From Afghanistan to Cambridge

Rabia Nasimi

BY CANDIECE CYRUS
toby@slpmedia.co.uk

A postgraduate student has spoken of her gruelling journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan to the hallowed portals of Cambridge University.

Rabia Nasimi, 22, graduated with her masters degree from London School for Economics in 2016 and is now studying for her sociology doctorate at Cambridge University. Speaking of her family’s journey to the UK as refugees, Rabia, from Deptford, said: “I could not be happier with my parents’ decision to risk the travel to the UK.

“Studying would have been impossible had my family stayed in Afghanistan, because of the status of women there and the comparatively underdeveloped educational system.

“If lucky, I would probably have been taking a similar route to my female cousins living in Kabul,
staying home and doing what every female is assigned to do – household chores and awaiting marriage.”

Last week information released to the MP David Lammy, under the Freedom of Information Act showed that Oxbridge is admitting fewer students of minority backgrounds. The figures showed that 82 per cent of offers from Oxford and 81 per cent from Cambridge went to students from the top two socio-economic groups in 2015, up from 79 per cent at both universities five years earlier.

However, for people like Rabia, an education, especially one at such an institution as Cambridge, is far removed from the life she could have had had she stayed in Afghanistan. The student has visited the country in 2007, and has returned five times.

She said: “I can remember the first time we planned to go, me and my siblings were so frightened we bought long, modest outfits.

Rabia Nasimi concentrating on her studies

“Once we were there, we had our scarves worn tightly around our heads. All we could remember was stories we had read from books and heard from family, and it was as if it was all coming back to life.

“We didn’t go out of our home alone – we were always accompanied by a male guardian. Even on my latest trip last year, I still didn’t feel comfortable going out on my own.

“There were women – normally middle-aged – who did go out alone, unlike during the Taliban regime”

“I would feel a constant stare by men as I would walk past them. They would do anything to catch your attention. I always had this feeling that someone would follow me, and I’d never come back. So I always made sure I was with someone that could take care of me if need be.”

The student was only five years old when her family made the life-changing decision to flee to the UK. Now she helps run the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), a charity founded by her father, Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi, in 2001, 12 years after fleeing his homeland. The organisation, which is based in Deptford Broadway, supports refugee integration in the UK through services such as ESOL, supplementary school, mentoring, advice and events, and has received funding from DfID to run two Citizens’ Advice Bureaux in Kabul and Baghlans provinces.

Speaking of his native country before he and his family fled, Dr Nasimi said: “It was not easy to do anything – to get work or even go outside our home. If you were educated you could be targeted. You could end up in prison or tortured.

“If we had stayed, my wife would not have been allowed to work, my daughters would not have been able to go to school. If I disagreed with the Taliban’s ideology they would torture me, put me in prison. They burnt down schools. They could do whatever they wanted.”

The family’s journey was riddled with danger, the hardest at the last stage of their journey from Calais to Dover as they paid an agent to ferry them across the English Channel in a container with nine other people, a journey which took almost 10 hours.

“An immigration team opened the door and welcomed us to the UK,” said Dr Nasimi. “We chose the UK because the people have a long history with Afghanistan.”

Rabia said: “I hope once I finish my studies I can be more involved in improving the lives of Afghans.”