London, Britain – On the last night of 1999, Fahim Qayumi huddled with 12 other Afghans in the dark, a little distance from the French port of Calais, where thousands of refugees have massed in recent months.
Tightly wrapped in blankets the men sat in quiet rumination, the frigid wind biting at their extremities, the Afghans turned their minds to their immediate worries. Had they trusted the right man, claiming to be a Bosnian smuggler, with the last of their money? What if the attempt to Dover took several days and they ran out of food?
Half of them including Qayumi, the youngest in the group, barely knew each other. They had met only days earlier after arriving in Calais. But the 21-year old from Kabul knew he could trust the men’s collective instinct on the gamble with the glib smuggler. After all they all had made the treacherous 5000-mile journey across 13 countries from Afghanistan for the same reason.
They were all fleeing the Taliban.
“You learn to trust your instincts when you grow up with bombs, tanks and beheadings. If it wasn’t for my instincts I would have been a Taliban fighter today or died in Moscow as a teenager, or trafficked as a slave for a Serbian factory here,” says Qayumi, now 36 and a succesful entrepreneur running a fast growing chain of Italian gelato cafes across the UK.
The officers were drunk and one of them put his gun to my head. I begged the one who spoke in Dari and he let me go,
The father of three began his life in Britain in 2000 as a destitute asylum seeker. Today his gelato chain, started just last year, has outlets in London, Oxford, Bristol, Plymouth and Basingstoke, employing 48 staff. Business is booming and he is now looking to hire another 50 for the upcoming branches in the British Midlands.
A demure Qayumi shies away from the “millionaire” tag but concedes his present life of comfort and lucre still seems incredulous at times.
“I was put on a lorry with two dozen Serbs and Kosovars heading to an underground factory here. When they threatened us to stay put we got off the moving vehicle on the motorway. I remember feeling very hungry but had no money. Who would have thought I’d have this life today,” Qayumi smiles.
The Afghan’s incredible journey to success, however, is far more than a classic tale of rags-to-riches.
His story goes much further back. It begins in Afghanistan in 1997 where he was a first-year engineering student at Kabul University. The oldest of six brothers Qayumi lived with his schoolteacher parents who hoped to send all their children to university.
After the Taliban took control of the country, Qayumi’s mother was told to stop teaching, pushing the family into financial hardship. And then came the long-feared demand.
“They wanted me to join the local militia. It was a recruitment drive. We knew it was a matter of time before the Taliban asked for my brothers too,” says Qayumi.
The family’s lifeline eventually came in the shape of $500 sent by his uncle in the United States. Overnight it was decided that the 17-year old would go to Moscow ‘on a holiday’ until the situation relented.
“I left with $800, including my father’s entire savings. But my family never felt safe after that. They had to move house three times to hide my brothers from [the] Taliban’s eyes,” Qayumi told Al Jazeera.
The teenager’s clandestine and circuitous journey through Pakistan, Iran and most of Central Asia ended at the sprawling Sevastopol Hotel complex in Moscow, a mecca for thousands of Afghans living in the Russian capital since 1992.
Qayumi worked several small jobs before becoming a porter in the local market.
“The money wasn’t good,” he says, “but I was happy. I would have probably still been in Russia today if it wasn’t for the incident.”
The incident that eventually set the young Afghan in pursuit of British shores almost saw him shot by a corrupt Russian policeman.
“One day they pulled me aside because I was an “illegal” and asked for 70 rubles ($1) When I couldn’t, they took me to a jungle and brutally thrashed me. The officers were drunk and one of them put his gun to my head. I begged the one who spoke in Dari and he let me go,” recalls Qayumi poignantly.
Eighteen months after recovering in a UN hospital, and still shaken from the encounter, Qayumi left Russia clutching his savings of $3,000. With help from smugglers the young Afghan took 44 days to cross Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany and Belgium to reach France, all without a passport.
Qayumi believes he got lucky at Calais.
“Back then there were no heartbeat monitors or CO2 scanners. The security was less stringent. So we could slip through more easily than all those trying today. But it was still the hardest leg,” he says.
But why did he choose Britain?
“My English was better than my Russian. I didn’t speak any other European language. A lot of Afghans including my distant relatives had made it to the UK. I longed for some kind of family connection, so I followed too,” he explains.
However, just crossing the English Channel does not deliver you from miseries, he emphasises. “I hope refugees camping in Calais know that Britain is not a dreamland.
“I got asylum after three years of legal wrangling. I toiled in a salad factory and operated rides in a local amusement park to survive. It was a hard life, not much different from my time in Russia,” he claims.
American pizza chain
Today my family is safe here because I decided to climb fences and cross borders. If that’s the cost to protect them I would jump a lorry all over again
But it wasn’t until 2003, when two of Qayumi’s brothers also fled to Britain amid deteriorating security and a resurgent Taliban, that his luck changed. Three years of long hours in the same salad factory and living together in a single room to scrape every penny, the brothers saved almost enough to buy a local pizza shop in the southern England.
“On the first day a friend showed us how to make pizza, and all of us thought it was easy. But it wasn’t and we failed,” Qayumi laughs.
Having learnt enough from his experience, Qayumi borrowed money in 2006 and bought his first franchise of Papa John’s, a multinational American pizza chain. “This time I got it right. It was not just successful it became the highest selling outlet in South Britain. Papa John’s invited me to America to collect my trophy,” Qayumi says proudly.
As revenues soared the Afghan entrepreneur added two more outlets to his business in quick succession.
However, in 2013 he sold all of them for a large profit to do something ‘bigger’. A year later Qayumi’s first gelato café opened in Bristol.
His adopted home changed his fortunes but the Afghan refugee believes he paid a terrible price for it. “I went back in 2008 and met my parents for the first time in 11 years. They had aged fast,” he said.
Qayumi’s parents chose not to leave Afghanistan but he brought his remaining younger brothers with him to the UK. The country, he argues, is still not stable enough to offer them a safe future. His youngest brother Omid now attends college in Southampton near his house.
“I never wanted to leave my country in the first place. Nobody does. Ask the men (in Calais). But war and violence make your desperate.
“Today my family is safe here because I decided to climb fences and cross borders. If that’s the cost to protect them I would jump a lorry all over again.”