On Monday 25th March 2019, the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan was launched in Parliament with supporters, friends and patrons in attendance, including Sir Michael Fallon MP, Tom Tugendhat MP, Baroness Hodgson and Baroness Jenkin. Our mission is to build stronger ties between the Conservative Party, British Afghans, and Afghanistan. We are a membership organisation, transparent in its behaviour, accountable to its members and committed to making a real difference.
The British Afghan diaspora are a large community in the UK, accounting for up to 250,000 people – or more, to put it another way, more than two full parliamentary constituencies. My intention to launching the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan has been influenced by working with British Afghans, as a mentor for over 10 years – witnessing first-hand the challenges they face in their integration process.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a lady from Afghanistan, named Fatimah. She has lived in the UK for over 15 years with her husband and three children. On a Saturday afternoon, I received a phone call and I am asked about the local elections. She asks me, who shall I vote for?
I try to explain the different political parties that exist in the UK, their values and how she can get involved but she replies no – just tell me who you are voting for, and I’ll vote the same.
I went on to say, that if you are unsure of who to vote for, you don’t have to vote until you’re confident in your understanding of the British political system. But she quickly responded to say but I’ll be fined £1000. What this fine actually referred to was electoral registration, not voting. Just from this one example you can see the significant disconnect between British politics and the British Afghan community. She is not one story, right now there are many more Fatimah’s, struggling to understand the system.
It is therefore obvious why the Conservative Party, a modern progressive Conservative Party should reach out to say that our relationship with the British Afghan diaspora must be broader and deeper. That our relationship with Afghanistan, must be broader and deeper.
I always say, when I talk about Afghanistan, it is the country where my father was born, when I talk about Britain, it is the country that gave him the opportunity to live. We are a nation where, by and large, there is opportunity, where hard work pays off, where help is often at hand, where, even if you have a rough start, you can make up ground. Being born here, raised here, or finding shelter here, often is winning the lottery of life for many British Afghans.
So, I’d like to tell you why the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan matters so much. First of all, the relationship between Britain and Afghanistan is incredibly historic, incredibly strong and incredibly important, but we can make it stronger still.
And yes, there is lots of shared history in the past, but an enormous opportunity for a shared future. How do we make a successful a diverse and multi-ethnic country work with so many different people with so many different religions? How do we make sure that Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian can live together? We’ve got to also face the challenge of terrorism too. In Afghanistan, the daily terrorist attacks by insurgent groups, Taliban, ISIS etc. In the UK, the Westminster Attack, the London Bridge attack and many others. And we should always stand together, Britain and Afghanistan, and say terrorists will never ever defeat us.
But to me, what this gathering is really about, is not just about the relationship between Britain and Afghanistan but it’s about saying that the British Afghan community bring the values that we need in our country and that we need in our Conservative Party. When I think of the British Afghan community, who have suffered from years of conflict and struggle with their integration to the UK today, I am determined to support them in becoming one of the most successful groups of immigrants in the UK.
And the values that you bring to the UK. When we think of the challenges that we face in our country today – we face a huge challenge of building a stronger society and the values you bring of family and caring about family, looking after one another and caring about community.
We face an enormous challenge to get our economy growing, to have a thriving private sector, to create worthwhile jobs for young people so that they have a future, a worthwhile future. So that belief in enterprise is so key to everything that the you believe in.
So, family, community and enterprise – the values the country needs, the values the conservative party stands for and the values the British Afghan community live by. That’s why what we’re starting tonight matters so much.
But I also think the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan is important for another reason – for too long the Conservative Party thought we’ve got the right values, we’ve got this belief in our nation, we’ve got this belief in families, we believe in a big society, we believe in enterprise, we believe in private sector, people will just come and join the party no matter what their colour, no matter what their culture, no matter what their history.
However, the Conservative Party needed to open up, it needed to welcome people in and go out into communities and find role models. I believe that our countries challenges can be overcome with representation from our communities. We need to ensure that the British Afghan community is rightly represented in Parliament, in local government, in wards and in all areas of politics.
We want to recognise the challenges, struggles and obstacles that the British Afghan community face in their daily lives, but also recognise and celebrate the successes that they have achieved for themselves, their families, their communities and Britain over the past few decades. It is something we should all celebrate and be proud of.
The Casey Review report, published in December 2016, points to salient issues for the British Afghan community, including challenges in integrating into British society, lack of English language skills, worrying levels of segregation and socio-economic exclusion, mental health and trauma from over 40 years’ war in Afghanistan, and that societal discrimination still exists in Britain which has yet to be fully addressed by political parties. The less integrated we are as a nation, the greater the economic and social costs we face, and central to CFoA’s aims is tackling social exclusion and promoting integration.
The Conservative Friends of Afghanistan is also about giving a sense of direction, belonging and security to the British Afghan community.
This is your home.
Be proud to be British.
On the international stage, CFoA will continually make the case for aid programmes in Afghanistan to be continued, with the appropriate accountability measures, and focused on those areas with the highest levels of deprivation. In a country where approximately 54 per cent of the population live below the food poverty line, nearly half of Afghan children do not attend a school, and half of the adult population are illiterate, we as Conservatives must help those who have less opportunity to strive for a better life; a chance at building a meritocratic society should surely be the aim of every Government that has fairness at its heart. We will also work closely with the Cabinet, to support a more prosperous Afghanistan, one with a democratic government and greater involvement of women in the peace process.
There is a long road ahead in terms of reaching our goals contained in our mission statement, but with a clear focus on community engagement and delivering on a consistent message of social cohesion, we must succeed in bringing the Conservative Party closer to those aspirations and beliefs that the British Afghan community hold dear.
Shabnam Nasimi is the Founder and Chairman of the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan and is Deputy Chairman (Political) of Lewisham Deptford Conservative Association.