08/06/2022 by Markéta Štikarová 0 Comments
‘For me, it’s about being a bridge’: from advising the Afghan government to helping fellow refugees with Bashir Fatehi
Back in Afghanistan, Bashir Ahmad Fatehi was an influential civil service figure. His career spanning over 15 years saw him promoting peace, anti-corruption, human rights, and gender equality by working with many institutions – such as the Supreme Court, Attorney General’s Office, countless ministries, and the President of Afghanistan. Last year, all of this was taken away and replaced by refugee status. Now living in London, Fatehi works night and day providing advice to fellow Afghans who had to escape their country.
Fatehi’s career history is too vast to be contained in one brief interview. As an experienced communication strategist, he helped his community by founding tens of civil society organisations – most notably Afghan Youth Network, advocating for policy changes for youth empowerment; Afghanistan Women Collation, supporting humanitarian and political work of Afghan women; and Peace Group, mitigating crises in developing/post-conflict states.
In 2015, Fatehi was the CEO of the Afghanistan Peace Initiative tasked with leading negotiations in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood countries. Fatehi explains: “The people who were in direct contact with us at that time, we didn't recognise them as a government or a political structure. It was more of a military structure that stood against the Republic of Afghanistan.We had a dialogue, and the initiative was brought down. But the current figures that you're going to be seeing in Afghanistan, were not involved in our dialogue. We were working with those who had much more flexibility. How they came to lead this country is a different story.”
He's one of the key figures who organized three Peace Jirgas (in Pashto, Jirga means large assembly or council). “In our Constitution at that time, it was the highest authority to discuss a national agenda and to advise the president what he should do in terms of peace. This ‘peace consultative’ is what we call the Jirga.”
Last year, Fatehi had no choice but to flee Islamabad. “We had quite a tough 43 days of hiding, and after that, I went to Pakistan,” he recalls. From Pakistan, he was evacuated to the UK. “I had the option of going to the USA, Canada, Italy, Germany – but my preference was the UK because I was involved with a lot of senior government officials and other people who were supporting Afghanistan since 2003.”
But it seems that no amount of adversity is enough to stop Fatehi in his tracks. “I started my work the second day that I came into the UK,” he says matter-of-factly, remembering the exact date – 31st of October – as a starting point of his selfless involvement with local communities and organisations. “I thought that if I shared the resources that I had, the experience that I had, it would benefit others.”
And sure enough: hundreds of newly arrived refugees have contacted him since for advice on a myriad of issues. On his social media, Fatehi shares resources regarding education, employment, training, and other opportunities. “For me, it’s about being a bridge. The whole idea of sharing resources and giving advice is to convey the message to those who might not have the same experience as me.” His long-term work on an international level gives him a certain advantage – like language abilities, connections, and knowledge of practices and policies, one that he’s determined to not keep to himself. “You would find maybe five to ten percent of Afghan refugees in the same category as me. So I am sharing what I can with the other 90 percent.”
Currently, Fatehi is a full-time Employment Advisor for The Forces Employment charity (RFEA) – a charity supporting service leavers and veterans from Afghanistan who have relocated to the UK. His task is to help clients with the challenges of integrating into a vastly different culture. Language tends to be the biggest barrier to start with; then come cultural clashes and adapting to a different lifestyle. Fatehi also identifies digital literacy as one of the main obstacles: “Currently, the UK is mostly on e-government. We have moved from offline to online, and it is growing day by day. That creates a lot of problems for people who don't have the experience of using such technologies to ease their work.”
Complications also arise when refugees who have a track record of education and qualifications can’t use these to progress with their careers here: “They have the education, but it doesn't have an equivalent here in the UK.” They might struggle to find work for this very reason: “There isn't any familiarity of what they used to do back in their country, because the job they had would look a bit different here, and employers aren’t considering that. Interpreting their transferable skill is one of the biggest barriers for Afghans getting a job in the UK job market,” Fatehi explains.
But what does he do when work is done? “I have an eight or nine-hour paid job, but then I add eight or nine hours of voluntary work,” he says. “I am advising so many charities, communities, even some figures who have the influence to change policies. This support is mostly free of charge – it’s what I am trying to give back to my people.”
