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June 19, 2023

Stories of Resilience: Refugee Week 2023


Group of refugee women standing facing the camera with certificates in hand.

During Refugee Week 2023, read, share and celebrate these inspiring stories of resilience from refugees who we’ve supported to find employment and integrate successfully to life here in the UK.

Yanal’s Story: From Syria to Coventry

Targeted by Taliban, Evacuated to the UK: Naikmal’s Story

Man facing camera in front of a board saying 'this is the next level'

When the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan in August 2021 following President Biden’s withdrawal of US troops, Naikmal knew he had to run.

His work for a women’s reproductive health NGO made him a target, as it opposed Taliban values. Escaping to the UK on a British military plane with his wife and four children, he arrived in as an asylum-seeker having left almost everything behind.

We had the chance to speak to Naikmal about his incredible story, and his new life in the UK working as a World Jewish Relief Employment Advisor for Afghan refugees.

Naikmal’s life before the Taliban takeover

“The Taliban think that if you are associated with a foreign government then you are an enemy.”

He was the CEO of a women’s reproductive health NGO, which was linked to a UK-based organisation. Although the Taliban declared they would not  obstruct the work of such organisations, women’s reproductive health is considered controversial and against their values. He told us he was continuing to deliver vital services to poor, marginalised communities throughout Afghanistan. This left Naikmal in Taliban crosshairs, along with his family. People who still work for the NGO are trying to provide these important services, but are extremely limited in how they can help; contraceptives and family planning are now completely banned.

His journey to the UK

“I came to the UK on August 24th, 2021, after I was evacuated from Afghanistan by military plane.”

Finding himself in a life-threatening situation, it was vital Nakmal got himself and his family out of Afghanistan. He was evacuated to London by British military plane along with his wife and four children. After 15 days of quarantine, he was finally taken to a hotel in the midlands where he lived for five long months alongside other asylum-seekers .

For many of us, we associate hotels with holidays and relaxation. But after 152 days living in temporary accommodation, it feels like living in limbo. Unfortunately asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK until they are granted asylum and refugee status, and applications may be considered for many months. Even after refugee status is obtained, employers may require a permanent address, and landlords in turn, require proof of full-time employment. This catch 22 hinders the progress of many refugees looking to move forward with their lives.

Finding employment

“I needed someone to push me. As soon as you know there is someone supporting you and you can depend on that support, you feel motivated and can move forward.”

Naikmal had been awarded a Chevening scholarship to attend university in the UK even before the Taliban took control. So, when he arrived, he was able to attend University, studying for an MSc in health and social care. But he still needed to find employment. One of our Employment Advisors from our Specialist Training and Employment Programme (STEP) approached Naikmal, and began working with him to improve his English, CV writing skills, and understanding of the local job market.

“To be honest I wasn’t willing to engage much at first but, after a bit, it was proving to be very beneficial so I tried to engage more.”

After a few months of support, Naikmal picked up a traineeship with a healthcare organisation. Soon after, a vacancy for a STEP Employment Advisor came up. Naikmal jumped at the opportunity. He now uses his personal and professional experience to help Afghan refugees going through the same struggles he faced when he first arrived here in the UK.

Life in England

“I am 95% settled in this community and have started a normal life here.”

Naikmal and his family found it difficult to adapt at first. Their mental health deteriorated rapidly. Since moving into private accommodation however, their quality of life has improved. His children are at school, and they have managed to make friends. They live in a strong Afghan community, which has helped them to integrate and feel a sense of belonging.

He tells us his job as a STEP Employment Advisor is fulfilling, and he hopes his story will inspire clients who are experiencing the same feelings of loss and hopelessness.

What’s next?

“Satisfaction is helping others, knowing you’ve made a small positive change on the life of another person.”

Naikmal understands he is likely to be in the UK for a long time, unable to return to Afghanistan. After completing his short-term goals, such as finding employment and finishing his studies, he is looking to the future. He wants to set up his own NGO, which supports members of his community.

“I have unfinished business in Afghanistan, my family, my parents, sister, brother are all still there.”

But despite the success of his new life in England, he is constantly worried about his family back home. His parents are elderly, and the restrictions put in place by the Taliban prevent them receiving the help they need. It is a constant black cloud looming over him, weighing him down. He hopes they will be reunited soon.

Shukria’s Story

Three women sitting on a bench

Shukria came to the UK in 9th July, as Afghanistan found itself in the grips of the Taliban’s insurgency. A wife and mother of three, she lived in Kabul with her family and was a full-time mother. She told us: 

“In Afghanistan, there was no opportunity for women to work outside the home.”

Her family initially lived in limbo, in a hotel in Manchester. Shukria immediately noticed the ways that British culture was different and unfamiliar from what she knew: 

“In Afghanistan, I wasn’t allowed to go outside without my husband. I couldn’t get a job, go shopping, or even go to the park. So when I arrived in the UK I was nervous and refused to do these things alone. I couldn’t speak English, so even if I wanted to I couldn’t just go to the shop or pharmacy and get what I needed.”

Shukria’s family were soon moved to a permanent home in Bradford, where a volunteer recommended that she join World Jewish Relief’s STEP Forward programme, run in partnership with Horton Housing Association.  

STEP Forward is a programme tailored to women refugees, supporting them in a warm, communal environment with everything from English language to computer literacy. At the end of the programme, women have the skills and confidence to feel empowered to make decisions about their futures. 

Shukria said: 

“The most useful parts of the programme are the classes in computer literacy, English, and maths. I have also made new friends, and met amazing teachers. I know that whenever I need help with anything, my teachers will help me.”

She highly recommends that any woman refugee arriving in the UK joins the programme, which has had an immense impact on her life here: 

“A lot has changed in my life since I started spending two mornings a week at the STEP Forward programme. For example, when I dropped my children at school I didn’t used to understand what anyone was saying. Now I can go anywhere and have no problem. When people speak to me I can respond. It has given me a feeling of freedom.”

STEP Forward has also given Shukria the space to think about her ambitions for her future: 

“First, I want to improve my English. But in the future I want to go to college and university, and then become a hairdresser and beautician.”

Shukria emphasised: 

“It’s very important to refugees that we have a space that is only for women, where we can speak freely about our lives, and laugh freely together”

But the benefits of STEP Forward are felt by the whole family. Shukria’s husband Malik said:

“I feel very happy for my wife. As long as she is adapting to life here, things are easier for us all. At the beginning when we had problems, and things to organise or buy, I had to deal with them. Now we can solve them 50:50. We strive to be a team. I hope that Shukria goes to university in the future; if she does, I will be very happy for her!”

STEP Forward is one of World Jewish Relief’s programmes for refugees in the UK, born out of our original award-winning Specialist Training and Employment Programme (STEP), set up in 2016, which helps 1,500 refugees every year to find work and integrate successfully into life in the UK.