Since last August, churches across the country have come together to support, care for and practically provide for Afghan families who have been living in hotels across the UK. We have learnt so much from the wonderful people we have been able to welcome. Grace Church in Sandbach, have shared their story of welcome with us. We hear from Sarah, a church volunteer and Suhila, an Afghan evacuee who shares about her journey to the UK.
“I just feel very privileged to be a part of this experience and I’m sure we all feel the same. To meet and befriend foreigners who have been besides themselves with fear at times; who have been plucked from a country that they love and identify with, placed in a strange land is hard to imagine. But we read about it in the Bible many times.” – Sarah, Grace Church, Sandbach
Grace Church in Sandbach, has been involved with supporting Afghan evacuees living in a nearby hotel since August 2021. Sarah Baskerville, a representative from the church, has been at the forefront, leading a team of almost 40 volunteers from different churches who have been visiting the hotels and meeting the needs of the Afghan families. Sarah says her church offers a ‘wrap around service’, working closely with the local council and various charities. Together they have designed different programmes in the hotels continuously to meet the changing needs of Afghan evacuees. “We started with evening pop-in sessions and Dads and Lads football on a Saturday. Then volunteers came forward with different experiences and we were amazed what gifts we had to hand that we could use. We accompanied families on trips to the local doctors and hospitals as a kind of taxi service. This is a fabulous way of interacting with these gentle people. Our aim has always been to befriend, get alongside and show Jesus.”
Sarah and the volunteers are now focusing on ESOL classes and have a popular ‘Just Say’ English class, led by ex-teachers and business people among the volunteers. The class simply encourages men and women groups to speak basic conversational English words and phrases. These English classes have been beneficial in building relationships between the Afghan families, and the volunteers. The work comes with its own challenges, such as Afghan families being relocated from one hotel to another, oftentimes without enough notice. Despite the challenges, Sarah says “I just feel very privileged to be a part of this experience and I’m sure we all feel the same. To meet and befriend foreigners who have been besides themselves with fear at times; who have been plucked from a country that they love and identify with, placed in a strange land is hard to imagine. But we read about it in the Bible many times.” The work continues, until we see all Afghan evacuees resettled into their new homes.
“…Then after I got home, thinking about everything that had happened between sunrise and sunset, it felt like my whole life had changed.” – Suhila, Afghan Evacuee
Suhila, a 26 year old young woman from Afghanistan was one of Sarah’s English students at the hotel in Cheshire. A year later, her English is very polished and almost fluent. After graduating from university in 2017, Suhila started working with the British government supporting military women from 2018 to August 2021. The Taliban’s takeover of her nation came as a shock to Suhila, it was just another normal day for her as she left her house to prepare some things for her upcoming work trip to Turkey. “It was very hard for me, especially because I wasn’t appropriately dressed, I was only in a T-shirt and jeans which made it hard for me to travel home. Then after I got home, thinking about everything that had happened between sunrise and sunset, it felt like my whole life had changed.”. From that moment on, Suhila’s life in Afghanistan became uncertain and fear crippled her, as she had received some threatening calls from the Taliban which caused her to go into hiding. She received contact from the British Home Office, informing her that she was eligible for evacuation. She managed to get to Kabul Airport the following day but unfortunately couldn’t travel as it was too crowded, this caused her to return home and later that day, part of the Airport was bombed. “I was really afraid. I remained home for about three months, in Kabul under the Taliban government. It was a very tough time because you couldn’t go out. I wasn’t able to go out to visit my friends and I couldn’t even tell my friends where I was located. I told them that I am not here, I’m not in Kabul anymore.”
In November 2021, Suhilla received another message from the UK Home Office, telling her that she needed to leave Afghanistan urgently to a nearby country, because they were not able to safely evacuate her from Kabul to the UK. She then packed her bags for Pakistan, leaving her family and everything she knew behind. She spent the next 25 days in Pakistan, waiting to be evacuated to the UK. “All of this was tough for me, because I was only a woman, alone with no man.” All this time while waiting in Pakistan, Suhila clung to the hope that she will one day leave to go to the UK. Fortunately for her, that day came on 7th December 2021 when she boarded the plane for London, UK. Upon landing at Heathrow Airport, the first thing she noticed after a long and tiring journey was the rainy weather of London – she was not impressed! Suhila and others who’d arrived on the same flight, were taken to a hotel in London, where they had to self isolate for 12 days. She found this experience very hard as she was lonely and had no one to talk to during the isolation period and to make matters worse, her phone had broken down leaving her with no one to contact her parents. Once the 12 day isolation period finished, Suhila was moved from London to a hotel in Cheshire, where she met Sarah. “When I moved to the new hotel, the people there were really kind and they provided me with a phone. Then I called my family back in Afghanistan…I think it was a Monday evening, we were sitting and eating dinner when Sarah came and said she was from Welcome Churches…It was nice to have someone to listen to me and talk to me.” Suhila was overwhelmed by the amount of activities offered at the hotel, she often spent her time reading books and listening to podcasts. However, the one thing she was interested in was English lessons, and during her first encounter with Sarah, she mentioned that her English was not very good and she hoped to improve it. Sarah offered Suhila help with English lessons, they practiced speaking and writing essays together. This happened every Saturday morning, Suhila found it very helpful as she began to grow in confidence. Being able to confidently speak English and write essays has opened up great opportunities for Suhila and, earlier this June, she was invited as a guest speaker at a Freedom of Religion conference in London. This was a great opportunity for her, where she was able to network with some prominent figures in society.
Suhila’s new beginning and hopes for the future
Suhila is one of the few fortunate Afghan evacuees who have been rehoused and moved into a house. For Suhilla, this meant that she had to move from Cheshire, a place she has called home for almost six months, and moved over 200 miles away to Southampton where she knows nobody. Suhila is happy regardless, as she knows how difficult it was living in a hotel for such a long period of time. She is settling into her new home, almost three months later and trying to take life one step at a time. When asked about her future aspirations, Suhila wished to continue her education in the UK, to pursue a Masters Degree and a PHD in social sciences. In terms of returning back home to Afghanistan, this is something that depends on whether there will be some changes in the foreseeable future, when the country will experience peace and freedom from the Taliban. For now, Suhila is enjoying Southampton and what it offers, looking for employment and looking forward to building her life here in the UK.