Dr Nasimi Nooralhaq arrived in Britain in 2001 in a refrigerated container with his wife and three children. He fled the Taliban as a political refugee following the NATO intervention and found home in Britain. It wasn’t easy at first; facing a completely different culture with a lifestyle and language he wasn’t accustomed to. It was struggle but he found a solution, both for himself and those who shared the anxiety of migration to another country, in creating the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association. The ACAA is a refugee charity in London that works to empower refugees and asylum seekers, helping them to integrate into their local communities.
“If we can help these people then why shouldn’t we help them,” he told me when I met him. The immediate urgency of helping refugees comes at a time when Britain is suffering from a chronic lack of empathy for them. Finding the politics that articulates compassion for refugees alongside the values of family, community and stability appreciated by most of society has so far been beyond the political left.
Human beings are social animals, defined by the bonds we share with each other, based as much on responsibility as rights, on mutual generosity, solidarity, reciprocity and sacrifice. For a lot of people wishing to contract border doors, this doesn’t happen with immigrants and refugees because they create cultural walls when they arrive. The cohesive community structure is fractured. After all, if people cannot communicate in the same language or do not have a basic shared cultural value threading them together, how do they build relationships and communities with each other?
Charities like the ACAA and others are important counterarguments to that. They work to integrate refugees and asylum seekers into the new societies they have found themselves in. The ACAA for example, runs ESOL classes in recognition of how language is the foundational element of building an identity and relationships with others. Most refugees who come do so to build new lives and embrace Britain as much as possible. Dr Nasimi’s daughter is studying for a PhD in Cambridge and spoke about her “duty to give back” to a society that had provided space in their community.
But that doesn’t make it easy for refugees and migrants. Leaving behind a world of familiarity for something new can be daunting and deeply stressful. Loneliness when struggling to integrate is not uncommon and is increasingly a problem amongst people who have come over. The stress of being sent back or being alone is a recurring problem amongst refugee groups in Britain, worsened by the visible racism blackening our political discourse.
“The process was not easy. Often we felt lost. It was overwhelming to start our life in a new place, where we didn’t know anyone or speak the language,” Dr Nasimi admitted. Life for a lot of migrant families can be difficult too at first. There is a sense of cultural dislocation amidst the struggle to create a better future for their children. Where previously their neighbours would have spoken their language and sounded like them, here they are strangers, outsiders to a new way of life. And although immigrant communities tend to seek strength in numbers by living together, it doesn’t change the initial unease that can accompany coming over.
This is made worse by racism. The recent social media video of the Syrian refugee being bullied in school was harrowing. Revelations that he had cried to sleep at every night would have made anyone with a heart feel deep sadness. It underlined the struggle many, especially those who are younger, face in regards to society’s treatment of them. It can be deeply alienating and upsetting, to be so marginalised by the mainstream.
Britain is significantly better on racism than other European countries, but it would be a sign of a low bar to see this as something to celebrate. And even stepping away from the racism on the streets, policies of the government and their rhetoric can only deepen the sense of anxiety and loneliness that immigrants face.
Dealing with the unease and loneliness that many migrant and refugee families can face is not something that is on the agenda of either of Britain’s two biggest political parties, but perhaps it should be.