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‘I was born in war’: an Afghan family’s joy at resettlement in UK

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

An intricately handwoven rug is one of the few things British embassy worker Shukoor Sangar and his family were able to bring with them when they were hastily airlifted out of Kabul in August.

It now covers the grey carpet in the living room of the family’s new flat, courtesy of the west London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which has worked with the Home Office to offer permanent housing to four families among the 7,000 people brought to the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap).

“We want to say a big thank you to everyone who has given us this opportunity to live a safe and peaceful life,” Sangar said.

The family’s new home is light and airy, freshly painted and scrupulously clean, but apart from the rug it has no personal possessions, underlining the speed with which the family had to flee.

Sangar, 46, who speaks perfect English after teaching himself in the 1990s, had worked for the British embassy in Kabul since December 2010 as a corporate services officer in the visa team. He had previously been employed by a French NGO doing humanitarian health work.

The family’s hurried evacuation from Kabul was complicated by the fact that his wife, who asked not to be identified, was heavily pregnant.

The couple and their two sons, aged six and 10, were given seats on a British military charter flight that left Kabul on 29 July, two weeks before the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban.

The family are overjoyed to be settled and safe, and know they are luckier than those in hiding in Afghanistan and others brought to the UK as part of Arap but who are still accommodated in hotels.

The two boys have settled well into the local primary school and are eagerly learning English. “They are using me as a 24-hour translation service for the words they don’t know,” Sangar said.

Like all of the Afghans recently arrived in the UK, however, their gratitude and relief is tinged with sadness and fear for the fate of loved ones left behind.

“My extended family have had to leave Kabul because of me,” said Sangar. “The Taliban came to my home on 16 August and seized various documents I couldn’t bring with me. Now my family have been forced to move around in different provinces.”

He also said he had received threatening phone calls from the Taliban on his Afghan number, sometimes at 2am. He believes they found his number among those left behind in the British embassy, as reported by the Times.

He stressed, however, that danger for Afghans like him, who worked with British or other foreign governments or organisations, did not start when the Taliban took control of his country in August.

During his time working for the British embassy he and other staff had to take extensive precautions to avoid being targeted by individuals and groups hostile to international “interference” in their country.

“We had to keep changing our route to work, sometimes taking the car, sometimes the bus, sometimes a taxi, and we had to arrive and leave at different times,” he said. “We had lockers inside the embassy where we put things like our work badges. It was too dangerous to take these badges home.”

Related: RAF airlifts 102 people who had fled Afghanistan to UK

Living with a high degree of risk was something many Afghans were used to, he said. “I was born in war. If you leave the house in the morning you don’t know if you will return in the evening,”

He had to conceal the fact that he worked at the British embassy. “If any of my neighbours asked me what I did, I used to say I worked for a construction company.”

Sangar and his wife are keeping a fearful eye on the news from Afghanistan, but they are overjoyed about the safe arrival of their third child, a girl born on 14 September, two weeks after her due date.

She will not have to endure the restricted and precarious future that girls growing up in Afghanistan face under Taliban rule. Sangar says his daughter will have the freedom to follow whichever path she chooses in life.

The couple’s priority for all three of their children is to work hard at school and get a good education. “I will support my daughter in whatever she decides she wants to do in the future,” Sangar said.

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