Sanctuary by Zarlasht Halaimzai

London is a city of immigrants. Whether from halfway around the world, or from the different reaches of the British Isles, many died in the wool Londoners well without the whiff of the Big Smoke. Easy into one’s metaphorical rocking chair, running one hands through one’s hair, and thinking about one’s first few years of life in the capital city, I imagine many of us can remember the in initial euphoria the day we moved to London, and can remember it like it was yesterday. But waiting still more for memories of the past to resurface most of us, at some point will have been reminded of the loneliness and isolation that living in London can sometimes bring, of the cold dark nights, the messiness and dirt, of the struggle for survival, love, warmth and acceptance. Such an account, provided below, was given by Zarlasht Halaimzai in 1999, an Afghan who had arrived in London with her mother, towards the end of the twentieth century. In her account, which is included in a book called Spirit of London, which you can download for free, she perfectly captures how the euphoria and excitement of arriving in London, a feeling which never quite left her, but which overtime was superseded by the tough challenges that face a person trying to make end meets and trying to find a sense of belonging in such a fast moving and diverse city.

When I was a child my dad used to tell me that if I did well in my studies he’d send me to London for higher education in university. As soon as he spoke about London I would imagine how great it would be if I had a chance to actually go there and live there. Every night I would dream about my favourite cities in the world, Paris, New York and London. But never had I imagined that those dreams would come true.

About two years ago as we were staying in Pakistan my mother came to our room and said to pack our bags and do it quickly. I asked her if everything was all right, but she wouldn’t say anything. After a few hours a cab took us to the airport and although my mother still kept quiet I knew that we were going somewhere, somewhere far away. We made our way to immigration and after checking our documents, the officer told my mum that our plane to London was going to leave in half an hour. Hearing those words from him I nearly jumped in the air for the excitement I felt was indescribable. My mum smiled at me and asked me to calm down, as people were looking our way wondering why was I being so frantic. But I could not care less, as one of my big dreams was about to come true.

Several hours later our plane landed at Heathrow Airport. I was really tired but excited and happy. As we were walking along the corridor from the plane to the immigration office I wondered if I was really in London or maybe it was just a dream. I was beginning to realise that I was just being over excited and I was in London indeed. Two days later my mum’s friend took us to Westminster Abbey in Central London, a place I always wanted to see. I was incredibly amazed at the design of it and wondered how long did it take to build something like that. When I remember that I just laugh because I still go to see Big Ben but on that day suddenly everything seemed so amazing. We walked around central London and I was staring at everything and everyone and even though my mum was a bit embarrassed by my behaviour I just couldn’t help myself; I loved London and couldn’t wait to see more of this city.

But as time went by, I already had realised that London wasn’t the imaginary city I had painted in my mind. I had to combine with people of a different life-style and culture. Of course I knew that I would have to deal with such a situation, but surely I underestimated its impact on me. However I had to cope with the changes in my life, some pleasant and some not so pleasant. London was home to many people, fashion, music and crime. And to my luck I ended up going to one of the roughest schools in Central London. My life turned to hell but I still felt lucky as I still could get some education. The air on the highways would make you choke and your chances of wearing white decreased to zero. Polluted air and water would cause us to lose our hair and dry our skin. My poor mother would literally freak out seeing young boys and girls with green and blue hair and God knows how many piercings on their body. But what really surprised me was the racism in London. I didn’t think that people would have such problems here as London is a multicultural society, but I had to face the comments of my neighbours and classmates for I wasn’t able to speak any English and I was from one of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan. The tension of my life in London grew along with my problems. I even got into a fight to defend my younger brother as the local gang in our area was attacking him. In school I had to face the peer pressure. Everyone around me was smokers, drinkers and some even used drugs. The girls would do anything to stay slim whereas in my country everyone preferred chubby girls. The need to fit in drove me crazy and I went to extremes. A year later I had to see my doctor as I was losing a lot of weight; she diagnosed me as an anorexia sufferer. My mum was going through severe depression and in two years we moved house three times because of the bad area. Now I was an Asian girl living in the heart of London with western problems and a very western illness. Surely I couldn’t blame London for everything, but I couldn’t deny the problems caused by it.

I learned English very quickly and I still visited Big Ben quite often to keep the hope alive. For once it had seemed impossible to walk around it but now I could see it any time I wanted to. I adapted to the lifestyle fairly quickly and being surrounded by Asian people helped me very much.

Nearly three years has passed now and yet the strange feelings of London still haven’t passed. Although I went through a lot on this English land I still love London.


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