Rabia Nasimi discusses the invaluable support and outreach work the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association continues to do with women from the Afghanistan diaspora, and calls for the UK not to forget this minority during the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic presents major challenges for us all, but its impact is heightened for vulnerable people and socially isolated communities whose first language is not English, including those from the Afghanistan diaspora. But it is women in these groups who are most affected.
The virus has had an unprecedented effect on those from BAME communities, as the Public Health England report this week has announced. In light of this we must work together to ensure the safety of everybody in the UK and ensure no group is unnecessarily targeted or marginalised because of it. Through our work with the refugee community in South West London, The Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA) has noticed that for women in the Afghan community, their only form of social interaction outside their household is attending our classes, events and clinic.
My father set up the ACAA in 2001 after my family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan. Arriving in the UK on the back of a refrigerated lorry, we had to integrate into British society quickly. Since then we have dedicated our time to helping fellow refugees receive support and achieve integration. The charity helps thousands of refugees each year by providing services such as English language classes, British culture workshops and a supplementary school for refugee children. We help them to overcome challenges and encourage their integration into a society that welcomed us all those years ago.
It has been a pleasure to watch women grow in confidence through our services as they meet new people and learn new skills to integrate into British society
Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak is preventing regular meetings and many struggle to access the internet. It has been a pleasure to watch women grow in confidence through our services as they meet new people and learn new skills to integrate into British society. We, like many other organisations are offering workshops on health and sanitation, as well as English language classes online, but so many have expressed their concern that the internet isn’t good enough and that they are unable to access our services. It is such a shame to hear this, but we are working to protect the Afghanistan diaspora as much as we can. As a frontline organisation in contact with vulnerable people, we feel we are in the best position to hear and gather their unique concerns and experiences.
It has been heart-warming to witness the community support one another, remaining in contact through different means and sharing tips on how to keep happy and healthy during these uncertain times. The more advanced English language students have offered to help other learners and talk them through technology in their own language, so everyone can take part. The women’s services we offer include one-to-one mentoring, advice on domestic violence and group textile sessions where the women can meet with others.
One of our renowned women’s projects is the Challenging Stereotypes art exhibitions, which involves a series of workshops for marginalised Muslim women. Challenging Stereotypes aims to encourage women to volunteer and participate at events and workshops providing them with a safe space to improve their confidence, knowledge and integration. These workshops have been instrumental in giving women a therapeutic outlet and allowing them to socialise and create new friendships. During these workshops the women are able to connect, share experiences about their own lives with others and learn about new cultures. Such projects are invaluable to supporting and connecting women from the Afghanistan diaspora, and it is these life-enriching services we seek to maintain, in some shape or form, during the pandemic.
However, the community is increasingly worried about the spread of Covid-19 and, while we translate the latest news for them, a number of people struggle to understand the information given in English. For example, one woman we work with does not speak English and is relying on her friends and family to receive important information. She does not understand the concept of self-isolation and believes Covid-19 is an illness sent from God. The ACAA are working tirelessly to combat the spread of misinformation and it is for people like her that that we must work together with the Afghanistan diaspora to ensure everyone remains safe.
We must not forget that during such difficult times, mental health is imperative and we must help to tackle social isolation as best we can. It saddens me that we have been reporting many cases of deteriorating mental health amongst the younger Afghan community. One young lady we work with lives with her grandparents, who are vulnerable and unable to step out of the house. Lockdown has had a significant impact on their mental health, which is an additional burden she has taken on. This is just one example of how the virus causes emotional as well as physical damage.
The ACAA has also seen a spike in domestic violence. In the UK, the number of domestic killings has doubled during lockdown and frontline services have reported record-breaking calls for help from vulnerable women. All of these issues are exacerbated because of lockdown and it is those most vulnerable that are hit the hardest.
I have heard from my family and friends that socially isolating has reminded them of days under Taliban rule, which is why it’s imperative we support women during this period
The coronavirus is also establishing a foothold in war-torn nations such as Afghanistan. Afghanistan has seen a rapid rise in cases with more than 17,200 people affected since the first cases emerged in late February. Similarly to countries across the globe, it is expecting more. When in power the Taliban became internationally infamous for their sexism, undermining the capabilities of women. The Taliban operated an orderly segregation and forced women into confinement, which often led them to fall into depression and in turn had a telling impact on family harmony. I have heard from my family and friends that socially isolating has reminded them of days under Taliban rule, which is why it’s imperative we support women during this period. We don’t want them to be ‘transported’ back to what life was like under Taliban rule. Those of us who will come out of the pandemic alive, with our livelihoods intact, will still have to deal with the impact this period has had on our mental health. The trauma for individuals from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, for young children, for carers and NHS workers will be unprecedented.
Recently, Afghanistan’s President Ghani announced the release of Taliban prisoners, after they proposed a ceasefire to celebrate Eid al-Fitr. It was seen as a goodwill gesture and has made so many of our community feel reassured that it is possible to have peace in Afghanistan. But I am urging people to be cautious, because we cannot start to defend terrorism. Many people are praising the ceasefire and thanking the Taliban. We must remember what they have put the country through and not be fooled.
I believe all official guidance and advice should connect with refugee communities who face isolation, many of whom encountered this long before the coronavirus pandemic. I want to urge people to continue to build bonds of support during these difficult times. Be kind, offer help and think of one another as much as you can. It will make our wider community stronger, safer and happier for when this pandemic is over.
To help spread the message that refugees need more help during these difficult times, please write to us, your local MP and visit Refugee Week website. There are also lots of refugee women’s charities to support such as Refuge. Your support and donations will go a long way to helping those who are most affected and vulnerable during the pandemic.
We all have a responsibility to support each other during this unprecedented time. We must let the refugee community know that support and help is there.
Rabia Nasimi is the Strategic Development Manager at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA). For more information about Rabia and the work of the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association, please visit the ACAA website here. Click the links to follow ACAA on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.