Kate Maltby

Britain gave my grandmother a refuge – now we must do the same for Afghan women

Each time I hear another plea to house or sponsor a refugee, I think of the woman who helped my grandmother


DULLES, VIRGINIA - AUGUST 27: Refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul following the takeover by the Taliban of Afghanistan August 27, 2021 in Dulles, Virginia. Refugees continued to arrive in the United States one day after twin suicide bombings at the gates of the airport in Kabul killed 13 U.S. military service members and nearly 100 Afghans. “We will not forgive,” President Joe Biden warned ISIS, who claimed responsibility for the attacks. “We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

August 04, 2022 10:44

A few years ago I reconnected with Mary, one of my Hungarian grandmother’s first British friends. I knew Mary had been close to my grandmother in the years when both were raising children, but in practice I knew little about her or what, other than nappies and nurseries, might have forged their bond. So I asked her to remind me how they had first met. “Oh, that’s simple,” Mary told me. “It was when your grandmother was still a displaced refugee. I co-signed her UK visa.”

I was confused. I knew my maternal grandmother had spent time displaced throughout Europe in the aftermath of the Shoah, tracking down the locations of her surviving scattered relatives. But I had never realised that Mary, a very ordinary Englishwomen, had been one of the people who guaranteed her good behaviour if granted entry to the UK.

Mary had even committed to underwrite my grandmother financially, lest she become a burden to the British state. “But surely, you had met her before you made that commitment?” I queried. “Oh, no. My friends had met your grandmother abroad, and they wrote to me and told me all about her, saying they needed one more British citizen to sign a visa application — and I just thought it was the right thing to do.”

The last few years have brought a litany of conflicts across the globe, and with each a new wave of people displaced by violence. Each time I hear another plea to house or sponsor a refugee, I think of Mary. By putting her name to one set of paperwork, she gave my grandmother a new life in safety. She’s the reason my grandparents could raise three children and four grandchildren as proud British citizens.

The Jewish community across Britain carries legacies in almost every family of flights from persecution. Yet trace these Jewish stories — escapes from fascists, pogroms, or even the Inquisition — and you find that many Jewish families in Britain also have a story of their own Mary. No wonder that the Jewish community has been in the vanguard of Britain’s recent efforts to welcome refugees.

Yet our country hasn’t always got it right on helping persecuted groups escape in time. The Jewish community, with our memory of the times we were turned away, knows this well. This August will mark a year since Operation Pitting, the British government’s chaotic attempt to airlift vulnerable people out of Afghanistan during the fall of Kabul. Operation Pitting took place in desperate circumstances. It is clear that many were left behind, including people who had worked closely with British organisations and members of the groups most vulnerable to Taliban persecution.

Although 15,000 people were evacuated to Britain during Operation Pitting, the majority were British expatriates rather than vulnerable Afghans. A recent report by the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Select Committee found that of this number, a mere 295 vulnerable Afghan nationals who had worked for the UK, together with their dependents, were evacuated.

Those who were left behind include many relatives of Afghans who already live in Britain. People like the younger sister of my friend Zakir, who runs a small shop in the UK. Last he heard she was worried about her being married off to a local grandee in favour with the Taliban.

In the year since the fall of Kabul, women like Zakir’s sister have faced particular suffering. Theirs is the loss of any life beyond the confines of the home; the loss of any sense of what it means to thrive, rather than simply survive. This week, Britain has been celebrating the achievement of our Lionesses in women’s football. We recognise, when Chloe Kelly or Ella Toone celebrate their goals, that we are watching British women revel in being alive, athletic and free to thrive on their own terms. As we cheer, we should keep in mind the many places around the world where that female freedom is unimaginable.

It is 318 days since the Taliban banned teenage girls from school. This new academic year will be the first without any young women entering university. Former feminist activists are at particular risk. The Taliban is hunting down and killing females who worked on women’s emancipation under the old regime — and yet of the thousands of people supposedly evacuated by Operation Pitting, the Select Committee report found that only 11 were women’s rights activists.

Pathways now allow Ukrainian refugees in Britain to apply for family reunion, but the legal options for Afghans seeking family reunion are much more limited. As those of us with memories of the Shoah know, when one member of a scattered family manages to rebuild a life in safety, we do everything we can to help our relatives to follow — but for people like Zakir that is almost impossible.

The instillation of a new Prime Minister in September will be an opportunity for a policy reset. That is why the respected human rights campaigner Zehra Zaidi is leading a campaign to create a new asylum pathway for Afghan women at high risk of persecution. Her group, Action for Afghanistan, is working closely with MPs through the newly-established All Party Parliamentary Group for Afghan Women and Girls. Zaidi’s petition is worth checking out online, at Along with the More in Common campaign, she’s also consulting with government about launching a “Homes for Afghans” scheme, modelled on the Ukrainian scheme. That will provide another way for readers to help — just as Mary helped my grandmother all those years ago.

You never know, a refugee might become your new best friend. And I can tell you from experience that their granddaughter will thank you.

August 04, 2022 10:44

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