They are here, because we were there: Afghan interpreters in the UK
In towns and cities across the UK, Afghan former interpreters who worked for the British Army in Afghanistan, are trying to establish a new life for themselves.
The presence of these individuals, and the difficulties they face, combine to reflect the lasting impact of both Britain’s military intervention in their country, and its migration and immigration policies.
For some years now, the charity Sulha Alliance has worked with Afghan interpreters and other Locally Engaged Civilians, both campaigning to get them out of Afghanistan and then supporting their resettlement in the UK. But neither of these things are easy or straight-forward, and the challenges often have a great impact on the individual people the Alliance works with.
As part of a project to highlight these personal stories within a very global issue, Sara de Jong, co-founder of Sulha Alliance and Senior Lecturer in University of York’s Politics Department, and photographer Andy Barnham, met with many former interpreters who are now resettled in the UK to document their experiences and to take their portraits. As part of Refugee Week here at the Southbank Centre, Barnham and de Jong, as well several former interpreters, will join us on Sunday 26 June, for a special talk titled We Are Here, Because You Were There.
Ahead of this event, de Jong and Barnham sat down to discuss some of the things their project had brought to light.
‘I just heard the British Embassy is closed, while 3 passports of me, my spouse, and my son are in the embassy since January 2021. Sir I am completely lost I don't know what to do. Please help me.’
Sara de Jong:
‘The role of social media was so important for the campaign to get interpreters resettled to the UK. Receiving the message above from an interpreter that his family’s passports were in the British Embassy and he had no idea what to do and where to go, was devastating. It was such an absurd situation; their resettlement had been arranged months earlier, but they had to wait until their newborn child had a passport. And so they got caught up in the evacuation and only finally made it out on the very last evacuation flight.
‘When the Sulha Alliance supports people in Afghanistan with their resettlement applications, I feel it’s my duty to imagine that one day they will be in the UK. However, there are times when I can’t imagine they’ll ever get here. We’ve dealt with people whose applications were turned down or ignored for months for various reasons. Sometimes it is hard to imagine there will be positive outcomes. I don’t register this feeling consciously; I just have to keep going and try not to give myself the chance to question it.’
‘Hi Sara, I hope you are doing well, I am in the UK I was the luckiest one who left Afghanistan in the last flight from Afghanistan with my wife, my 3 year old son and my daughter which became 4 months today, I am sorry for letting you know late but we were very tired as we didn't sleep for the whole of last week, but we are ok now and happy. Thank you and everyone who worked hard for us.’
‘It was incredible for me to finally meet the interpreter who sent us that first message in person through the project, to be able to stand in the same room as them. This person reached out to everybody and everything that could potentially help. So this relationship develops from a completely anonymous and abstract beginning to one where one day you shake that person's hand.’
‘A Bare house. The family is alone in a predominantly White town. No other Afghan families here. Girls not in school, little chance to meet other people.’
‘The official British definition of family is very narrow; it includes only the interpreter’s wife and children. Compared to this, the Afghan definition of family includes mother, father, brothers and sisters. So, the transition is challenging and the contrast is stark. Previously the interpreters had a community or support network and now they find themselves in a new culture, in a new country, completely isolated; it is very difficult.’
Sara de Jong:
‘There’s often the suggestion that because the UK has resettled them, they should be grateful with wherever in the country they get accommodation. But when you see the actual experience that Afghans have here, for instance if they are the one single Afghan family that is resettled to a particular area, then you also understand that there are good reasons to do more to concentrate families in specific areas. Many of the people that we interviewed indicated that they thought they could more quickly stand on their own feet if they had been allowed to move where they already had existing networks, an Afghan or even a British military community.’
‘He said he hoped he would finally be able to sleep better tonight, because he had told us his story. Already after five minutes he started crying and it happened again two other times during the interview.’
Sara de Jong:
‘We cannot deny that the retelling of their stories was also a retelling of trauma for the Afghan interpreters. Whether that be trauma from their experiences in the army, of their experiences in Afghanistan being under threat, their attempts to be evacuated or their current situation after resettlement. Out of the 14 interviews, there must have been about ten where people cried or broke down in front of our eyes. Of course, we could not take their struggles away or their difficult circumstances, but some interpreters still actively reached out to us, telling us ‘please come and visit, I want to tell my story’.
‘This was important in terms of the relationships we built. For many reasons, the support system was not adequate in some instances. It was important that we came and made the effort to visit them. I mean for anyone, it is immensely helpful to be able to talk to a third party to express your fears and your concerns; it is cathartic. I really hope that conducting these interviews, and taking their portraits, was helpful for them personally – to be able to talk to us and share these stories. No matter what stresses and struggles you have experienced, having third party validation is helpful. To have confirmation, ‘yes, the way you’re feeling is normal. You’re not going out of your mind here, making things up’.
‘When I came, I had dreams. Now the only difference in the UK is that I'm safe.’
‘There’s clearly a gap in the UK system, with Afghan interpreters not being looked after properly. The interpreter who said this to me is still in temporary accommodation after six months. He is living in a shared house, but it's not a home. It’s hard to summon the motivation to try and find employment, or a school for his kids, because he knows that any day he could be moved somewhere else at short notice, potentially even the next day. It is very difficult to set yourself up for success if you are in an indefinite limbo.
‘Living day to day is also very difficult mentally; when you have a work ethic, you want to succeed and yet the situation you find yourself in makes it very difficult to do so. A new country, and a new culture is tough on the senses. It’s tough mentally to learn completely new systems; the interpreters have not grown up here, the wives might not speak English and most of the interpreters have kids to look after. It’s incredibly tough to absorb new things on an almost daily basis and to relearn everything from scratch, let alone try and find a job and be successful in a new career. The reality is also that the UK system is not just failing Afghans; there is an argument that the UK system also fails its own nationals.’
Sara de Jong:
‘What’s distinct about the experience of Afghan interpreters who worked with the British Army is that they already knew British culture to an extent, in a way that some other refugees do not. They also have dreams and fantasies about the UK, like other refugees, however these don’t necessarily correspond to the reality they find.
‘This gap, between their expectations and their dreams and ambitions, is then widened further as many of them went through horrific circumstances and had to be incredibly patient and fight hard to come to the UK. Some spent days and nights at the border with Pakistan, others pushed their families through the airport crowds knowing they may never see some of their family members left behind again. When you finally come to the UK, you do want that sacrifice to have been worth it. That’s why as a charity, we want people not just to survive; we want them to thrive.’
Get a first hand account of the experience of Afghan former British Army interpreters who have recently been resettled to the UK, at this free talk on Sunday 26 June. Part of Refugee Week at the Southbank Centre.