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Afghanistan ACAA
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Meet the Londoner who set up a community centre for refugees

Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi fled civil war in Afghanistan and is now helping other refugees in London adjust to life in the city

By Dominique Sisley

In 1999, Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi arrived in the UK for the first time. After fleeing a civil war in his homeland of Afghanistan, he’d undertaken a six-month, cross-continental journey with his family to seek refuge. The final stage took nine hours and involved being smuggled into a refrigerated container and sent to Dover. Since then, Nasimi has worked to help other refugees get settled in the UK. In 2001, he launched the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), which provides support for those struggling to adjust to life in the UK.

I didn’t know anything about the UK before I arrived. I’d heard that it was very different, and that it had one of the best democracies in the world. But at the time, I was just happy that I had found somewhere I could live without fear of persecution.

It’s still incredibly welcoming, but the city has changed a lot. When I came to the UK, it felt a lot more relaxed. Job Centres were just places where you could sign [on] every two weeks. Now, they’re like detention centres – full of security and staff asking questions. For people new to the country it’s a complex process. It’s not how it used to be.

When I arrived, I was given yoghurt, tea, coffee and a Snickers bar by the UK Border Agency. It was my first taste of British food. Everyone was so helpful in the first few days: we were really looked after.

The first place I lived in London was New Cross. It was the first time I’d seen a society with people from that many different cultures.

People from all over the world live in London. They support each other. That’s why most refugee communities feel more comfortable in the UK than they do in the rest of the world.

Learning English has been the biggest challenge for me. If you can’t speak properly, then you don’t know what’s going on in society. We try to prioritise that at the ACAA.

I’m very big on history, so I love living here. I like to walk by the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge – they’re hundreds of years old, and you can feel it when you look at them.

London is a unique city. If you’re Arab you can go to Edgware Road, if you’re Turkish you can go to Wood Green, if you’re Bangladeshi you can go to Whitechapel. Anyone can find a home here.

I live in Hounslow now and there’s a great sense of community. We moved here because it’s where the AACA is. It’s close to Heathrow airport, so it makes sense. We wanted to fill the gap, because there was no Afghan centre nearby. I see so many Afghan people on the street here. I feel like I’m at home.

Afghanistan and Central Asian Association. Unit 9, Griffin Centre. Staines Rd, TW14 0HS. 

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