Refugee Support Network
Muhibullah (not his real name), 19, has travelled several hours on dangerous roads to come and meet us in Kabul. He arrives wearing traditional Afghan clothes, looking tired. I hope he won’t be disappointed that we can’t mend his situation.
I last saw Muhibullah several years ago in Oxford – he arrived as a 15 year old unaccompanied asylum seeking child, sent to the UK at just 13 by his family, who hoped he would be able to make a better future away from the conflict and poverty of Afghanistan. After his torturous eighteen month journey across land and sea, he arrived in the UK and spent three years in Oxford, learning English at Oxford Community School and Oxford and Cherwell Valley College. He made friends, and adapted to UK culture in many ways. Like the majority of unaccompanied minors who arrive in the UK, Muhibullah was given special leave to stay until he reached the age of 18. At 18, he was told that he would not be granted further leave to remain, and would be forcibly returned to Afghanistan.
As we sat in Kabul drinking sugary tea and eating cold chips, he shared with us his experiences since being returned to Afghanistan a year ago. Unable to trace his family, and rejected as an outsider by his community, Muhibullah, a proud, Pashtun young man, struggled to hold back his tears as he spoke of his fear and hopelessness.
When we started Refugee Support Network (RSN) in Harlesden three years ago, I never imagined that we were starting a journey that would lead us to Kabul.
We started RSN to provide hope and education support to young people affected by displacement or crisis. We were, and are, convinced that for young people who have been through trauma, persecution or exploitation, education speaks of hope for a future, a future that is worth investing in.
Since then we have established educational mentoring schemes for unaccompanied minors and girls who have been trafficked to the UK. We also provide support and advice, and run a programme helping these young people to access higher education. Alongside our work with individuals, we carry out research and engage with policy makers, helping the young people we work with to have a voice in the policy decisions that affect their lives.
Over the last year, we have worked with more than 180 young people, and one common thread runs through all of their stories: injustice. Whether persecuted for their faith in Eritrea, trafficked for sexual exploitation from Nigeria, or fleeing conflict and poverty in Afghanistan, in each case power has been abused to take from these young people that which God had given them – their life, family, dignity, freedom or hope. The strong have preyed on the vulnerable, and used them to their own ends. In the Old Testament, the word for justice, ‘mishpat’, is used over 200 times, and is repeatedly linked to our treatment of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor. The ‘mishpat’ of a society is evaluated by how it treats these groups: God defends those with least economic and social power, and so should we.
As Muhibullah prepares to leave before the increasing darkness makes it too risky to travel, I find I’m now the one holding back tears. It seems to me that he has been the powerless one from start to finish – from his parent’s decision to send him to the West, the people smuggler’s decision to exploit and abuse him on his journey, the UK’s decision to send him back, and now his society’s decision to reject him as an outsider. Faces of other Afghan boys I know who have been sent back to Kabul flick through my mind – one kidnapped and held for ransom because it was thought he must have money, others beaten violently because they had become too ‘westernised’, still more isolated , suffering severe depression and self-harming.
As we return home from Kabul, we launch a new RSN programme, ‘Youth on the Move’, which will support young people like Muhibullah who spend formative years in the UK as children, but are then forcibly returned to their country of origin. We hope to engage holistically with the forced migration of children and young people, understanding why they had to leave, and what might help them if they are forced to return. We believe that there is hope for Afghanistan, and our prayer is that the young Afghans we work with would become ‘oaks of righteousness’ – strong young people, imbued with determination, integrity and hope – wherever they are.
We can’t do any of this on our own, and would love to have you partner with us, both as we move forward with ‘Youth on the Move’, and as we continue our existing programmes for unaccompanied minors and trafficked girls.
The first way you can get involved is by praying for our work, and the young people whose lives we are privileged to share. Those of you with time on your hands and the ability to travel to London may want to volunteer. Others of you may be in a position to partner with us financially – at the moment we are asking people to give just a few pounds a month to help us get ‘Youth on the Move’ off the ground. Any help you can give will make a difference, and be gratefully received!