Diaspora: An Afghan woman's fight to reunite with her family

Eleen Bukhari
A representational image of a woman in the UK made via AI. — Canva
A representational image of a woman in the UK made via AI. — Canva

Aisha regained consciousness at the vague sound of the aircraft crew making one of their final announcements. While the voices around her were still a blur, she could tell that the air hostess was uttering the words she was dreading the most.

“We are now descending at the Heathrow airport. Please fasten your seatbelts.”

“Listening to those very words made me want to jump off the plane,” said Aisha as I intently listened to her.

I met Aisha back in 2023 at a hotel in London where she was serving as a waitress. A striking personality with infectious laughter. This was especially fascinating because life back in Afghanistan was not easy for her — or for any other woman for that matter.

Aisha, whose identity is protected for security reasons, is one of the many women who boarded one of the charter flights that left Afghanistan in 2022, with her husband, who worked for the British government; they were some of the few privileged who were evacuated when the Taliban took over their country.

It was true that Aisha had imagined a better life overseas. She dreamt of continuing her studies, working, and eventually living as a ‘free’ woman. But fate had other plans. It was within minutes her joy turned into misery when she lost her husband at the Kabul International Airport due to chaos in the facility. It was not just them who were trying to exit the country, more than 2,000 others also wanted to flee.

“Next thing, I found myself hysterically crying on the plane while my husband was stranded at the airport. I wanted to leave and run back to him, but there was no time. The announcement for take-off had already been made. Soon, I witnessed the aircraft moving on the runway as my heart sank further.”

Aisha added: “I don’t remember what happened after that. My friends now tell me that I had fainted for most of the journey. My blood pressure had gone down to 110/90.”

Upon reaching London, Aisha, along with other immigrants was given refuge at a four-star hotel on High Street Kensington, London. At the tender age of 18, Aisha did not realise her life would change so much. Her parents, her siblings, her husband and anybody she was remotely close to, were miles away.

“The UK [United Kingdom] government took good care of me. I was given a room and breakfast, [and] was allowed to go out and be on my own. I was told I could continue my studies once my paperwork was through. Everything was what I ever wanted. But I was alone, crying day and night to reunite with my husband,” she said.

Life was indeed better for Aisha in the UK. Women back in her country were in grave conditions, forced to take away their lives due to growing oppression.

The former deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s Parliament, Fawzia Koofi, had told the UN Human Rights Council that Afghan women were ‘devastated’ in the country.

A woman walks past a street in Kabul in September 2021. — Tasnim News Agency/File
A woman walks past a street in Kabul in September 2021. — Tasnim News Agency/File

“Every day, there are at least one or two women who commit suicide for the lack of opportunity, for the mental health, for the pressure they receive,” Koofi said.

The deputy speaker added: “The fact that girls as young as nine years old are being sold, not only because of economic pressure but because of the fact that there is no hope for them, for their family, it is not normal.”

But for Aisha, her state was no less than a deep ditch of sorrow.

“I spent each minute of every day trying to come to terms with my reality. I decided to go back, but I did not have a passport. Over phone calls with my husband, I wept to the point I would pass out,” said Aisha.

“I remember lying in my room for days with lights switched off, staring into darkness. I liked doing that. I resembled my life — dark. Other refugees would come and see me, and ask me to gather myself. They reminded me of the conditions women were in back in Afghanistan and told me how life was better here. But I just wanted my husband. My eyes longed to see him again, to hug him again.

“I asked the Home Office to bring my husband to the UK. I was told I would have to show a bank statement of approximately £18,000 and would have to become a taxpayer in order to be eligible to call my husband on a spouse visa.”

The 18-year-old recalled being devastated at the cost she would have to pay to bring her husband to the UK. She had never worked in her life, in fact, never stepped out of her house back in her country.

“I wanted to end my life. I remember walking 20 minutes south of my hotel to an underground station. I wanted to jump off the platform and end it all,” Aisha shared. But, she realised her life was worth more than this. She knew she was the only hope for her husband.

“I hired a solicitor to discuss a way out for me. I still remember waiting for her at the reception as she dealt with another one of her clients. Sleep-deprived, I passed out on the couch and woke up with a tap on my shoulder. It was my lawyer, also an Afghan woman. She hugged me and assured me everything would be alright as I broke down in her arms.”

In no time, Aisha was advised to take up a full-time job. Still new to the city, she reached out to the same hotel she was lodging in and asked to be a waitress.

“The hotel’s manager asked me to send him an email so that he could see what he could do. After a month of waiting, I finally got a follow-up email. I got the position!”

Afghan girls hold a placard during protests demanding refugee rights for Afghan women. — Europe Now/File
Afghan girls hold a placard during protests demanding refugee rights for Afghan women. — Europe Now/File

She continued: “It was the beginning of another very long journey. I used to work seven days a week, sometimes double shifts, to save money to bring my husband here. I spent my days crying at work and struggling to hide my tears as guests gawked at me.”

At this point, I saw Aisha breaking into tears. Sharing how she would stay outside the hotel every night and walk across the road just to blankly stare at the moving cars, Aisha admitted she would never forget this painful time in her life.

After a year of working at the hotel, Aisha was able to sponsor her husband’s spouse visa. She now lives with him in an apartment in Willesden Green where they both work to make ends meet.

Aisha and her husband are currently awaiting their British passport.

“Sometimes, I think of going back. This is not my home. But then I look back and think to myself, ‘That is not my home too,’” she tells me.

“I am stuck in this loop where there is no end and it seems, that the moment I come to terms with my reality, I can try to be a happier person,” Aisha sighs.

Since 2022, the UK has become home to approximately 24,600 Afghan refugees, including Aisha, according to the British government. Of these, about 21,600 have been resettled under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) and the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). While some of these Afghans still live their life on government benefits, others have been able to pull through themselves, building up a life in the country.