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Stratford MP recalls his experience of fleeing Iraq

Stratford has been stepping up its support for Afghan refugees over the past two weeks, with the district council committing to help resettle even more familes and the group Stratford Welcome Here collecting essentials to support during this difficult time.

Last week Stratford MP Nadhim Zahawi spoke to the Herald about his own experience of fleeing his home country as a boy, how he thinks those leaving Afghanistan must be feeling and what people can do to help.

Nadhim Zahawi (51072282)
Nadhim Zahawi (51072282)

I was 11 when we left Iraq, by which point the country had become increasingly unstable. My family had already lived through the Ba’ath coup and then further conflict which arose following the death of Abdul Salam Arif, which resulted in the Six-Day War.

Tensions were high between the Iraqi regime and the Kurdish community and Saddam Hussein, who even prior to his ascent to Presidency wielded significant influence, sought to repress the Kurds. It was clear to my family Iraq would not be safe under his leadership and that is when we decided we had to flee to the UK.

Of course, it was a huge sacrifice for us to leave our home country, as it is for anyone, however, I cannot be sure I would be here today if we hadn’t, especially given the egregious genocidal campaign carried out against the Kurdish people in the decades that followed.

Inevitably, if you have to flee a country, you will leave people behind. For me and my family, this was one of the most difficult parts of our decision to leave Iraq. You find yourself asking yourself lots of questions, even as a child, ‘Why me?’, ‘Should I stay?’, ‘Will I see these people again - will they be OK?’.

I feel extremely blessed that my whole immediate family were able to escape, however, sadly, I did have cousins who weren't so lucky and were forced to fight in the Iraq/Iran war.

Starting school in Britain as an Iraqi was difficult, the other children would call me a (racist name) and I didn’t speak very good English at the time so it was hard to fit in initially. Thankfully, being young, I was able to adapt quickly and picked up the language and things began to change. I find once people start to understand your hopes and ambitions, they are unbelievably helpful.

There were also people who were very kind, to whom I will always be grateful.

When you have to flee your home country, you experience hundreds of emotions at once. Yes, you are relieved to escape and grateful to the country accepting you, but also you feel guilt for those who haven’t been so lucky, those who didn’t get away. There’s also a sense of loss, which undoubtedly those leaving Afghanistan will be feeling now, knowing the country they are leaving behind is vastly different to one they have lived in for the last twenty years. They will be scared too. No matter the circumstances, it takes enormous courage to start a new life, in a new country, wondering whether your new community will accept you or not.

But it gets easier and eventually you begin to build a new life with new friends. In my case, of course my childhood in Iraq will always be part of who I am, and I am proud of my background, however, I could not be prouder to be British and to call this country my home. I will always be grateful to have had the chance to live my life here.

I think that Britain has always had a place in its heart for those who are desperate and in need of refuge. Even in the 1930’s and 40’s we took in tens of thousands of Jewish people fleeing Nazi Germany. Many people are rightly extraordinarily proud of that and Jewish culture continues to enrich British society to this very day.

Sadly, there will always be people who are prejudiced, whether you are talking about religion, race, nationality or sexuality, but I have never let that taint my view that this country is, on the whole, incredibly welcoming and tolerant.

I know that, watching the scenes at Kabul Airport, many kind-hearted people will want this Government to do all it can to protect those fleeing persecution - especially those who have put themselves in danger by supporting British operations. I absolutely share this view and it is clear we have a duty to these people.

To put the Afghanistani Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme into context, it is one of the most generous schemes ever put in place by a British government and I think that is a reflection of our commitment to the Afghan people. Rightly, the scheme is ensuring priority is given to women and girls, and religious and other minorities, who are most at risk of human rights abuses.

It is also important to note that the route will be kept under constant review and will be operationally flexible depending on how events continue to evolve on the ground.

I know that the people of Stratford pride themselves on being warm, tolerant and altruistic, and I have every confidence they will make these families feel welcome in their new home. One of the most important things anyone can do is to be patient and understanding. While offering sanctuary to refugees is a crucial lifeline, I can speak from experience when I say it is an extremely daunting experience arriving in a new country, with a new culture and a new language.

There is also a Government website, helprefugees.campaign.gov.uk, which has lots of information on how you can give your time or donate goods, such as clothing. There is also information regarding offering employment to refugees and the details of various charities which specialise in this area. I would strongly recommend that anyone determined to make our new neighbours feel at home visit the website.

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