Anxious Afghans from Birmingham have urged compassion and help as they battle to help families fleeing the Taliban regime.
Backed by city MPs and council leaders, local organisations and activists have spoken up about the frantic efforts under way to get more people out of Kabul.
“They are desperate, really terrified. I can hear it in their voices, see it in their faces,” said Dr May Rezai, an Afghan scientist and activist.
For Fahim Zazai, who founded an Afghan refugee community centre in Walsall, the level of need is very high. “We are trying to help families in the UK who are trying to get people out, and those in Kabul. I cannot keep up with messages, more and more are coming, and I have my mum and sister still in Kabul and I am worried about them too. It is heartbreaking.”
Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips said the gravity of the situation and the personal stories emerging was close to overwhelming.
Together they urged people in Birmingham and the Black Country to show compassion and do all they can to help those affected.
The already fraught situation has worsened after news of two explosions around Kabul airport by suicide bombers, leaving dozens dead including children and American troops. The terror attack is being blamed on an ISIS group.
PM Boris Johnson has confirmed the evacuation is proceeding all the same, despite the constant threat.
“We’ve already extracted the overwhelming majority of those under both the schemes – the eligible persons, UK nationals, the Afghan interpreters and others. And it’s been totally phenomenal effort by the UK. There’s been nothing like it for decades and decades,” he said.
Phillips’ constituency team are helping her to deal with an influx of calls and messages from constituents and from across the country that was ‘very very difficult’ – on a par with the workload during the early days of lockdown.
“We are trying to sort out things quickly with a deadline looming before people fall off a cliff edge,” she said, of the impending August 31st deadline before NATO troops depart for good and leave the Taliban in control.
In a Facebook Live special broadcast, we spoke to the MP and to Dr Rezai and Mr Zazai about the situation, with expert insight into the political situation provided by University of Birmingham doctoral researcher and specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, Umar Karim.
Phillips, who represents Birmingham Yardley and is shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, said: “Every hour we are hearing stories and cases from my constituents, from people settled here whose families are still in Kabul and those desperate to leave.”
She said she was hearing from women who fall under one of the special evacuation categories and are cleared to leave but who cannot get out because they are being told not to leave their homes, or cannot get to the airport, and from British citizens still stuck the wrong side of the gates.
“People are terrified,” she said.
“I have examples of threats from the Taliban, sent to me, for example to men who were government drivers, telling them to hand over vehicles or this will be the retribution, examples of beatings, and in one case three young kids have been separated from their mother – they have already lost their father, killed by the Taliban.”
Dr Rezai, in contact with women on the frontline of the escape from Kabul, says she is hearing heartbreaking stories of desperate fear about what comes next when the last of the NATO forces and the gaze of the world’s media disappears.
“The level of fear is something that I can’t comprehend among people who are fearing for their lives. The Taliban are searching and identifying people who we know are likely to be persecuted.”
She is a Hezara, Afghanistan’s third-largest ethnic group, who have faced long term discrimination and persecution in the predominantly Sunni Islam country and neighbouring Pakistan.
She said fellow Hezara women have been stopped from getting to the airport, while adding three Hezara girls who did make it were kicked back out of the airport.
“Nobody knows what to do. We really fear another genocide,” added Dr Rezai.
The impact on girls and women under the strict Islamic Sharia law regime is also at the front of her mind.
Women in the past 20 years have worked so hard to gain their rights to education, to vote, to contribute to progress in civil society, she said.
“The number of female representatives in the Afghan parliament is greater than in Britain,” she added.
“Literacy rates are equal between men and women now in many districts. Women participated in the Olympics.
“Now we expect those women are going to be stripped of their hopes and dreams for such a future.”
Girls will only be allowed to attend schools up to age 12, automatically limiting their equal opportunities to succeed in work.
“Women will again be experiencing what they did in the 90s,” she said.
The fear among female activists is profound: “Every woman I speak to has had to delete their digital footprint, burn their documents showing where they worked, burn their university degrees, disappear into nothingness.
