By Mark Goldring, Director, Asylum Welcome

The first day at school is exciting for any child. Imagine how it feels for the dozens of Afghan children who last week started school around Oxfordshire.

The children – boys and girls, of primary and secondary age – have been in the UK since that much-televised airlift took place, as Kabul so suddenly fell to the Taliban in August. We can only begin to imagine what many of them saw – undoubtedly things that no child should ever see. What we do know, and what comes up in almost every conversation, is how worried they are about those left behind.

The children went off to school last week, smartly dressed in their new uniforms, and with Asylum Welcome’s translators there to help smooth the first few days. Parents had been asking us for weeks when this day was going to come. When people must flee, uppermost in their minds are the family’s immediate safety and securing a better future for their children. Thanks to wonderful efforts of five school communities, that future began this week.

One parent – actually an uncle who arrived as the sole guardian of his deceased siblings’ seven orphaned children – described how his children had all been up, dressed and ready to go before he had even woken up. The only downside was that the two eldest had to wait until the following day to start their secondary school. That didn’t stop them getting ready.

The children came back excited and positive after their first day at school, raring to go the next day. Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The adjustment for children, parents and schools is huge. We had to help other parents persuade one father that is was OK for his primary age daughters to go to a mixed school, and fear and language barriers create occasional frustration on all sides. However, I was pleased to be visiting one hotel as the children came home after day two and to hear one of our staff being asked by our manager to go and buy swimming costumes for all the Afghan children in one school so they could join the swimming lesson the following day, and wellies for a trip to the woods the day after.

School is a great integrator for the children. The rest of life here is less straightforward for them and their families. They are all staying in hotels, awaiting permanent resettlement which could be anywhere in the UK. No one can tell them where or when this will materialise. At the moment, nowhere near enough housing has been pledged or sourced for them to be optimistic that this will happen within weeks or even a few months. So, they live with uncertainty about life back home, and uncertainty here, still not able to really begin a new life.

Asylum Welcome is working closely with the County Council to help the families settle, have access to clothing and other needs, and have mobile phones and connectivity to stay in touch with their homes and communities, both abroad and here. We have helped them to register with all the right services, and to access healthcare. Physical and mental health needs are both high, and the health services are trying very hard.

We have begun to help all family members learn English and prepare for life in the UK. One element of this is making sure that women aren’t left out and that their voices are heard. We are bringing in partner groups and organisations to help with everything from hairdressing to running a playgroup for mothers and young children. Meanwhile, a partnership with Music at Oxford is bringing together Afghan musicians and local musicians, supporting wellbeing through the shared experience of listening to and making music. We have recruited new staff and volunteers as drivers and translators, also helping the new arrivals to improve their English and understand how public transport works.

Please click here to read the stories of three families and individuals who we have been supporting, including a story of a wonderful young woman wanting to continue her studies to help others, the story of a family very grateful for the welcome and support they have received (including how excited their kids are now they are back at school!), and the story of a man we actually knew many years ago from when he arrived to the UK as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking minor. This man, who had originally escaped from Afghanistan when he was 14, felt safe and secure as soon as he stepped off the bus and found out that Asylum Welcome was right there to welcome him…

“I was so relieved. I then knew I was safe.”

The public have donated generously, and the Home Office and Council are meeting the guests’ hotel costs. Nevertheless, it’s a stretch for Asylum Welcome to sustain work at this scale and intensity when no one knows how long it’s going to be for. And of course, as air routes open and people start the difficult and dangerous journeys overland, none of us know when we will have more arrivals to assist.

Meanwhile let’s remember the excitement of those children who have just started school and use that as a symbol for helping the families build new lives. Public services and the people of Oxfordshire have responded generously. We hope they will continue to do so, both for the hotel populations and as some families begin to be resettled in the county for the long term. We will certainly be true to our name and seek to offer our new arrivals a sincerely warm welcome.

If you want to support our work, you can volunteer, donate or buy items on our amazon wishlist to support afghans at this critical time.

* Featured image of school child, photo Credit: FatCamera *