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  • Writer's picturejoeseaton2

Tough times for displaced pregnant British Council teacher

I first met Sadaf when she arrived for a training day at the British Council Office at the British Embassy in Kabul, back in 2018. She had already accepted a role as a teacher with the British Council, and joined the ‘English for Afghans’ team shortly after we met.

‘English for Afghans’ was a large-scale, countrywide education programme funded by the UK Government, and we made sure we recruited the best teachers to deliver the programme. Sadaf was assigned to teach classes at two key Afghan Government ministries: the ‘Ministry of Education’ and the ‘Ministry of Women’s Affairs’. (The latter has since been closed by the Taliban, who replaced it with the ‘Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’ - yeah - you read that correctly).

As a teacher, she was part of the public-facing team of British Council employees, who delivered our programmes face to face with local recipients. Interestingly, prior to the fall of Afghanistan, the employees who worked in the British Council office at the British Embassy were all relocated to safety in the UK under the ARAP scheme, but all the teachers, like Sadaf, who had done the public-facing work, were left behind.

The work Sadaf did for us meant she was recognisable and well known within her community. Teaching ministry staff on behalf of the British Council was both high-profile and controversial. In particular, teaching at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs meant she had to cover sensitive issues on a daily basis.

Like all our teachers, Sadaf was very aware of the fact that the British Council had previously been the target of multiple Taliban attacks. Even before the Taliban took over the country, she knew her role was dangerous. She was aware that the values promoted by the British Council were very much at odds with many everyday Afghan values, and the antithesis of hard-line Taliban values.

When the Taliban took power in August 2021, British Council teachers were suddenly in far greater danger. All international organisations were mistrusted by the new Taliban leadership, and in particular organisations associated with the UK and USA. Sadaf was a known employee of the British Council. Many suspected her of ‘being a spy for the British’.

Like all the other British Council teachers, she realised she had no choice but to go into hiding. She was aware that her life was in immediate danger and she knew she had to disappear. Many of her former colleagues have since been the victims of physical violence and threats at the hands of the Taliban.

While it was clear to Sadaf that life in Afghanistan was too dangerous for her, she felt powerless to do anything about her situation. She had applied for the UK Government’s ARAP scheme, but had been rejected, even though she had met all the criteria. She moved house several times, so that there was less chance of her being identified by the Taliban, or by those within her community, and remained in hiding.

When the UK Government announced the ACRS scheme in 2022, she applied, and eventually received approval. She was instructed to gather the necessary documentation and travel to Pakistan to await relocation to the UK. She already had a passport, but needed to get a visa for herself and a visa and passport for her husband.

While obtaining travel documents is fairly uncomplicated for most people living in the UK, for Afghans, it is always difficult. After the Taliban took power, getting the required paperwork became much harder, and came with much greater costs.

In the end, Sadaf realised her only option was to apply for an ‘urgent visa’, through a broker on the black-market. This process avoided direct interaction with Taliban officials and meant she wouldn’t have to wait months and months for the visa. However, ‘urgent visas’ were priced at a cool $1,100 each. After a year and half living in hiding, with no income, money had long been tight. The couple had used what remaining funds they had to buy food and pay rent in the temporary safe-houses they had occupied.

The one thing Sadaf still had was her wedding jewellery. In Afghanistan, gold jewellery is given to the bride as a gift from the new husband and his family. Reluctantly, she sold all her wedding jewellery, save her wedding ring, to fund the cost of the 2 visas, and at last she and her husband were ready to make their way to a safer life.

In late February of this year, they travelled by car from Kabul to a drop-off location, so that they could walk to the Torkham border crossing. The walk was long and arduous, with the couple bringing only the essential possessions they could carry in their hands, and nothing more. As she walked, Sadaf started to feel unwell.

