Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi founder of the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association

Guest blog: From refugee to beacon of hope 

A charity founder shares how he built support for fellow refugees inspired by the experience of his own perilous journey from Afghanistan to the UK

BFSS gave the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association a grant of £53,857 for their Saturday Supplementary School and After-School Clubs for newly-arrived Afghan children and young people in the UK, in a project which began this year. In this guest blog the charity’s founder, Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi MBE, shares his own story of arriving as a refugee after a perilous journey across Europe and building a charity to help his fellow refugees.

In the face of a humanitarian crisis that unfolded in Afghanistan in 2021, many Afghanistan nationals fearfully turned their eyes to the West, seeking refuge from the turmoil engulfing their homeland. Sadly this narrative is not new. 24 years ago, one man embarked on a similar perilous and dangerous journey, which not only altered his life but would go on to impact the lives of thousands of refugees in the UK. This is the story of Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi MBE, the Founder and Director of a charity called the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), and a man whose own experience has fueled his mission to help others in his community in the UK and the people in Afghanistan.

In 1989 Dr Nasimi travelled from his hometown to Kabul, where he was able to obtain a scholarship to study in the Soviet Union. While studying in the Soviet Union, he met his wife and later returned to Afghanistan. But the Taliban’s takeover in 1996 meant the country was no longer a safe place for Dr Nasimi and his family to remain. Fleeing the brutality of the Taliban, Dr Nasimi, his wife and their two young children endured a harrowing journey from their home in Pul-e-Khumri to the safety of the UK.

A trail of desperate hope marked by the birth of their third child in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, culminated in their perilous concealment in a refrigerated shipping container crossing the North Sea. The family’s terror, trapped in the cold darkness, unsure of their destiny, is an experience that still haunts Dr Nasimi. A smuggler put the family in a dark, refrigerated and cold container with no oxygen which took 12 hours to reach to Dover, but the family survived thanks to the UK border agency who opened the container after the family cried for help and banged on the lorry to be let out. A year later, 58 Chinese refugees were found dead after they had spent 34 hours in a lorry whilst making their journey to the UK.

Finding refuge in the UK, however, was not the end of their ordeal. The Nasimi family had to grapple with the challenges of building a new life in a foreign land with an unfamiliar language. But they were not alone in this struggle. Recognising the need for structured assistance for refugees, Dr Nasimi channeled his energy into learning English and engaging with his local community. Shortly after his arrival in the UK, he founded the charity, Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), marking the inception of a lifelong commitment to helping others like him.

The charity’s mission is to help those who follow a similar path to build a better life in the UK. Dr Nasimi has explained: “Often we felt lost, it was overwhelming to start our life in a new place where we didn’t know anyone or speak the language.” At the heart of the charity is the aim to help make this process easier, and bridge the gap between the lives left behind by refugees, and the new lives they are building.

Initially, the ACAA offered English classes for women, homework support for children and cultural events for the community, running on minimal funds until 2003 when the charity received funding from the New Deal for Communities and later from the Big Lottery Fund, which enabled Dr Nasimi to receive a part-time salary and establish a small office in New Cross, London, which over the years would relocate and expand in line with the growing needs of new refugees.

The Afghanistan and Central Asian Association has become a leading Afghan charity in the UK and, in 2018, he launched a large community centre in Hounslow and a second office in Birmingham. By the end of 2023 Dr Nasimi will open new offices in Kent, Liverpool and Manchester to continue supporting new refugees and other vulnerable people to build a better future.

Dr Nasimi’s influence extends beyond the borders of his adopted homeland. He has engaged in advocacy at an international level by organising conferences in Germany, Sweden, the EU Parliament, UK universities and the House of Parliament to engage diaspora in discussion on the ongoing challenges face refugees and human rights abuses in Afghanistan.

Since the establishment of the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association, Dr Nasimi has been recognised for his work: in 2022 he was awarded the MBE, and the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2018, among other awards.

His journey illuminates the plight and potential of refugees. In today’s world, where refugees are often met with fear and misunderstanding, it is a compelling counter-story and testament to what refugees can contribute to make the world a better place.

Blog courtesy of Afghanistan and Central Asian Association

Published: 18 September 2023