“They have worked so hard to gain everything they have achieved and in less than a week they have to burn it all.
“For me this is heartbreaking. I am here and have my certificates on the wall but these women who worked harder than I had to are having to strip away everything they have worked for.”
Mr Karim, a specialist studying Middle East politics, warned that there is no evidence yet that the Taliban of 2021 were markedly different from their counterparts 20 years ago.
“The Taliban regime was extremely brutal and they were mindful to showcase that barbarity. But they are more concerned now than then about positive PR – they know the world’s media are watching.
“They say they have forgiven everyone…we can only hope that they can be engaged through politics and moderate their instincts.”
He was scathing about the critically slow response by the NATO countries to the threat their departure would pose to Afghans that has resulted in the race out of Kabul this past fortnight.
“For every Afghan specialist and observer, it was clear this was coming. Now they (the governments of USA and the UK) are desperately trying to package people up and fling them into other countries – this is no way to treat people and this is not the right way to honour their cooperation and efforts to support action against the Taliban.”
What happens next?
Mr Karim’s analysis of the situation and the months ahead is not promising.
“The Taliban have all the cards. The West has turned its back already on the people of Afghanistan.
“No kind of stick can now change things with the Taliban….sanctions will only hurt the common Afghans. We just have to hope they (the Taliban) are different.
“But they have just won a war against the combined force of NATO (and their internal enemies) and have a dominance that is unparallelled in Afghan history.
“They are more pr savvy, more politicised, now – they did not take over the country through fighting but made negotiated deals.”
Fahim, whose organisation works with refugees from across the Middle East and Europe, said: “While the Americans and British are still in the airport we are seeing a lot in the media, but when they leave I worry the people here will forget about it. They will turn their back.
“For those who have been working in the government, activists left behind, what is going to happen to them in the next year or so is worrying.
He warned: “The Taliban say they are changed; I hope so but we need to see the reality. There are already people being targeted, especially those who have worked in intelligence. This does not seem to be a bright future and I hope the west does not turn its back again.”
All the participants encouraged Brummies and those in neighbouring areas to ‘seek out and engage with’ newly arrived refugees, and show a warm welcome.
“These are absolutely decent people who will contribute to your communities. Meet them, find out about them, and you will get a clearer idea of what their country is like and why they are leaving,” said Mr Karim.
Questions were raised during the exchanges about whether Birmingham and the Black Country has the capacity and housing to welcome refugee families. The city has offered to take in 80 families of mainly Afghan interpreters; more may follow under a separate scheme.
Phillips, responding to comments suggesting their arrival would be detrimental to those on housing waiting lists, or the homeless, said: “Our city has a long history of acting as a place of solitude and sanctuary. We have the capacity to do both things (look after the homeless and those struggling to find a home; and welcome in refugees).
“This is a humanitarian crisis. No, we don’t have enough resources and social housing in our city for our city – but that is not the fault of the people who helped British forces in Afghanistan, it is the fault of years of austerity and terrible cuts to welfare and issues around social house building that have been going on for years.
“The UK government has agreed this year to take 5,000 Afghan refugees – that is the equivalent of seven people in each of our constituencies.”
She challenged MPs and ministers in ‘leafy areas like Surrey’ to take significantly more, adding: “We cannot always have all the weight falling on the shoulders of those with the kindest representatives.”
Dr Rezai, who was born during the Taliban regime of the 1990s, said she hoped she had contributed to city life, as had many thousands of other refugees who had made Birmingham home – and was certain incoming refugees would do the same.
Her family fled when she was 13, and she attended school from Year 8, speaking no English. She left with 11 GCSEs and went on to complete three degrees, including a PhD in medicine. “I have helped develop a drug for pre-eclampsia that helps save women and babies.”
She added: “I am not an exception, there are thousands of other refugees just like me who have contributed enormously to this country.
“The people who are fleeing are not numbers, they are people, with so much to offer and who are giving so much.
“They are people who have hopes and dreams like anyone else – but the Taliban has now taken that from them.”