Afghan journalist, photographer and fashion design student Saghar Khalid has taken at least 15 educational courses in her bid to build a new career in Britain. Image: Saghar Khalid
When the Taliban took over Afghanistan two years ago, seizing the city of Kabul on 15 August 2021, the British government undertook one of the largest evacuation efforts since the Second World War.
Over 15,000 Afghans connected to the British military or government were airlifted to safety in the UK, where they were given indefinite leave to remain, and the promise of support to rebuild their lives in safety.
Two years laters, Operation Warm Welcome, which pledged to “ensure Afghans arriving in the UK receive the vital support they need to rebuild their lives, find work, pursue education and integrate into their local communities”, has been recognised for its success in housing some evacuees in permanent accommodation.
Other evacuees have been left in limbo. The UK government is currently moving the remaining 8,000 Afghans out of hotel accommodation which ministers insist is a drive to save taxpayer money – the cost of hotel accommodation for Afghan evacuees stood at £1 million a day in March. Many evacuees have had to contend with the possibility of homelessness, or relocation to unfamiliar areas, as they try to secure education and work.
But even for those who built careers in Afghanistan, the UK jobs market is an entirely foreign, and sometimes overwhelming, thing to navigate. “Interviewing skills, of course, is a key topic that we focus quite a lot of time on, that’s quite different in different cultures,” says Genevieve Caston, director of UK Programmes at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), discussing the job readiness course offered by the IRC to Afghans and other refugees.
“Many cultures don’t have a formal process of applying. They have to understand the steps when they can follow up with an employer, how long they should potentially wait for that,” she adds.
The job readiness course also teaches new arrivals to figure out how the UK education system works, how to access the NHS, how to navigate the transport network, and how to access childcare for parents who want to work. Because securing a job interview is only one step in the process of securing stable employment.
Saghar Khalid is a 27-year-old Afghan woman who was recognised as a promising young journalist before she was evacuated to the UK with her husband in August 2021. She has been trying to break into the media in the UK.
“For the first month here I was in a depression about the situation in Afghanistan,” she tells The Big Issue. “After a month, I said to myself, ‘you need to wake up and go outside.’”
First, she approached a college to take courses in English and maths. But she didn’t stop there. “I have done 15 or 16 courses over the past two years,” she says.
“My friends joke, if there are any courses, Saghar will apply for them. I like to be in society, I like to be with people, being active, I can’t stay at home.”
Journalism in Britain is a notoriously challenging career path, with 80% of journalists coming from upper-class backgrounds, according to 2022 research from the National Council for the Training of Journalists. To hedge her bets while she works towards breaking into the media industry, Khalid is taking a fashion design course at The City of Liverpool College. She is also putting her Persian, Urdu, Hindi and English language to use by volunteering with the British Red Cross.
She says: “I am proud that I am active, I am doing something for society, I am studying, I am writing, I help refugees with the British Red Cross. Every day I am doing something for myself and my future.”
Some have moved into the construction or manual work sector, while others may not have had any work experience, having not worked in Afghanistan due to childcare or studying.
Some of the Afghan evacuees resettled in the UK have found work in translating and media, and many already had high levels of English language skills, or had work experience at UK organisations such as the BBC in Afghanistan, explains Caston.
For Setara Ahmadi*, 28, who was poised to start a career in law having recently graduated with a law degree, it’s been an uphill battle to translate her skills into the UK context. She must first work on improving her English language skills, and hopes to one day retrain in medicine or dentistry. In the meantime, however, she would like to undertake some beauty courses.
“The only thing I like very much in the UK is that there is no discrimination between men and women, everyone does whatever he or she wants. Everyone has equal rights,” she says, speaking to The Big Issue through a translator.
As part of the Operation Warm Welcome scheme, local councils have been allotted funding packages of £20,520 per person over three years to support Afghan evacuees with finding work and integrating into their new communities, alongside £4,500 per child to cover education in the first year, £850 for adult English language support and £2,600 for healthcare.
It was through the British Council’s Warm Welcome scholarship scheme that Muhammad Khan, 30, secured a place on a master’s degree programme in construction project management at The University of Portsmouth. He believes achieving the qualification will be the ticket to rebuilding his life in Britain.
A trained civil engineer, Khan worked building homes for British government companies to rent out in Afghanistan. He is currently living in Didcot, Oxfordshire, making the three-hour commute to Portsmouth for his studies, while also juggling a part-time job in a Tesco warehouse.
“I think in the UK, the job market for the construction industry is good. I follow many people on LinkedIn and many times they are advertising for construction roles,” he says. “So I think it won’t be too difficult to find something in construction here.”
Khan is facing homelessness after the government announced that all Afghan refugees would be moved out of hotels, to reduce the bill to taxpayers of housing them in the temporary accommodation.
“Today I could be homeless,” he says, “but tomorrow I will be getting a good job, so there is hope.”
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