From refugee to activist: An interview with Dr. Nooralhaq Nasimi


Born in 1967 in the Ghorband District in the Parwan province, a multi-ethnic and largely rural district in eastern Afghanistan, Dr. Nooralhaq Nasimi grew up in a region steeped in history and at the cross-roads of civilisation. Alexander founded the settlement of Parwan and the Alexandria of the Caucasus in 329 B.C and from then on the province has seen the invasion of the Mongols under Genghis Khan, the Khwarezmian Empire, the Timurids, the Mughals, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now hosts soldiers from the United States and NATO. 

Dr. Nasimi was only nine years old when he started his involvement in social community projects in Ghorband in an effort to support education for his fellow classmates in school. Since then, education and social projects have been central to his passions and his life achievements as he has immersed himself for decades in the charity sector and the wider world of human rights and refugees.

At twelve years of age, Dr. Nasimi was a witness to the Soviet Union's historic invasion of Afghanistan (1979) and the insurgency against the subsequent occupation established by Moscow. Dr. Nasimi left Afghanistan in 1989 to study law in Odessa, Ukraine after the end of the Soviet Union's nine year occupation of Afghanistan. On his return in 1999 he returned to a country which had descended into a nightmarish civil war. Political fragmentation, economic meltdown, ethnic and sectarian warfare had engulfed Afghanistan in the 1990s. However, it was the rise of the Taleban which changed Dr. Nasimi and his family's lives dramatically. The terrorist organisation and movement of the Taleban (students) from Islamic madrasahs (seminaries) who were living as refugees in Pakistan vowed to bring peace to Afghanistan, establish law and order, disarm the population, and impose sharia (Islamic law). 

The political vacuum left behind by the bloody Afghan Civil War opened the space for the group to seize Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, consolidate their power and drive numerous ethnic and religious groups from the country including religiously tolerant and secular Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews. The brutality of the Taleban's puritanical ideology and doctrine, the torture, disappearances and execution of liberals and educated men and women, forced Dr. Nasimi, his wife and three children to eventually flee the country in 1999. 

From Afghanistan as refugees they fled to the United Kingdom where they found asylum in London and have lived in Deptford. Since then, Dr. Nasimi has opened the Afghanistan and Central Asia Association (26th October, 2003). With a wealth of experience, his time as a refugee and his background in politics and law has empowered and enabled him and his team to push forward on these projects. In February, he sat down with me to discuss the past, the present, and the future in the UK and Afghanistan. 

What are you earliest memories of Afghanistan? 

My earliest memories are very tragic and painful when I remember my life at the school and the village I grew up in. I grew up in a very poor family and poverty made it very difficult to attend school. However, I managed to finish school successfully, applied for a university education, and became heavily involved in social and community activities with young people focused on how we could improve the education in the village. We wanted more attention from the local authorities of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) for better school equipment.

It was also very difficult for me to remember how teachers treated children in the classroom. Beating and caning were prevalent for failure to complete homework and not coming in proper uniform to school. This, instead of encouraging children to attend school, led to many stopping school because they frightened of being beaten. The long-term impact for their education and psychologically was awful. 

Across Afghanistan under the Soviet Union, the situation of human rights, the unemployment, the lack of heath services, mass-poverty and unemployment, and a lack of access to justice and government exacerbated these issues. I deeply regret and feel very unhappy that I spent ten years in Ukraine where the quality of education and the state of corruption were immense concerns under the Soviet Union. You had to bribe teachers and professors to obtain your certificates from university. Human rights and the relationship between the Ukrainians and Afghan communities living in Ukraine were also very poor leading to big problems with integration. 

What are your memories from the Soviet-Afghan war? When you were younger what was your reaction to the Russian invasion? 

There was heavy resistance to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. From the first day, people did not welcome the Soviet invasion and there was significant protest against their military occupation. Hundreds of tanks, aircraft and over 150,000 soldiers appeared in Afghanistan overnight. The sky darkened as aircrafts flew overhead and tanks were all over the roads across the region. It was a historic moment. The majority of civilians were forced to leave their houses and fled for the mountains. They started to fight the Soviets from these mountain passes and points pledging to fight the Red Army with their bare hands! The insurgent groups began to obtain weapons by kidnapping and holding Russian hostages and started engaging in insurgency operations against the Russian soldiers. Thousands of people were killed in the first week of the invasion and those who resisted were crushed by the Red Army and its collaborators. In Parwan, the province was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Soviet-Afghan War. 

