Long read: Meet the Afghan girls’ football team and other community groups preparing for refugee arrivals

From girls’ football teams to cookery courses, the capital’s vibrant Afghan diaspora is preparing for a new wave of refugees.

<p>Migrateful is a runs cooking classes led by migrant chefs, who may otherwise struggle to access employment. Credit: Migrateful</p>

Migrateful is a runs cooking classes led by migrant chefs, who may otherwise struggle to access employment. Credit: Migrateful

London’s Afghan community - the largest in the UK - is bracing itself for the arrival of a new wave of refugees following the Taliban’s takeover.

It has grown hugely over the last two decades, to one of the largest diasporas in the West.

In 1991, the capital’s Afghan population was so small that it was not officially registered in the census.

By early 2001, the figure had reached more than 10,000 people and is now estimate to be between 45,000 and 70,000.

Whatever the number, those who have settled in London, will likely be joined by thousands more  – as the UK Government has pledged to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees in the next five years.

The experiences of escaping the Taliban and starting again will be familiar to London’s current Afghan population.

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The organisations and charities established by the community in will assist these new arrivals two decades on.

Abresham girls’ club is the first Afghan and Muslim women’s football team in London. Credit: Abresham Girls’ Club

Following a suggestion by young girls attending Saturday school at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association in Feltham, Hounslow, the idea for a football team was born.

Abresham Girls FC was established in March 2021, and is the first football club for Afghan and Muslim girls, aged between eight and 16.

“In the beginning, we had about 10 to 15 girls attending,” explained project coordinator Alice Bletsoe.

“But over time, the girls spread the news to their friends and every week, more and more people join.

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“We have over 50 girls registered now.”

The club has been successful by addressing cultural sensitivities, from female-only coaches to sport hijabs donated by Nike. Credit: Abresham Girl’ Club

The club has been successful by addressing cultural sensitivities, from female-only coaches to sport hijabs donated by Nike, and is currently made up by a majority of British-born Afghan children.

“With projects supporting refugees, ‘softer skills’ can be sidelined for things like English language classes where you can easily see progress,” said Alice.

“But I think confidence is important in integrating as well.

“We do feedback every month to assess how the girls feel about their development.

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“Three-quarters said they developed their communication skills and 50 per cent said they developed their leadership skills.”

There are now more than 50 girls signed up. Credit: Abresham Girls’ Club

The team is currently on a summer break until September, but Alice explained recent events in Afghanistan have cemented the importance of the project.

“In the past week, I’ve had requests for people to join,” she said.

“It definitely makes you more aware of a need for women’s empowerment and gender equality.”

Taekwando teacher Abdul Ghafoor Nabi. Credit: Abdul Ghafoor Nabi

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Abdul Ghafoor Nabi began teaching taekwondo in Afghanistan back in the 80s, before picking up an international coaching qualification and moving to the UK in 1997.

He has been running regular classes with the Afghan Association of London in Harrow, where he’s taught thousands of young Afghan children.

“Taekwondo helps participants to realise the consequence of their actions, self-discipline, punctuality, self-esteem, high confidence, focus, creativity, exercises of body and mind,” explained Abdul.

The Afghan taekwondo community recently heralded a new poster boy, with 24-year-old Abdullah Sediqi having escaped armed gangs and fleeing to Belgium – before representing the Refugee Team at the Tokyo Olympics.

The London-based coach believes that the training can be a focus away from other negative influences.

Abdul estimates he has taught thousands of Afghan kids the martial art. Credit: Abdul Ghafoor Nabi

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“I try my best to encourage our community to participate in sport activities, stay healthy and to avoid drug misuse, to resist negative influences, to focus on their education and learning new skills,” he added.

When it comes to recent events in his home country, Abdul is particularly concerned for the future of women and girls.

He said: “The Afghan community is genuinely concerned and horrified about the future of the country and the safety of their loved ones - in particular women and girls.

“They follow the news with great trepidation and anxiety.

“The recent changes and development will no doubt have an enormous implication which will affect our community in London for years to come.”

As some are shaping the next generation, others are helping adults integrate through food.

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Migrateful’s core mission is to overcome differences through the uniting power of food. Credit: Migrateful

Migrateful, founded in Brixton in 2017, is a charity running cookery classes led by migrant chefs, who may otherwise struggle to access employment.

“Part of our core mission is to overcome differences through the uniting power of food,” explained CEO Jess Thompson.

“Through learning to cook a new cuisine taught by refugees and migrants, class participants come to empathise with stories of migration.”

Jess said that Afghan food has proved to be a hit previously, with students learning to make dishes including Adas Polo, Shami Kebab, Kichery, Ghabuli Palaw, and Ghorma.

Migrateful expects the current upheaval in Kabul will lead to more refugees finding their path to integration through sharing cuisines.

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“We saw an influx of chef applications from Syrian refugees who arrived in the UK through the resettlement scheme,” Jess explained.

“It is likely that this will be the case for Afghan refugees.

“Due to the lengthy journey of integration, Migrateful is only able to train a small number of chefs at a time.

“We have a strong network of allies who we continue to work together with to support those in need.”

The charity believes it will get an influx of Afghan refugees. Credit: Migrateful

Organisations facing an immediate impact include Paiwand, a charity based in Edgware, Barnet, helping refugees and asylum seekers access services related to housing, employment, and mental health.

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Originally founded in 2002 by six Afghans as a Saturday school for their children, they are now helping around 2,000 refugees from all backgrounds.

“Every smile is significant,” explained Paiwand’s chief executive Fahima Zaheen, who started as a volunteer back in 2007.

“The gratitude of our clients after they receive their visas, new accommodation, or a successful welfare benefit application, feels like an achievement.”

Paiwand’s mental health services, including counselling and support groups, have been crucial for Afghan refugees and asylum seekers.

“Refugees and asylum seekers account for more than 65pc of our mental health counselling clients,” Fahima said.

“Most show common mental health issues, such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

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“However, we often see severe anxiety disorders such as dissociative disorders.

“A visible number present with complex trauma related to the impact of the long-lasting conflict in Afghanistan.”

While Paiwand will be on hand to help, there is no illusion that they are ready for the consequences of the Taliban’s takeover and the further pressure on their resources.

“We do not have enough resources to increase the service level,” Fahima explained.

“We are already stretched thin, responding to inquiries and arranging workshops for the community.

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“We have contacted our MP and asked for more resources to enable extending services.”

However stretched, there is still more of a community on hand to help than there had been two decades previously.