Hundreds of Afghan refugees evacuated to Milton Keynes give heartfelt thanks to the 'lovely' people who have welcomed them

The Citizen spent time with the refugee's spokesman for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how they are living

Thursday, 16th September 2021, 3:31 pm
Updated Thursday, 16th September 2021, 10:49 pm

Almost 600 men, women and children have been evacuated from Afghanistan to make their temporary home in Milton Keynes.

They families, who average between six and eight children apiece, were placed here by the Home Office and are currently living in three hotels.

Many arrived with nothing after a 'nightmare' rush to leave their country, their jobs and their precious possessions in order to flee the Taliban. The 'lucky ones' were able to bring a couple of small bags containing spare clothes and treasured family photographs.

This is one single family of refugees living in the Newport Pagnell hotel. We have not shown their faces to protect the parents.

What they all have in common is fear for their relatives and loved ones left behind - and an overwhelming gratitude to the people of Milton Keynes who have helped them in their plight.

"We were lucky. We were able to bring some clothes and one pair of shoes each for our six children," said Sham, a former British Embassy worker who has five daughters and one son, all aged between four and 14.

"But some people came with nothing. Nothing but themselves. That was hard."

One of the fleeing refugees, as he approached the Taliban checkpoint in Kabul airport, was holding in his arms a child and the family's single bag of possessions. He was told: "You can take either the child or the bag - not both."

The Afghan children are so engaging and happy

Obviously he handed over the bag and the family arrived with just the clothes they were wearing.

Shams said: "The people of Milton Keynes, the council, the local church, so many people, all came to help us. They donated everything they could so we all had what we needed. It has been amazing and we all want to say a very big thank you."

Newport Pagnell, a town known for its community spirit, was the first to extend a welcome. UK government officials initially got in contact with the town's Baptist Church, giving them less than 48 hours' notice that up to 200 refugees were being placed in the town's Harben House hotel in Tickford Street.

The church and its congregation sprang into action and, with the help of local Lib Dem councillor Paul Trendall, organised a campaign to make sure the tired, scared and bewildered families were given a huge welcome.

Harben House hotel pulled out all the stops to accommodate the refugees with little notice from the government

"I don't know why the Baptist Church was chosen," said Paul, "It's possible they were on some government list for providing help. But they were certainly amazing."

The hotel itself quickly learned to adapt to its new guests, arranging for Halal food to be served and finding enough space for the king-sized families to sleep and eat.

Soon hundreds more refugees arrived in MK, this time being sent to two other large hotels in the borough. By this time the team co-ordinating their welcome was growing and, joined by Lib Dem councillor Jane Carr and Labour's Emily Darlington, continued to organise massive donations and collections of clothing, toys, nappies, baby equipment and toiletries with almost military precision.

They put out appeal on social media and the response was colossal.

Just one of the massive piles of donations from the community

Soon the donations were coming in such volumes that two local mosques had to be used as drop off points. The former army base at Chicksands was utilised to store and sort them, said Paul, who is armed forces champion for the council.

Part of Saxon Court, which currently houses city's vaccination centre at CMK, is also being used a drop off centre for donations, with teams of volunteers sorting and distributing to the growing but empty-handed Afghan community.

"We were so grateful," said Shams. "We didn't know what the welcome would be like but it has been wonderful. The people of Milton Keynes have been so generous. It's more than we ever expected."

With the British 'summer' considerable cooler than Afghan temperatures, warm clothes were urgently needed - and given in abundance.

"The refugees were cold and shivering. Their clothes were not adequate for our climate, even in summer time. They found it hard to believe that this was our summer!" said Paul.

"Sometimes we'd have to run specific appeals. For example, we discovered hairbrushes were urgently needed by the women and children. I guess a hairbrush is not a priority when you have to fit your whole life in a couple of small bags."

Lib Dem councillor Paul Trendell is one of the team of volunteers working almost non-stop to help the refugees

After a while, the volunteers had to put out a special appeal for bags and suitcases.

"They arrived with nothing, or just a carrier bag, and now they've actually got clothes and possessions. They need somewhere to put them," he said.

Other 'luxury goods', such as a simple bar of soap, were received with enormous gratitude, along with toys and games for the children.

Keeping the large number of children amused in a confined hotel space posed a problem initially

"People in Afghanistan marry early, usually aged 20, 21, or 22, and we have big families. Six to eight children is the average number. Sometimes there are more," said Shams.

"With that many children, all together in a hotel, the noise levels are high. It's difficult to keep them occupied. But the council organised classes for them, doing drawing and games and learning the English alphabet. They are enjoying those.

"Our families also take their children to the local parks. There are so many lovely parks here. They can run about on the grass and use up all that energy before returning to the hotel. They're a big group and they all play together."

Volunteers have been captivated by the youngsters, who are always polite and smiling, they say.

"The children are lovely," said Paul, who is councillor for the Campbell Park and Old Woughton ward. "Whenever you see them they have a great big beam on their faces. They've been through hell and back, but they're still smiling and so engaging."

Shams said: "The children are happy because they feel safe here. They didn't feel safe in Afghanistan any more. The adults feel safe too but we still have worries. We worry about members still living in Afghanistan and we always listen to the news of what is happening there. The Taliban say things are okay but we do not trust hat they say."

Meanwhile, volunteers have organised everything from cricket matches to picnics to keep the families occupied and entertained.

Sham and his fellow refugees have already fallen in love with Milton Keynes and its kind-hearted community. But very few of them, if any, are likely to stay here. The opinion - of a minority of social media critics - that they are 'taking homes' from local people who need them is totally inaccurate.

"The Home Office is relocating us all the time to new homes and it could be anywhere in the UK," said Shams. "We do not get to choose. We are hoping and praying the UK government will find us enough homes for us all in suitable places with communities as kind as Milton Keynes."

Some refugees are lucky enough to have friends of relatives already settled in the UK and plan to stay with them long term.

But sadly the new life arranged by the government has proved difficult for a couple of the re-housed local families already.

"One family was sent to live in Wales in a far-flung place and one to Scotland. They are lonely as there is no other members of the Afghan community. They are finding it hard to cope with finding out how to get to the market for groceries and find places to worship," said Shams.

Language is another barrier. More than half the families currently living in the Newport Pagnell hotel speak no English. They are trying to learn, but it's a race against time before they have to settle in their permanent home and live without their current safety net of support.

"These people have been through so much and many have mental health problems as a result, We support each other and we have Whats App groups asking all the time if people are okay or need help or information," said Shams.

He believes his community will be an asset to the UK once they have settled.

"We have skilled people from all professions who can work and do their bit to help the UK. We have lorry drivers, mechanics, chefs, technicians... there are so many skills.

"We can use those skills to repay the kindness that people have shown us. We really want to do that."