Eight months after fleeing the Taliban, I still live in a hotel

When I got off the plane from Kabul to England in August 2021, I had no idea what to expect.

I was overwhelmed by the crowd at the airport – all the beautiful big smiles and the huge ‘Refugees welcome’ banners.

For a moment, I forgot where I came from, all the chaos and violence I had witnessed just 24 hours ago. It was as if I got another chance to live, but this time in dreamland.

But then the memories all rolled back.

As I lay on my new bed in the hotel, I closed my eyes and all I could see were the heartbreaking scenes during my departure from my homeland – wounded people lying everywhere and the awful constant sound of shots, rockets and sirens .

Kabul while Afghans tried to flee

It all happened so fast (Photo: Keyhan)

Worst of all was the thought of the two boys I saw falling off the plane. I thought about those left at the airport and whether there was any hope or future for them or for my country.

I am one of the Afghan refugees who have been evacuated from Kabul, and for the last eight months I have lived with my memories in a hotel that is a halfway house between my new life and the old, and longed to find a way to move on.

It all happened so fast.

One day I was a photographer, taking pictures for NGOs and going to my happy and healthy family, and the next day I had no idea where everyone was except they were on the run.

At the words ‘Kabul has fallen’, the city fell into chaos. Everyone left their belongings and their homes and came on foot to the airport in a desperate attempt to escape. I could not believe my own eyes. Kabul was the last capital city in the country to withstand the Taliban offensive, but now it had fallen, it had fallen hard.

Afghans are trying to flee Kabul after the Taliban takeover

On the advice of my friends in the NGOs, I ran to the airport (Photo: Keyhan)

As a photographer living in Afghanistan, I decided to make a documentary as soon as the Taliban took over – around the beginning of August last year. I thought it was my job to show the world what was happening in Kabul.

I would get footage showing Taliban fighters swinging weapons and attacking innocent people. I wanted to capture the desperation of people running around or sleeping in abandoned department stores, struggling to find food, shelter, and other basic necessities.

But on August 19, I was captured by some Taliban fighters, beaten half to death and left wounded on the streets. At that moment, the only thing I could think of was to get my strength back and run. And I ran.

On the advice of my friends in the NGOs, I ran to the airport and – after four days without eating or drinking – I was offered a seat on a plane to the UK. To be honest, at first I felt so lucky and I was over the moon. But then, when I got to the airport, this feeling dissolved and I felt overwhelmed by the thought of leaving.

It was only when my plane took off that I realized I was actually about to leave my home. I started blaming myself for leaving my family – even though my brother was with me, I knew my parents were home without any clear information about me as I had been waiting at the airport for four days.

Afghans are trying to flee Kabul

Afghan refugees deal with trauma and anxiety on a daily basis (Photo: Keyhan)

Because I was worried about my cell phone battery and other security issues, I rarely contacted them during that difficult time. I also left behind my friends and most importantly my country.

I told myself that I had been given a second chance for a reason – to become a better photographer and use my lens to show people a different perspective.

As a kid growing up in the 2000s, I heard and read so much about the beauty of the UK. Now, as a 23-year-old man when I arrived at the airport, I could not wait to meet all the people who had come to welcome us.

But first we had to be quarantined, and then we were driven to a hotel in a small town an hour outside London. I thought it would be a short stay, but I’m still here today.

The hotel is really nice, but it is not ‘home’. I can not become friends with people from the local community, or invite them to a meal, because I am not allowed to visit, or cook my own food.

Keyhan stared out of his hotel window

I hope that when I step out of the hotel doors for the last time, I will be able to start looking into the future (Image: Keyhan)

At first, when there were only a few families in the hotel, they served good food to us, but as they brought more families, the quality got worse. Eventually I decided to avoid the hotel food and now I buy fruits and vegetables I can eat raw and without cooking.

I can not take root, because I do not know how long I will stay here. It’s hard to feel like you belong when you do not have a home.

That is why I support the Homes for Afghans campaign, which calls on the government to recognize the incredible welcome shown by members of the British public to both Afghan refugees back in August and Ukrainian refugees right now. We should use the power of the communities to resettle Afghan families like my own in a way that really allows us to rebuild our lives.

From my own experience so far – although some Afghans are being offered housing – there is no proper matching exercise. For example, a specialist journalist I know who already works in London was offered a home in Scotland, which does not make much sense to anyone.

It would also help if the government communicated more regularly with those of us who are still in hotels. They would come once a week in the beginning, but then it became rarer and I have not heard from anyone now for a month and a half.

Afghan child stands behind wire fence in Kabul

I hope peace returns to Afghanistan one day (Image: Keyhan)

Afghan refugees deal daily with trauma and anxiety. Many families simply do not know what it’s like in the UK outside their hotel – and they’re scared.

Hearing how different communities welcomed former groups of refugees such as Syrians and Bosnians would make them more confident that they will have a support network when they move to a more permanent place.

Growing up in Afghanistan for my generation was not easy, but we naively believed that the Taliban era was ancient history.

I have always wanted to build my future, near unbridled dreams and have imagined myself as a great documentary filmmaker.

Now – even though I’ve been stuck in this hotel for eight months – I remind myself that I’m safe and that when I get the chance, I’ll do my best to continue my studies in photography and visual arts.

I hope that when I step out of the hotel doors for the last time, I will be able to start looking into the future.

I hope that peace returns to Afghanistan one day and that I can return and make documentaries about my country and let people see how beautiful Afghanistan is without war.

* Name has been changed for security reasons.

Immigration Nation

Immigration Nation is a series that aims to destigmatize the word ‘immigrant’ and explore the powerful first-person stories of people who have arrived in the UK – and called it home. If you have a story you would like to share, send an email to james.besanvalle@metro.co.uk

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