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The story behind the project - Sarah Ahmadi of AMIF

Sarah Ahmadi

Sarah left behind a successful career in television when she fled war-torn Afghanistan 18 years ago. Here she tells us how she’s drawing on her own experiences in her work with the BIC to help other refugees make the most of their skills and talents.

Q. Hi Sarah, tell us a little about your life in your home country

A. My professional background is in media and culture. I started in radio at the age of eight as a presenter on a children’s programme in my home city of Kabul and after university went on to become a well-known face on national Afghan TV, as well as a university lecturer. I was also the Chair of the Afghan Women’s Education Centre and Chief Editor of a magazine called Women.

Q. How did you come to live in the UK?

A. All was well with my life and career until the 1990s when tensions began to rise and conflict broke out. Afghanistan was not a safe place for women and as a strong advocate for women’s rights I was particularly vulnerable so had to flee for my own safety. I came to the UK as an asylum seeker in 2002 with the hope of making a better and safer life for myself.

Q. Can you describe how this harrowing experience this affected you?

A. It has made me incredibly strong. I had to overcome so many obstacles just to survive in my own country. I had to go against the odds to even make it out alive. When I arrived in Sunderland, I knew nobody and spoke very little English. For a while I did nothing but cry – I was so lonely and afraid. But I knew I couldn’t go back and I became determined to make good things happen because I knew I had a lot to offer. My Visa was refused at first but thanks to my career status, qualifications and profession, I was given an exceptional Visa for four years. I then got British Citizenship in 2006.

Q. How did you begin to rebuild your life so far from home?

A. I knew education was the key to integrating into society and making a good quality of life for myself in the UK. With no family or friends to support me, I spent all my time and effort educating myself, learning English and gaining IT skills. I studied for three years to gain teaching qualifications too. Driven by my own experience of being an asylum seeker and the prejudice I faced because of my lack of knowledge, I pledged to educate myself to the highest level I was capable of. My goal was to not only improve my own life, but also to make a difference to others in a similar situation. I completed a masters and PGCE qualification in education at Sunderland University.

Q. How did you begin to use your knowledge and skills to change lives for refugees, asylum seekers and the BME community?

A. Firstly, I set up a charity called the Afghan British Association, in 2004 to serve the needs of ethnic minorities. Then in 2007 I set up United Community Action to focus solely on improving the lives of ethnic minorities in the community through various projects and courses aimed at developing their language skills and providing them with knowledge of local life, culture and British values. I delivered a really successful project with the BIC in 2018 and that led to our most recent and most ambitious project to date, the AMIF project.

Q. Give us an overview of the AMIF project

A. The project serves the needs of refugees – those who have migrated from their countries due to conflict in search of a better quality of life in the UK as well as safety and security. Many of them hold higher level qualifications in various fields, however on arrival to the UK they end up in menial labour work due to the language barrier.

The project helps them to integrate into their new surroundings while improving their English and gaining a clear understanding of British culture and values. They learn about job skills and have the chance to explore any entrepreneurial ambitions they might have to start a business, with expert support from the social enterprise team at the BIC. This project is funded by the EU Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF) – hence the name.

Q. Why is it proving so successful?

A. I think its success lies in the fact that it’s been designed by someone who really understands the unique challenges and opportunities. We help with really fundamental things like getting an email and getting online, making friends and creating a community. This all helps with the transition from their former life into a new life. Some are very highly skilled doctors and lawyers and we find out exactly who they are, what they want to achieve and what gaps need to be filled. We could tell it was going to be a success when word started to spread through communities and people started recommending family and friends. If something is good, people will find out about it!

Q. Looking back over the past 18 years, how do you feel about what you’ve achieved?

A. I feel so proud of what I managed to accomplish. When I came here 19 years ago, I had nothing but the clothes I stood in. Now I am in a position to help others – to reach their true potential and to live fulfilling lives that contribute to society. The experiences we have gone through make us strong and determined people with so much to offer. There’s nothing better than hearing of the success stories of those we’ve helped.