This piece was written for The New Londoners, thanks to the Migrants Resource Centre and the Ruth Hayman Trust, who kindly arranged my interview with Shabibi Shah – Afghan poet, writer and community leader.
The question of belonging still haunts writer and poet Shabibi Shah Nola. In early 1983 she, her husband and their three young children had to abandon their life in Kabul to travel as refugees first to Pakistan and then on to London.
Shabibi Shah Nola, small and neat, is now in her mid-sixties. We meet at her home in London.
It is hard to believe that just thirty years ago this generous woman had her comfortable life in Kabul uprooted completely.
On 21 March 1983, on the edge of winter, she and her children, the youngest not yet two, trekked across the mountains into Pakistan following their well-known journalist father, Zafar Shah, who had been forced to leave a fortnight ahead of them.
In our meeting Shabibi doesn’t mention this journey – she only asks if I have read her book.
“I started trying to write my book Where do I Belong? because I was trying to learn English. It is not a big, massive book but the things I say in the book are more important.”
The first edition of the book was published in 2001, some five years after she first took an English language adult education course, and eight years on from the death of her husband.
“I was depressed… The reason I went to classes was that I didn’t have anyone Afghan around me and I wanted at least to get into this society.”
Shabibi confesses that she is not so much a writer as a poet and has published poems under the name Shabibi Nola. Her poems, some in English but most in Dari, are often sad with vivid, torn images of loss.
After nearly three decades in the country Shabibi still cannot think of herself as English. Her laughter ripples through the kitchen where she prepares ‘boloni’.
“This is the problem. This is the problem. I don’t know what I am doing here.”
Going back is not an option.
“It doesn’t make sense. I’ve been away from Afghanistan for many, many, many years… people have changed, the environment has changed and the culture has changed.”
We move from the kitchen into the warm colours of the living room. Glossy indoor plants nod out to the small garden beyond the glass.
Shabibi points to a photograph of herself and friends in Kabul in the 1960’s. The girls, with fashionable hairstyles and sunglasses, are all in brightly coloured, knee-length dresses or skirts.
“Kabul was very cultured and very advanced.”
Shabibi points to the lady in the centre of the photograph – a medical doctor. She, a recently qualified journalist, stands next to her. The decades that followed the day that photograph was taken turned Kabul life upside down. The monarchy ended in 1973 and Russian influence and turmoil began to spread. Shabibi and her family scattered around the world.
Loneliness is one of Shabibi’s greatest fears.
“I am a person who always panics when I don’t have people around me. I want to be involved. I want to know people. I want to do something and I have to be busy all the time. The minute I don’t have anything to do I get depressed”
This energy, and Shabibi’s skills as a communicator, are becoming known across London. Last year she was awarded a gold medal in recognition of her outstanding work as trustee for the Ruth Hayman Trust – a small, London-based charity that helps those who don’t speak English as a first language.
“I love them because they do a lot of things and I just go and join them. Occasionally I do some cooking for them.”
Later she admits that the cooking does help with fundraising.
“I did a hundred people for the first one. They were shocked because we made £3,000 in one evening.”
The Paiwand (Unity) Afghan Association has elected Shabibi as their chairperson – a position she has held for three years. This London Association tries to unite all Afghan refugees and to help them feel more at home.
“I am just the chair. I do not do much to be honest. I get the privilege,” she smiles and pauses, “and they get the work.”
There is also fostering. Since 2008 she and her youngest son, Sulaiman, have been foster carers for Afghan boys helping them cope with the new culture.
“Most of these children come as unaccompanied minors… It is a shock for them. They don’t feel comfortable. They are young and they need someone.”
There have also been speaking engagements including one in Westminster and interviews with French television, BBC Radio Four and BBC Television. She has met Princess Anne and been photographed with the Queen. The list goes on…
Shabibi jokes: “I am famous.” She says it with a dismissive laugh – she knows just how fragile life and fame can be.
The Ruth Hayman Trust provides small grants of up to £500 to support the education and training of adults who have come to settle in Britain and have a first language other than English. Many of those supported are refugees and asylum seekers. The Trust gives away approximately £15K each year and therefore needs to raise a similar amount through donations and fundraising activities. For details of how to apply for a grant and to donate to the Trust see www.ruthhaymantrust.com.