I am 16. My family left Afghanistan to escape the civil war. My perceptions, like many other people’s, were shaped by those around me. Most Afghans don’t know the difference between Nato and any other force. In deciding between the Taleban and Nato, the Talebs have a big advantage — they are local and they speak the language.
Afghans feel under attack — their culture, their religion and their country. Nato is known as “Amrikaan” — all foreign troops are lumped together and described as “Americans”. People simply do not know the difference and perhaps Nato’s image suffers because of this.
There is a difference between working and fighting. Perhaps the armed forces should be better known for the “work” that they do rather than the fighting. Nato should take steps to get this message out to the people — and to listen to people and not be seen just to turn up and throw money around. One idea to get the message out is through the imams. They are influential. If you can talk to them, then you are talking to the people.
They fear that Nato forces are attacking Afghan culture ... and Islam. They need reassurance. News reports will always stick in my mind when mosques are attacked and innocent civilians killed. Like most Afghans, I want the fighting to stop. It is difficult not to feel that Afghanistan has been invaded: we do not deserve this.
My older cousin escaped to London in the late 1990s and would tell us about London. It seemed like he was speaking about heaven! I remember him describing the parks and open spaces — places in the Hindi movies I used to watch as a boy. It seemed a place of hope, with no crime or fights. And when I arrived I couldn’t believe how much greener the grass was in the UK. Life was vivid, as if I was in a film.
Back then I had a complicated view of the British people. I felt on the one hand that they were bad — partly because of the history of the British in Afghanistan, but also because I heard that people were drinking and behaving badly. But my cousin, who now drives a taxi in London, would tell me about how schoolchildren would say “please” and “thank you”. I knew Britain had the best education and that’s why I dreamt of coming here. Good school means a better life for me.
I used to think the British would treat Muslims badly. My idea was that they were like the BNP who don’t want to see Muslims living peacefully in this country. I was expecting to be hated, or at least treated with suspicion.
But when I got here I was shocked that people were not religious. I never thought that people could not believe in God. It fascinates me. The average British person is not interested in religion and just wants to feel safe in his or her bed, or on the Tube.
Religion and life are very strongly connected where I came from. If an Afghan was to dream of having a successful life, then every one of them would come to England. When it comes for me to be married, girls back in Afghanistan will long to marry me! Where I come from, England is loved for education, safety, healthcare and it is famously a beautiful place too.
But people from my village would also find it very hard here. Honour and morals are very important to them. The villagers would be very shocked to see girls wearing miniskirts, drinking alcohol and the way most people’s way of life is very free ... to the extreme. You have to remember that we Muslims believe that this life is a test and that if we live it carefully it will bring real freedom in the next world.
I am getting a good education, I feel positive about my future, I am free to have ambitions, I am safe, I can practise my religion, and most of all I can be myself. All this makes me feel positive about life in the West; but I do not think I would have felt this about the UK if I had still been living in Kabul. At the same time I feel guilty — I have a future when so many people my age in Afghanistan do not.
Last year in English we studied Silas Marner by George Eliot. One passage stuck in my mind. She wrote that the villagers were suspicious of strangers — “how was a man to be explained unless you knew somebody who knew his father or mother?”. Afghans value their extended family, they live in small communities and find it difficult to trust people they do not know.
To gain their trust has to involve making them feel positive about people from the West and somehow make them feel less strange. I don’t know how to do this but they have to see that the average Westerner is not so different from them in the things that they hope for, their ambitions, what they want for their children.
Hewod Azizjan came to Britain three years ago from Afghanistan, speaking almost no English. He now goes to Isleworth & Syon School in Hounslow, West London. Last month he was invited to Brussels to tell a Nato conference how the war looks when viewed from both sides.