When I ask him how he finds time and energy to balance everything, he shrugs: “I’m used to it, you know. It was my job back home. I am working with the same schedule, but it's on a much smaller scale right now. At that time, it was for 35 million people - here it is for a few thousand.”
Reflecting on this, he admits that it isn’t always easy. Family and personal life aside, there’s the dispiriting reality of having to start anew as a refugee: “Starting from scratch is very backbreaking for lots of people, especially a person like me who had a very vast career and good opportunities. I'm now doing the job that I used to do 15 years back.”
Seeing his work pay off is what motivates Fatehi to continue despite the challenges: “When I get a message from a fellow Afghan that my advice has benefited them, that gives me positive energy. That sense of helping is always a very special thing. I think, if your advice and support could change someone’s life, you shouldn't hesitate to do it.”
I asked Fatehi about one of his Tweets, in which he phrased his advice to Afghans currently stuck in bridging hotels rather bluntly: “Get yourself sorted and work to achieve.” Coming from anybody else, this might come off as insensitive. The traumas that refugees experience before, during, and after migration, are something unimaginable to most of us. But since Fatehi went through much of the same as his clients, he’s more than justified to point to his achievements of being “a living example” showing that it’s possible to overcome the uncertainty and find fulfilment.
“You could say that it's a bit traumatic to live in a single room. Staying in a hotel is a luxury just for a week. After a week, it kind of gets to you - you feel like you are in prison. You have a very tiny room, there isn't any space, you can't go anywhere, you can't cook by yourself. There are simple things in life that you want to experience, but you can't do anything in the bridging hotel. That can have a certain trauma.”
But this much is clear at this point: negativity isn’t something Fatehi has time for. “Closing your eyes won’t make the problem disappear,” he says. “When you eventually open them again, the problem will still be there in front of you, only much bigger.”
He believes in spinning the situation into something that you can use to your advantage – for example, utilising the time you would otherwise spend cleaning or cooking to study and look for new opportunities.
“Saying ‘I will start my language courses, I will start studying, I will start learning new things once I get a house,’ is not very sensible, in my view. I think it’s very important for people to see the reality. The truth is that you need to learn English. You need to figure out what you’ll be doing here, in your new country. The sooner you figure it out, the better hold you will have on your life.”
Fatehi has got a very positive outlook on the UK’s attitudes towards refugees. “I think there is a consensus to help refugees, to be very honest. There is no doubt that there is support.” However, he sees much room for improvement at the lower and middle management levels, illustrating this with a recent experience.
A member of one of the Afghan families he was in contact with needed urgent medical attention. Upon contacting his support worker, he was told to wait five working days for a response. He then had to get himself to the hospital – without knowing where one was, and hardly any English that would let him explain his problem to the doctors. “It is one of the things that could have been easily sorted over the phone. I think this is the issue in most cases: you have funding, you have support, you have everything, but you don't have the right people to do the job.”
It's incidents like these that make Fatehi lose sleep, worrying: “What happened to other Afghans who have been in similar situations that I am not in contact with? They might have suffered more than this because they didn't have the right language, or there wasn't anybody to support them, or they didn't know how to help.”
But doesn’t it take a toll on you, constantly reliving the darkest moments through people that are having similar problems? “Indeed, it does. It's quite hard because it retriggers your pain. You have lived the same thing, so you see yourself in that position. It does put a burden on your shoulders - emotionally, mentally, and physically, but that's something you need to take and move on. You know, there is a saying that to gain something, you need to lose something.”
Once again, it comes down to seeing your positive impact on other people’s lives to balance the pain out. “If I am helping Afghans or others who are benefiting from my advice, that sense of satisfaction is there for me, in that I might have done something good for them.”
Having a lived experience of what his countrymen are facing means Fatehi doesn’t only relate to their issues, but feels compelled to help. “It brings you this responsibility – because you have seen it, you have the same experience, there is that trigger pain point for you.” And while sharing some common ground regarding language and culture surely helps, it’s not essential.
“Anyone who is currently seeing that he or she could do something that might help - I encourage them to come forward. It doesn't matter how small it is. Even giving somebody 30 minutes of your time would bring so many changes to their life where they don’t have any support.”