For me, it was horrible to witness such brutality and watch a superpower (without a security resolution from the United Nations and Afghan government) to invade and destroy a very poor country. They had no efficient plan for post-conflict Afghanistan and the long-term consequences for the region and the Afghan people were dire. 

How damaging was the intervention of the CIA and ISI (Pakistani intelligence) in the Soviet-Afghan War? 

If there had been no intervention from CIA and ISI, I do not believe the Afghan mujahideen would have been able to fight the Soviet Union well-equipped army as effectively as they did. The covert operations from the CIA and ISI were critical in enabling the mujahideen to fight the Red Army. The gap left behind by the Soviet Union allowed NATO to use Afghanistan's disorder as an opportunity to reshape Afghanistan as a regional Western ally. If you look at the geographical position and history of Afghanistan, the country cannot cope without having a regional or global ally. It is a buffer state which cannot survive without an alliance with other countries.

What was the atmosphere in Kabul during the rule of the Taliban? 

Living under the Taliban was very difficult, particularly for people like myself who had studied outside Afghanistan in the former Soviet Union, for anyone who was against the Taliban's ideology and those who stood up to the way they treated their population imposing their doctrine on people by force. 

It was like living in a prison. There were no human rights, no women's rights and no social activities were allowed. Activism, protest and dissent was suppressed through persecution, execution, kidnap and torture. My former geography teacher was tortured. Those who refused to pay jizya (a tax historically levied on non-Muslim subjects) faced a brutal ultimatum; leave or die. The country was devastated and poverty remained a huge problem as the Taliban ruled through fear. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the country.

You have lived through some momentous events, when did you make the decision to flee Afghanistan with your family? How did you end up in the United Kingdom? 

It was impossible for me and hundreds of thousands of other civilians to continue under such a regime. The Taliban could imprison anyone with impunity and threats began to be made against me and my family once they became aware I had studied in the former Soviet Union (who the Taliban detested). For any educated person, it was very difficult to live under the Taliban, but for someone who had studied in a country under a regime which had destroyed Afghanistan in the 1980s it was even more difficult.

My family decided to leave two years before the collapse of the Taliban government (2001) and it took us a number of months to get into the UK.  I was leaving my mother, my sisters and our relatives and we were leaving without any security or safety. After a 2600 mile flight to Ukraine, it was not an easy journey through Eastern Europe as we did not know which country we would end up living in. Eventually we got into the UK in a container/refrigerator with nine other people after we bribed smugglers to get us into the UK from Calais to Dover. My son was six months old and my daughters, aged ten and eight, were very young at the time.  For some people it was an easier procedure and they were lucky to come by plane or through the Channel Tunnel for us it was a horrible, dark and cold experience. However, an immigration team welcomed us to the UK and found a place for us in London. 

Do you think the invasion of Afghanistan by the US and British was justified? 

Initially, I did not feel very positive about the invasion. However following my visit to Afghanistan, the situation in the country was far better than I imagined when compared to the mess the country was in follwoing the Soviet invasion. There were stark differences between the invasions in terms of conduct and NATO's intervention has provided an opportunity, at-least at the beginning, to build a new Afghanistan. 

From the perspective of someone who has seen horrifying violence during the Soviet occupation, the infighting between the jihādists and warlords, and the rule of the Taliban, the situation has dramatically improved even if the country remains unstable. Under the Taleban, 300,000 people lived in Kabul while under NATO six million people now live in Kabul as many Afghan refugees from Pakistan, Iran and Europe have began to return to the country. In these circumstances, you feel very pleased by the impact of NATO's involvement in the country. Plenty of people call NATO's involvement in Afghanistan an invasion, however I do not believe this is an invasion like that of the Soviets.

This involvement had been legally agreed by the Security Council and the Afghan people welcomed NATO's immediate presence while under the Soviet Union thousands started fighting the Russians immediately with heavy fighting and heavy casualties being suffered. There is still violence, however in any post-conflict situation any country will have problems which they will have to deal with in social, economic, political and military terms. Overall, I believe NATO's mission in Afghanistan is justified. 

Do you think the invasion of Iraq by the US and British was justified? 

This is a difficult question and the investigation into the invasion and Tony Blair’s role in the invasion has not been completed yet. The number of casualties and the suffering caused by Saddam Hussein’s rule was horrendous. The U.S approach was very different to that of Afghanistan and the complexity of Iraq cannot be underestimated. In Afghanistan, civilians experienced years of war. In Iraq, the conflict had largely subsided following the Iran-Iraq War and the First Gulf War. However, the suspicions over the Iraqi government possessing weapons of mass destruction was not investigated properly and the assumptions made cost the American and British governments dearly in the subsequent occupation (2003 - 2011). 

