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Family ‘safe now from the Taliban’

City extends welcome to refugees who fled Afghanistan with nothing

01 October, 2021 — By Angela Cobbinah

Fereidoun and Wahida Ansari

THEY look like an ordinary couple enjoying a lovely autumn day in the park, mingling with relaxed crowds and office workers eating lunch.

But just weeks earlier Fereidoun and Wahida Ansari were locked in a living nightmare as they waited with their three children to be airlifted from Kabul airport alongside thousands of other terrified souls in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

This was after a gruelling six-hour journey to the capital by car, followed by a tense stand-off with Taliban fighters who initially barred their way. With the help of British troops the family was eventually escorted onto a military plane, their worldly goods packed into just three small bags.

“We were in great danger as the Taliban were picking and choosing people to target and who to let through,” said Wahida in an American accent.

“They lashed my husband with a whip and they threatened to shoot me. But we are safe now. The British troops were awesome and the hospitality of the British people has been awesome too.”

Wahida and her family are among Afghan refugees being temporarily housed in hotels by Westminster and Camden councils. They arrived at Heathrow on August 26, the very day suicide bombings at Kabul airport resulted in the deaths of scores of would-be evacuees.

“We do not know what the future holds and we are in a completely different environment, but we feel protected,” Wahida declares softly. She and her family lived a comfortable life in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where her husband ran a pipe-making factory and she taught English.

They and their daughters, aged five to 14, were forced to flee after Kabul fell to the Taliban. As members of the Tajik minority they were an automatic target of the Taliban, who are predominantly Pashtun. To make matters worse, Fereidoun holds a British passport, which he acquired as a refugee from an earlier Taliban regime.

“When we got to Kabul, we had to get to [a hotel] where the British still had authority. The Taliban said I could go through but not my husband. There was no way that could happen as we needed him by our side.”

As she talks Wahida constantly has to catch her breath due to an auto-immune disease that attacks her respiratory system. Despite her condition, she managed to summon the strength to argue with the fighters who, having whipped her husband, threatened to shoot her.

She said: “I said if you want to shoot me, then shoot me but you are shooting a sick woman, and they left me alone.”

But she had not given up. “I approached a younger Talib and asked for his help. He felt sorry for me because I was clearly sick.”

In the end the whole family managed to make it to British lines, where soldiers immediately attended to Wahida, getting her an inhaler.

Their ordeal was not yet over though. They spent hours in a parking lot waiting to be processed. Then there was another wait at the airport before being flown to Dubai. After spending the night in the airport there they boarded another plane for London.

Just like her husband, this is the second time Wahida has had to flee her troubled homeland. In 1986, aged six, she arrived in America with her parents and six siblings to escape the conflict between the Soviet-backed government and the US-backed Mujahideen, precursors of the Taliban, hence her perfect English and forthright American manner.

In her teens she returned to Afghanistan, where she met her future husband. The couple have two older children, a son studying in the US and married daughter who, for now, remains in Afghanistan.

“Our three daughters here are still in a state of shock, especially the youngest who was frightened by the Taliban gunfire,” said Fereidoun. “But the main thing is that they now feel safe.”

While he is quiet and calm, Wahida is full of nervous energy, describing how, despite her illness, she is giving daily English lessons to refugees at the hotel. “I now have a hundred students,” she says proudly. “It is a way of helping my fellow Afghanis be independent and enjoy life here, especially the children.”

As they look back on their escape, the couple take a dim view of the US-supported government of Ashraf Ghani, who fled Afghanistan as Kabul fell.

“He was a professor before so what did he know about running a country? It is the same for [his predecessor Hamid] Karzai, he had only run a restaurant in America,” said Wahida.

As for the Taliban, they are “so harsh and nasty and have not changed. My daughter attends university and a curtain has been placed in her class to divide the men from the women. We love our country and can only hope for the best.”

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