Don't waste our talents, we're not illiterate idiots

September 8, 2006

From delivering lectures in Kabul to delivering pizzas in London, academic refugee Haroon Amirzada's woes did not end when he escaped the Taleban

I was tortured for two years in a Taleban prison. The Islamic regime that took over my war-ravaged country in 1996 did not like qualified men working for the welfare of Afghanistan. The zealots wanted rid of those scholars, teachers and other educated people who had refused to leave during our dark decade of war. But in 1998 I escaped, bribing my jailer and making the dangerous journey to the UK.

If I couldn't live with dignity and serve my homeland, I hoped to use my knowledge and experience to the benefit of the multicultural and tolerant country in which I sought asylum. But while I have been treated well, I have not regained the dignity and comfort I enjoyed at Kabul University before the fighting began with the Soviet invasion of 1979.

Today, I have to deliver pizzas in London to make a living. I have been unable to use the knowledge I spent so long acquiring. Working in such a primitive job, I feel disappointed and useless. Nobody believes me when I say that, as an academic, I have suffered almost as much in the UK as I did under the Taleban regime.

There is a thirst for and desire to share knowledge in developing as well as developed countries. But for many well-educated people, war, torture, poverty and discrimination prevent them from applying their intellectual talents to the benefit of their homelands. They become refugees, and thereafter most want to use their skills in their adopted countries.

It is said that the UK is one of the most multicultural societies in Europe and that immigrants enrich the countries to which they move. The flow of asylum-seekers always contains doctors and engineers, writers and artists, lawyers and scholars. But their valuable experience is usually ignored by host nations. Some see such desperate refugees as ignorant parasites, even criminals. Like many other academics in exile in the UK, my own experience is bitter. I have three degrees, including a BSc in electrical engineering, an MA in philosophy from Kabul University and a PhD in the history of Central Asia from Russia's Pedagogical University. The best times of my life have been spent studying, researching and teaching.

Of course, nobody expects to immediately find skilled work in a country where thousands of qualified people are jobless and work criteria are different from those at home. But I was determined to try. From the moment I entered this country as an asylum-seeker, I spurned illegal work and instead sought out college courses to improve my English and to acquire IT skills. The main thing was to find something at least close to my last professional job and to serve my host country. But all my attempts have failed because my qualifications are not recognised and I have not been given a chance to gain new ones. Most universities turned away my proposals because of funding problems.

The UK is not interested in distinguishing between a highly qualified refugee and a poorly educated one. It does not value our talents and treats us all as a source of cheap manual labour. Since many refugees come from underdeveloped countries, their qualifications and skills are not seen as reliable or creditable in the West. That might be a fair judgment in some cases, but in many other cases, refugees are perfectly capable, and there is a reluctance to acknowledge this.

Many refugees from underdeveloped countries and from the former Communist bloc struggle for years to transform their qualifications to find skilled jobs. Among them are many professionals with skills the UK needs. But the latest research shows that many can find only unskilled jobs. I know engineers, child psychologists and biologists from Poland and Romania who deliver leaflets for the pizza shop I work at, as well as an Iranian chemistry lecturer who works as a minicab driver.

The Cold War may be over but its discriminatory psychology prevails, particularly in the academy. Universities still have artificial barriers that prevent an immigrant's qualifications from being recognised and provide few opportunities to transform them. With a change of attitude, training courses in key subjects could be organised and tests set so that we might satisfy UK requirements. As an academic refugee I have much to offer my adopted country. But if it wants to benefit from my talents, it will have to adopt a more open-minded attitude.

Haroon Amirzada is a former lecturer in history at Kabul University, Afghanistan. He delivers pizzas in London.

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