She hoped the feeling was just the fatigue of the endless walking, or the stress of trying to cross the border unharmed by thieves or the Taliban. The long walk left her completely exhausted, but at the border checkpoint they had to wait a further 5 hours, queuing with others trying to escape Afghanistan. She continued to feel ill, but still hoped it was just the exhaustion and stress that were taking their toll on her body. In the back of her mind was the thought that the feeling could be something else, something far more important.

As the queue moved and they got closer to the checkpoint, her anxiety grew. She’d had to dress carefully, and keep her face fully covered, as Taliban guards at the crossing would refuse anyone not dressed according to their strict code. She’d known she would be subjected to a thorough search at the border, so she’d been careful when packing her belongings, making sure she had all the right documents, and also ensuring she had no paperwork connecting her with the British Council or UK Government. She’d done everything correctly, but still the fear and tension were hard to bear.

Eventually Sadaf and her husband managed to get through the border crossing and into Pakistan, where they were met by the IOM (International Organisation for Migration). The IOM officer directed them to their designated hotel in Islamabad, and the couple handed over their passports. Sadaf was relieved to have at last escaped Afghanistan, but she still felt very unwell. She knew she needed to see a doctor, but having spent the last of her money on the visas, she simply couldn’t afford to. The couple had barely any money between them, let alone enough to see a doctor in Pakistan.

She hoped she would start to get better. She hoped she would stop feeling sick, but instead of getting better, she got worse, and worse. At the same time, what she had been suspecting started to become more obvious. She realised that there was a good possibility she was pregnant. She had been pregnant twice before, but had lost both previous pregnancies to miscarriage. She didn’t want the same thing to happen again, but she had no way of seeing a doctor.

She wrote repeatedly to the IOM and ACRS to get support, but her emails were not responded to. The organisation who had instructed her to travel to Pakistan (ACRS/ FCDO), and the organisation responsible for her while she waited there (the IOM), simply didn’t reply. Then, after being in Islamabad for 3 months, her Pakistani visa expired. This meant she could no longer leave her hotel without fear of being arrested and deported back to Afghanistan. This made her life even more difficult. She couldn’t even go out to try to get cheap medicine or food.

Eventually, last week, she managed to get the support to see a doctor. This was the first time she had been able to access healthcare since she reached Pakistan. Having already lost 2 babies, it had been an extremely stressful wait for her. She managed to get a contact in Pakistan to take her to the doctor. She still feared being stopped, questioned by the police and deported for being in the country without a valid visa, but with her various health issues and the pregnancy, she knew she had to take a chance.

Sadaf is not a clueless person, aimlessly drifting where life takes her. She is not haplessly waiting for the world to offer her a free ticket to a different life. She is an able, educated Afghan woman. She is passionate about the rights and the plight of Afghan women, and she is passionate about the education of the Afghan people. She herself has committed many years to education – she has completed a degree and 2 Masters’ programmes at universities in Afghanistan. She is determined to educate herself, and dreams of an Afghanistan where education is available to all. She had hoped to go on to complete a PhD in Education, but the Taliban takeover put paid to those plans.

She has faced many hardships in her life in Afghanistan, many that she would not allow me to write about, even though I am using a false name for her. Sadly, many of the challenges she has experienced more recently are as a direct result of her work for the British Council, and the UK Government’s failure to realise their responsibility to her, and others like her, who risked everything to work for us and were then left to fend for themselves.

Now she continues to wait in her hotel room in Islamabad. She was so pleased when she first got the job with the British Council back in 2018 and became part of the ‘English for Afghans’ programme. She believed in the goals of the programme, and the values we claimed to stand for. Now she has regrets, as the implications of being involved with the organisation have caused real disruption to her life, and the UK has so far done very little to provide support.

Like all the teachers, Sadaf hopes that the UK Government and the British Council will stand by their promises to assist those who supported the UK-effort in Afghanistan. Despite repeated promises by the current and former Prime Ministers, so far, only 4 British Council teachers have been relocated to the UK under the ACRS scheme, with the vast majority remaining in hiding in Afghanistan, or stuck in cramped hotels in Pakistan.

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