Bridging the digital gap for newly-arrived Afghans in the UK
Charities and businesses are helping evacuees from Taliban rule get online, access education and contact loved ones.
Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities
London, United Kingdom – Rahman feels fortunate that he, his wife, and their six children were able to leave Afghanistan.
Rahman, who worked at the British embassy in Kabul, and his family arrived in the United Kingdom in late July, shortly before the Taliban’s takeover.
The group was intent on identifying people like Rahman – those who worked with foreign governments – as potential targets.
In the scramble to evacuate, they managed to bring some basic items, including one that has proved most handy – a smartphone.
As his family were shuffled between various cities in England and holed up in several hotels, Rahman created a WhatsApp group to keep in touch with his extended family members still stuck in Kabul.
As he worries about their safety, the messages are at least reassurance.
“This is how we are communicating with each other and finding what’s happening with each of us,” he told Al Jazeera.
Rahman now lives in the northern city of Bradford having arrived in England as part of an emergency evacuation of more than 7,000 Afghans and their families who supported British forces in Afghanistan, a scheme called the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP).
While he had his phone with him, many others do not, let alone other gadgets, making their integration that much more challenging.
Organisations and businesses are now stepping in to bridge this digital divide.
“It’s absolutely vital for these families to have access to good digital equipment,” Krish Kandiah, who helps Afghans Welcome, a coalition of Christian charities helping newly arrived Afghans settle in the UK, told Al Jazeera.
“Using a smartphone is the only way they can really stay in touch with their family [back home].”
The coalition has partnered with British children’s charity Barnardo’s and mobile company Vodafone to deliver 5G-enabled tablets and smartphones to Afghan families, with the first delivery made last week.
Other groups facilitating digital access to these newcomers include British food retailer Tesco, which has partnered with the British Red Cross to deliver 600 SIM cards preloaded with three months of credit.
British mobile operator Lycamobile has partnered with city councils across England to deliver 1,000 prepaid SIM cards to Afghans in London and Leicester.
“Closing the digital divide in our society needs to be a priority,” Navanit Narayan, head of Lycamobile, told Al Jazeera, adding that the pandemic reinforced the importance of being connected virtually.
Addressing digital exclusion
Emily Knox, head of a programme at the Red Cross which helps migrants with family tracing and refugees with family reunification, said her work during the pandemic has highlighted the importance of addressing digital exclusion.
“What we found … is that when people are separated from their loved ones, it’s really hard for them to integrate,” Knox told Al Jazeera. “Someone said to us before, ‘Physically I’m in the UK’, but mentally … they’re with their separated loved one.”
The Red Cross’s partnership with Tesco and other retailers has provided 311 SIM cards and 126 mobile phones to Afghan families in need, including Haji*, his wife, and their three children.
They arrived in the UK after a perilous journey.
After being injured in a roadside explosion in Kabul, it was clear to Haji they needed to leave. They hid out for four days and boarded one of the final flights out of Kabul, wading through massive crowds at the capital’s airport in the chaotic early days of the Taliban’s takeover.
Once in the UK, they were given basic provisions by the organisation – having left with nothing but the clothes on their back – including a SIM card.
“Getting a SIM card from them has been so important – I’m so grateful to have it because it means I could let my friends and family know that made it OK and that I am safe,” Haji said.
Afghan women and children, these organisations say, have an even greater need to be digitally empowered.
Most Afghans who know English are men, said Kandiah, of Afghans Welcome.
While his coalition has posted resources online in the two languages many Afghans speak, Pashto and Dari, some Afghan women are illiterate. The group is now looking into developing audio materials in their native languages.
Women ‘more isolated’
Knox also said the Red Cross has focused on giving Afghan women mobile phones.
“What we found is … the female members of the family [who don’t] have a mobile of their own … [are] feeling a bit more isolated,” she said.
Meanwhile, some Afghan children have not been in school for months – first due to the pandemic, then the political instability in Afghanistan, and now, waiting to be settled in the UK.
A laptop scheme the UK government began at the height of the pandemic for vulnerable children has now been extended to include young Afghans, said Kandiah.
As Afghan children await permanent housing and enrolment in school, “digital devices allow children access to educational software”, said Kandiah.
Rahman, who has not yet benefitted from any digital technology programmes in the UK, hopes his children can access smartphones and laptops – especially his two daughters.
One main reason Rahman left Afghanistan with his family was that he feared the future of his daughters’ education under the Taliban rule.
“They really need to be hooked to the internet,” Rahman said of his daughters. “To be able to know what’s happening in our society … [and to be able to] … improve [their] education.”