviews, it became clear to him that despite his qualifications, he needed more workplace exposure in the UK.
“I really want to find a job here because it is my time to give something back in return,” he explains. “I applied for many jobs and had interviews but I did not have experience working in this country, even though I had experience in another country. I realised that first I needed to get experience in this country, either paid or unpaid, it did not matter. This was important so I applied to volunteer with Horton Housing, doing admin work. I got this chance and I still do it. I am happy to be getting experience and learning new things from my co-workers and from my managers.”
Since being in Bradford, Khalil has taken the opportunity to explore different places both locally and nationwide, recently travelling to Manchester and London, and he is in the process of getting his driving licence. This environment has also afforded him the chance to reconnect with one of his favourite pastimes.
“Playing football is one of my favourite things to do. I used to play back in my country where I played in my local team. We had a great team but everything changed. With other people here from Afghanistan, we decided to find a place to play football because I knew they also enjoyed it. The team was getting stronger everyday so we entered the Refugee World Cup tournament in Leeds. We really enjoyed playing and reached the quarterfinal but we lost to a strong team. I really enjoyed it and found it very interesting.”
A world away from the terrors that unfolded in Afghanistan, Khalil feels settled in Bradford and is looking ahead to his new life in the city.
“If the situation was normal and we felt it was safe to go home, maybe we would. If you feel like your life is not safe, you would not go back. Here, it is safe.”
*Khalil is not his real name. Cover image via Shutterstock.