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. Christ First church in Watford, have devoted the last year serving their Afghan neighbours and continue to do so. We hear from Andy, the church leader and Farid, an Afghan evacuee as they share their journey of welcome.
Let’s rewind back to the events of August 2021 in Afghanistan
It was just another normal week, in the summer of August 2021. People were merry and enjoying the sunshine, vacations and life here in the UK. Afghanistan was in the news a bit, but they were just distant stories in a distant country. Then suddenly, we heard of news that took the headlines by storm – the Taliban had remobilised and were rapidly taking the country captive, moving from province to province and causing havoc and fear as they went. By 15th August, the Taliban had entered the Afghan capital Kabul, causing the collapse of the nation’s government. This was not a favourable moment for many in Afghanistan, particularly those who had been allies for the British government; those working as interpreters and support staff were now in grave danger and needed to flee the country urgently.
Welcome Churches responds to the crisis in Afghanistan
In response to the crisis happening in Afghanistan and the emergency needs of those who had been evacuated, Welcome Churches set up an Emergency Afghan Fund to ensure that Afghan families arriving in the UK have access to services and support to help them integrate and adjust into a new community. By invitation from the Home Office, the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership and local councils, we were asked to provide direct support to over 40 hotels used to accommodate Afghan families, totalling around 4200 Afghans. Through the Welcome Churches network of churches, we trained and equipped over 400 individuals to provide well-being support for Afghan families who have suffered through tremendous trauma, loss, and grief and trained local churches to ensure a good, cross-cultural welcome. Alongside our partners, we were able to introduce churches across the UK to Afghan families being accommodated in their communities and worked with Baby Basics UK to provide practical equipment to young families too.
Churches in Watford step in to support Afghan Evacuees.
“And then the Afghan refugees turn up in Watford and we think, we really should consider this as an answer to prayer, let’s explore this and see what happens, and that’s how we really first got involved…” Andy Smith – Pastor, Christ First Church, Watford
Watford became one of the first towns in the UK to host Afghan evacuees in hotels. Christ First Church rose up to take on the new challenge, and rallied with other churches in the community to visit the hotels to see how they can be of help. For Christ First church leader, Andy Smith, going into the hotels to help Afghan neighbours was an answer to prayer, something that they couldn’t ignore but to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to ‘welcome the stranger’ in their midst. “…when suddenly you have an influx of people from another nation who are going to come to your town, that felt like an answer to years of prayer we couldn’t really reconcile. And then the Afghan refugees turn up in Watford and we think, we really should consider this as an answer to prayer, let’s explore this and see what happens, and that’s how we really first got involved.”
Since August 2021, Andy and his team of volunteers have been trained and equipped to offer a cross-cultural and trauma-informed welcome to their neighbours. They have been running a number of weekly programmes for everyone, such as ‘a safe place to play’ for the children, football games for the men, and cooking classes for the women and English classes for all who wish to learn or improve their English language skills. There have been many milestones and celebrations along the way, such as when the children were able to start school, after almost six months of waiting for a school place. This has been one of Andy’s favourite moments.
The church in Watford has been key in building community, friendships and relationships with the Afghan evacuees, they’ve all become part of one big family. Working together, keeping each other busy as life in a hotel has not been very easy. A hotel is not a permanent home, and for as long as they are staying there, settling is yet to happen.
Farid shares his gratitude for the church in Watford.
“…actually before we didn’t really know that the British are generous people, I was working for them but I didn’t have that much knowledge of them. So when I came here, I found them very generous….they have helped us a lot and we are really grateful to them.” – Farid, Afghan Evacuee
Farid was evacuated to the UK last August, with his wife and three children. He, like many other Afghan evacuees, served as an interpreter for the British troops in Afghanistan. Farid recalls that when they first arrived in London, they had nothing but the clothes on their backs. He was so overwhelmed to receive so much help from the church, who provided them with clothes, baby necessities and everything they needed to start their life here in the UK. He said “actually before we didn’t really know that the British are generous people, I was working for them but I didn’t have that much knowledge of them. So when I came here, I found them very generous….they have helped us a lot and we are really grateful to them.” Amongst all the activities and opportunities offered in the hotel, Farid has particularly enjoyed the lessons on British culture, which includes how to navigate public transport, how to interact with British people or behave when invited to their homes and so much more.
Farid wishes to settle in Watford, get a job and build a good life for his children, particularly making sure that they have a good education. Fortunately for Farid, his children have already begun their educational journey and are on their way to making their father’s dream a reality. We have recently heard that Farid is still staying in the hotel with his family and continues to thrive. He passed his driving test earlier this month, again with the help of the local church. Alongside that, the church is also helping him to gain more independence and seeking to help him get employed.
A year on, what’s the way forward?
This August 2022, marks a year since Afghans were evacuated from their country to the UK. The UK government announced they would resettled a further 20,000 Afghan refugees with 5000 resettled in the first year through the ARAP scheme (Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy). However, thousands of Afghan evacuees and their families are still living in hotels across the UK a year on. This means that the support for families has needed to adapt and change over time: As Andy said: “as the number remains high in our bridging hotels, and looks like it will remain that way for the foreseeable future, we have worked with the County Council and other agencies to shift the emphasis from “provision” to “independence and integration” which means we are helping the Afghans start a life here in Watford even if it is a temporary situation.” The church has been actively teaching Afghan evacuees skills that will enable them to be independent and thrive, rather than just waiting on the unknown future. This has included CV writing workshops, IT skills training, driving theory and practical tests, in which the church has paid for the first 4 hours of lessons. Several men have passed their tests, which means that they are able to easily get around town and join different clubs which has been great for their mental health.
We are so proud of the UK Church! Many mobilised their teams rapidly, often overnight to serve Afghan families in hotels, thinking that it would be just for a few weeks. One year later and they are still there, serving the Afghan families and helping them to rebuild their lives here in the UK. We will continue to be there for these families, showing them the ‘welcome’ of God and helping them to rebuild their lives here in the UK.