A mountain landscape, with a verdant Kabul to Bamyan road running through it.

In the middle of it all…

Most of us have watched and read about the horrific events in Afghanistan and hoped for a safe and speedy resolution for all but, ultimately, we are able to move on with our days. We take for granted the kindness of others, the feeling of being safe, hope for the future and the support of our community. But Rukhsar reminds us in her piece below that these things are also a privilege.

She and her family fled Afghanistan for the UK in 1997 when she was just three years old and she eloquently shares her thoughts and feelings on the current crisis – to help you, the reader, to understand the journey of misplaced Afghan peoples and what they are now facing, so far away from home. Rukhsar’s letter is intelligent, courageous and informative. It gives tremendous insight into what it is really like to leave a country and sacrifice everything you own and have worked for in order to be safe and free. What she asks of us is simple.

— Nick Brennan, National Sales Manager, Canon UK

“It has taken a huge amount of courage for me to decide to talk about a topic that has shaped me, hurt me, and built me into a strong woman today. The subject of my home, my country and where I am from. I am asked, ‘so, Riki where are you really from?’ Home has been a complicated subject for me from a very young age. I hope to share and enlighten my readers on my experience and feelings towards the recent crisis in Afghanistan. Sharing my personal struggles, fights, and becoming a voice for those who can’t reach out and for those who may also relate to a similar journey.

I am British and extremely proud of a country which offered my family sanctuary after we escaped the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1997. Although my family were forced to start again from scratch, I grew up in London knowing that if we hadn’t left, as a young girl, I wouldn’t have had access to education and opportunities in Afghanistan. My family fought the pain and left what was called home for a better and more secure future. The cost felt was the loss of comfort and luxury and everything you have ever worked for – gone. Today being an Afghan woman is more important to me than ever, to be the voice of women in Afghanistan that left everything they ever worked for and built in the last two decades. Hearing stories growing up about the loss and hurt of my family, I hoped to make a difference once I grew older. My family having the opportunity to escape the war, I was one of the few fortunate kids that got away. This always plays in my head, what can I do to make a difference today.

A head and shoulders photo of a little child, wearing a white and yellow top and with a high ponytail, held with a red bow. She is facing left and has one hand raised to her cheek.
“I was bullied for being an Afghan – something I had no control over – and was confused as to why me being from a place or country in the globe could make me a terrible person.”
A black and white photo of a woman, a young child and a man hugging together for a selfie. They wear winter coats and are all smiling and happy.
“Growing up, I realised that I will never be ‘too Afghan’ or ‘too British’, I will be what’s in the middle of the two.”

The struggle that comes with the movement and being the ‘immigrant’, the ‘outcast’, the ‘exile’; it’s not easy. The spectacle of ‘Orientalism’ that still exists in society and the never-ending stereotyping is what makes it all ever so difficult to settle in a new environment. For some that may not be aware of the term, it’s a way of seeing that imagines, emphasises, exaggerates and distorts differences of Asia and the Middle East’s people and cultures. It often involves seeing the East’s culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. Edward W. Said, in his ground-breaking book, Orientalism, defined it as the acceptance in the West of “the basic distinction between East and West. The constant alteration of the name, culture, image and values. The need to fit and belong to a place is what makes the migrant, constantly transcending in what they do and achieve.”

For me, leaving Afghanistan at the age of three meant this was home. I started school in Warwick Avenue, had my first friends, a joyful childhood, and an interesting transition to becoming a young woman. I grew up in the heart of London, a city that is known for its inclusive diversity and culture. A city that acknowledges that all cultural expressions are valid. A city that values what many cultures bring to the table and where all are welcome. To me, home is a feeling that one gives to you, a connection that you feel and the memories you make. However, the journey of growing up in juxtaposed cultures and learning how to balance and lead the two are not simple. This is not something I did overnight, but I taught myself to love and appreciate both sides and see the fortune of being in the middle with its complexities. Growing up, I realised that I will never be ‘too Afghan’ or ‘too British’, I will be what’s in the middle of the two.

In light of the recent events in Afghanistan, it has been a very emotional time for me. A whole new generation is reliving my parent’s nightmare of fleeing the Taliban once again. History has repeated itself. A generation that built Afghanistan in the last 20 years is unfortunately now witnessing it collapse before their eyes. Women and girls have been significant in welcoming some big changes to Afghanistan in the past two decades. My thoughts are with the women that have lost everything today and being told to kill their dreams and aspirations for a new government. Thinking about the trauma of these refugees, the mental state of what they have faced and what they will be facing when they try to begin a new life, all over again. For some it’s just the beginning of a bittersweet journey.

Right: A portrait of Rukhsar Barakzai. Left: a quote that reads: “It hurts me today to see thousands of afghans evacuated and scattered around the globe. It was my family 20 years ago behind those gates, fleeing the crisis.”

They are now in an entirely new domain and must adjust to a new-fangled culture and a whole new way of life. This is not easy when you don’t speak or understand the language. I think to myself, when did my family get the time to heal? It seems that the healing process is not part of the migrant’s journey. The constant yearning of building a stable tomorrow, was taking over. My family have managed to achieve a lot to be proud of. Approaching the unknown with tons of hopes and dreams, that were the only thing they were left with. This is the reason it hurts me today to see thousands of Afghans evacuated and scattered around the globe. It was my family 26 years ago behind those gates, fleeing the crisis.

During the 9/11 attacks at the age of eight I was bullied for being an Afghan – something I had no control over – and was confused as to why me being from a place or country in the globe could make me a terrible person. This is the trauma I had to carry as a child. I wish I told the young me to be kinder to myself. Today it’s a very different age compared to 20 years ago. The emergence of technology and social media have given everyone a voice and platform to speak for what they stand for. We have no excuse to be uninformed or ignorant in today’s digital world, where we live, eat, and breathe with our phones and technology.

The thought that they may experience discrimination, due to the sentiment surrounding the immigrants in the West today, breaks my heart. Therefore, I wish to build consciousness and ask my readers; how can we bring change? How can we be more empathetic towards people of all races and cultures? How can we be more mindful of how we judge and make others feel with our words and actions? Most of all, how we can all work together in becoming each other’s asset, instead of being in clusters and labels that society and media wish to give us. Carrying the labels that the media portrayed of my homeland was a wound I grew up with.

Today I am working for Canon, one of the world’s leading brands. I want to be able to use my platform to build awareness on a matter that’s very close to my heart. I have been with many organisations in my career, but none have given me the courage to speak so openly about delicate topics such as mental health, race, culture, and equality like Canon has. I was able to turn to Canon’s BAME group to voice feelings and concerns, and I am grateful to have a team that care to bring a difference. I wish to complete by saying, please be compassionate and please be kind towards those refugees that have left and lost everything. They are coming with many hopes and dreams for themselves and their kids, let’s display the care and support they need. Let’s learn to celebrate differences, not just tolerate them.”

Written by Rukhsar Barakzai, Commercial Account Manager, Canon UK