A Response to the Afghan Crisis

Long serving Solace therapist Paul Wood has been working to support Afghan arrivals in the region. Here’s Paul’s observations.

Although for many of us in the West the Taliban resurgence and takeover in Afghanistan was unexpected and surprisingly fast, the Afghans I speak to tell me it was not unexpected; inevitable even.  The high levels of corruption in the country have never been addressed and poverty and insecurity were a fact of life for most.  These things fuelled support for the Taliban amongst the rural poor, who are a majority in the country.

Afghanistan has an ethnically diverse population, the major groups being Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek, along with many smaller groups.  They are united by a common inter-ethnic language of Dari, the other main language being the Pashtu spoken by Pashtun.  Since the Taliban draws much of its support from the Pashtun base – including in Pakistan – many of those now displaced here in the U.K. are from other ethnicities who are at risk on ethnic and sectarian grounds.

Families were separated with very little time to prepare and naturally the levels of anxiety about the welfare of family members left behind in Afghanistan are high. 

Many here are in daily contact with parents, wives and children, siblings who are in hiding and in addition are suffering the increasingly dire food and resource shortages as the economy there collapses.  One young man I work with is already sending a few pounds of his benefit money back to his parents to help them buy food.

The families are usually big and tightly bonded.  Family support is the only security most people had.  There are three generations of some families here in the hotels, whilst others are alone – especially men, who may have left their wives and children behind in the care of a sibling or elderly relative.  The conditions of crowding, trampling and flooding at the airport were such that many of the elderly, infirm or children were not able to get through.  Young men who worked for NATO or the previous government or had anything to do with foreign forces are most at risk of reprisals – there are drivers, security guards, interpreters.  In a Taliban reprisal, one brother can be taken as a substitute for another, so brothers left behind are a particular worry.  They may have disappeared, who knows whether in hiding or taken by the Taliban.

There was no preparation here in the U.K. for the influx of Afghans in the way that there has been for the planned arrivals of Syrian refugees over the last few years.  At short notice the Home Office took over dozens of hotels all over the country.  At first the Afghans stayed for two weeks in quarantine hotels whilst basic health checks were done, and then were dispersed to other ‘bridging’ hotels to be accommodated whilst more permanent resettlement homes can be found.  At this stage it is not known how long they will be in these hotels, but is likely to be several months for most families.  As accommodation comes available they can be moved on to anywhere in the country.  This in itself is another disorienting and stressful transition especially when a community has begun to ‘bond’ in the hotel.

In Leeds and in much of Yorkshire, the local councils, along with voluntary groups and the Refugee Council have responded incredibly to this crisis, stretching their scant resources to help cover the emergency nature of the support needed.  School places are being found for children, appointments for medical and dental care made, exercise and activities organized, English language tuition beginning.  Whilst the Afghans have been in the hotels Solace therapists also have responded as they are able to provide basic mental health wellbeing briefings, conduct assessments and see individual clients requesting help in the hotels.

Paul’s role in the support operation

Personally I have delivered briefings in hotels in North Yorkshire and am now focusing on a hotel in Leeds.  In one day I can see six clients for assessments or one-to-one sessions.  I am encountering anxiety and sleep-related problems, disorientation and grief relating to sudden family separations, and numerous medical and psychiatric conditions that may as yet be untreated and need onward referral.  It is a chaotic, spontaneous context in which to work, and yet also one of the most rewarding I have worked in.  Not least because of the supportiveness and energy of the multi-agency team working in the hotel, the general sense in the country of goodwill and sympathy towards the Afghan refugees and the responsiveness of the Afghans themselves to the help being offered.

As many tell us, it’s not just this recent evacuation that has affected them, but the decades of insecurity, violence and poverty that most have grown up with as ‘normal’.  Several of them have told me, “everybody in Afghanistan has mental health problems – because every day was a struggle to survive.”

When I first met them there was still shock, disorientation, loneliness – and an overwhelming desire to be reunited with family members – wondering how they can get them out of the country, and are governments going to do anything to help? There were questions like, “what is going to happen to me now?” to be answered as best we could.  For some, as they settle in and some hope returns, they are able to focus on the desire to learn English, perhaps to become literate or to get an education they wanted but never had in Afghanistan, to work, to make a life here so that they can support their families.  Several say they want to give something back to this country for helping them.

As time goes on other things will emerge I am sure, but for now this feels like a short window of opportunity to hear the stories, show a level of interest and attention to the person that most have never experienced before, hopefully get them off to a good start before the next stage – the challenge of dispersal and gradually integrating into new communities.