What are your thoughts on the Obama administration’s drone wars and counterinsurgency campaigns in the Hindu Kush and Pakistani-Afghan borderlands? 

This is likely to be a part of the activities of the CIA in coordination with the Pakistani and Afghan governments. If the CIA know if there are terrorist activities in those areas, it is likely to have the support of central government in Kabul. From my time experience of talking to Afghan politicians they have spoken in support of the drone operations in the Hindu Kush. 

What are your thoughts on home-grown radicalisation and extremism in the United Kingdom? How does the ACAA aim to deter Muslim youth from joining or supporting organisations such as the Taleban, Al-Qa’ida and ISIS? 

It is a big concern for many, particularly with spotlight being on the refugees coming into Europe from Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East. With these numbers increasing, the lack of basic services to integrate them into European societies has caused problems. If these challenges are not addressed properly they will have long-term consequences for our society and especially for those fleeing from a region where anti-Western perceptions and views have surged in recent years. That is why I believe the services at the Afghanistan and Central Asia Association provide (including our counter-extremism training programmes) are immense contributions which help advice, educate and integrate people into UK society and prevent extremism and counter-radicalisation.

Do you think the public were informed enough to make a decision on Brexit? 

This is up to the British people. I do not think that Britain was an unsuccessful society before the Second World War and before the European Union so I believe the British people will adapt to the new situation and will continue as a member of the European community regardless of whether they are part of the EU or not.

Have any beneficiaries of the ACAA reported any changes to their life in the wake of Brexit (i.e. hate crime, accessing services, profiling, employment) 

In South London and Lewisham where we are based, we have not had such issues. However, in other parts of the UK there has been evidence of fighting and hate crime between Eastern European and local communities. Location and geography is very important. London was much more pro-European than across other parts of the country. The general public has legitimate concerns though when a huge numbers of migrants and refugees come into the country and they do not understand the language or culture. These divisions can cause problems, but it is not unique to the United Kingdom. By comparison to other European societies, there are less problems when one considers the problems in France, Germany and Greece. In my opinion, the problems for the UK are very low when compared to these other countries. 

Do you think the ‘War on Terror’ has led to a surge in Islamophobia? 

There are some legitimate fears as relations are strained between the Western world, Iran and many Middle Eastern countries. The security situation in the Middle East has created an opportunity for extremists groups in an unstable region. The positive thing the UK is doing to prevent this by working with schools and religious leaders to reduce the issue of extremism and Islamophobia. However, there is certainly a problem, particularly in Europe. 

In the current climate and context of post-Brexit Britain, how will organisation’s like ACAA adapt given the cuts to non-governmental organisations and the uncertainty surrounding the European Convention for Human Rights?

I do not think the UK Immigration Law will be different than the European Convention on Human Rights. There will be a similar approach even if the United Kingdom leave the EU. I think it will be important to keep doors open to refugees, however NGOs will have to adapt to the current context and they will still need to be obligated to tackle the lack of services being provided and work together with MPs and the Home Office to establish what is best for British society and people. NGOs will need to adapt but they need to continue making sure that rights are being upheld. 

What are the ACAA’s plans to grow as organisation in 2017 and beyond? 

For the Afghanistan and Central Asia Association, this is a time of transition. We are learning from lessons from the past to build more confidence and experience. We are hoping to expand to Western London where large Afghan communities exist and establish proper services and support thousands of Afghans living in the United Kingdom. This organisation is based in a deprived area and the feedback we have received from those who we have provided for has been immensely positive and many of them regard us as one of the most successful Afghan organisations in the country. The association has moved from strength to strength in recent years as we have developed our projects for the Afghan diaspora and other refugees and asylum seekers who have arrived in the UK. The ACAA are down to earth, have strong grass-roots connections, make a huge difference to the live of refugees and migrants, and work non-stop to ensure we meet our objectives long-term and short-term. 

Matthew C.K Williams

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The Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA) strives to empower, educate and unite Afghans and Central Asians living away from their homeland; provide them the skills and knowledge required to exercise their rights; achieve success and prosperity in the UK; and promote human rights and democracy among the diaspora and in Afghanistan itself. 

For more information about ACAA please visit their website