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9 December 2021

Inside the UK hotel that became home to 150 refugees

The Koofi family were airlifted to safety in August 2021. This is their story – and that of thousands like them.

By Sophie McBain

On 3 August this year, Marwa Koofi, a 20-year-old student, and her mother, Maryam, were visiting relatives when they were jolted by an explosion. How strange, they thought afterwards, that they had sensed at once that the bomb was close to their home, on the other side of Kabul. By the time Marwa reached her elder brother Mirwais by phone, he was incoherent. “Don’t die!” he kept shouting. He didn’t answer when Marwa screamed back, “Who is dying?”

It was 12 days before the Taliban takeover. The group had detonated a car bomb outside the family’s home, a glitzy, wedding-cake house opposite the defence minister’s residence. A firefight broke out between the family’s guards and Taliban fighters, and Mirwais, a political adviser, grabbed an assault rifle, too. One of the guards – the man Mirwais was shouting at – was shot in the leg. He survived.

Before she left home for the last time, Marwa took a video with her phone. The windows were shattered, the gold and chiffon curtains hanging at odd angles. Marwa’s bedroom – the pile rug, the dresser covered with perfumes and lotions, the rows of high heels – shimmered with broken glass. A half-eaten meal and a twist of blood smeared sheets marked the place where Mirwais had thrown himself over his infant daughter to shield her. Improbably, a glass chandelier, dangling down a spiral staircase, remained intact.

It was unnerving that such an attack could succeed in the wealthy, well-guarded suburb of Sherpur, but Marwa continued with life as normal. The day before the Taliban retook the capital, she went with her best friend to Prime Steakhouse, their “second home”, a restaurant run by moustachioed hipsters who posed on Instagram with butcher’s knives and glistening hunks of meat, Salt Bae-style. She and her friend gossiped and didn’t mention politics, or the alarming speed at which other Afghan cities were falling to the insurgents.

And then, on 15 August, the Taliban reached Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Marwa, disguised in a burka, took a taxi through the capital to reach her mother, a former MP, who had moved to a safe house. The family spent more than a week inside, calling contacts, before the British government cleared them for evacuation.

The first time they tried to reach the airport they were stopped by Taliban gunmen who recognised Maryam from her time in parliament. One fighter yanked their driver out on to the street and took his seat. Marwa had never seen a Taliban militant up close, and she was terrified, certain she was going to die. She wept and prayed. The fighters consulted with their higher-ups, and eventually the family were dumped on the side of the road, from where they called another two cars to take them to Hamid Karzai International.

They queued for hours in the relentless heat, standing in a sewage channel. “Mum, my jacket, it’s Ted Baker – it was expensive!” Marwa complained, something she would later find hard to live down. Her elder sister Nilofar, who was four months pregnant, fainted and had to be revived by British soldiers.

[See also: Tens of thousands of Afghans have been betrayed by our callous, brazen and shamelessly incompetent government]

While their bags were being checked at security, they heard a bone-shattering blast and dropped to the ground. The Islamic State – Khorasan Province bomb attack of 26 August killed at least 170 people, including 13 US servicemen and dozens of civilians who were waiting to enter the airport. Inside, an alert sounded: “Shooters on the ground.” This is it, Marwa thought: the Taliban were about to storm the airport. In the terrible minutes that followed, even the babies were silent.

And yet, an hour later, she and her family were asked to board. The passengers were told to switch off their phones and walk to the plane in darkness. The onboard lights were not illuminated until they had cleared Afghan airspace. Everyone cried in that pitch black.

When Marwa and I first spoke, in late September, the family had been transferred from a quarantine hotel to a low-cost motorway hotel in the north of England. There, with around 100 other Afghan exiles, they waited to find out what was to become of them.

On 29 August, two days after Marwa and her family arrived in the UK, the British government announced a resettlement package for the 8,000 Afghans airlifted out of the country as Kabul fell. It dubbed the plan “Operation Warm Welcome”. Those resettled to the UK via official routes – including the Afghans who worked for the British government and had been relocated earlier in the year – would be granted indefinite leave to remain, it said. Funding was also pledged for medical care, English language classes, schooling for children and 300 university scholarships. The Afghan refugees would be eligible for state benefits on arrival and have the right to work.

One week after this announcement, John Paley, a hotel duty manager, logged in at work to find an email from his head office informing him of a three-month contract to provide full-board to 104 Afghan evacuees. They would arrive in two days. In normal times the hotel (which the New Statesman is not identifying because of security concerns) catered to those needing to break a long drive, or wedding guests looking for cheaper, out-of-town accommodation. Business had dried up because of the pandemic; on most nights they had fewer than 20 guests. Paley had been watching the news and was eager to help, but he felt underqualified. The 42-year-old Scot had worked in hospitality since he was a teenager. “I don’t have special training to be a counsellor or anything. The only counselling I do is across the bar,” he told me.

The head receptionist and another duty manager quit when they heard the news. They hadn’t signed up for this, they said. Paley and the remaining staff scrambled to prepare. They phoned customers to cancel upcoming bookings, closed the bar and rushed to the local cash and carry for supplies. They knew there were children arriving, but were given no numbers or details, so they bought cots, toiletries, baby formula, bottles and nappies. When the coaches pulled up on 7 September, Paley’s eyes pricked with tears. What have we got ourselves into, he thought. Many of the arrivals had nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Some of the children had no shoes.

A man who had worked as an interpreter for the British government translated for Paley as he assigned rooms and tried to identify urgent needs. There were more rushed trips to the shops. The staff posted on local Facebook pages, seeking donations of clothes and toys. A young mother fell ill, and the staff babysat her children until she returned from hospital at 2am. The parents were used to letting their children roam, as is customary in Afghanistan, but the hotel is close to a motorway. To everyone’s relief, after an emergency briefing by social services, the guests agreed to watch their children more closely.

The instructions coming from head office were that Paley should not deviate from his role as hotel manager. If a guest needed information, he should simply give them the number for the relevant government department. That didn’t seem right to Paley, who saw how difficult it was for the Afghan arrivals to navigate British bureaucracy. He spent hours after every shift trying to find information about asylum claims or benefits payments or school applications. Soon he couldn’t walk down a corridor without guests stopping him to ask for help. They called him “Mr John”.

The hotel ordered halal meat but was otherwise serving its usual European menu. Soon the guests approached Paley to say their children weren’t eating; they missed the food from home. One of the chefs – a refugee himself who understood first-hand the trauma of war and exile – visited Waterstones on his day off and bought Afghan and Persian cookbooks. The chef made spiced rice and chicken stew, neat ovoids of homemade kibbeh, oriental salads and cakes. The mood lifted a little.

Paley felt under-supported. It took two and a half weeks for a Home Office representative to visit. The hotel head office didn’t seem to understand how great a responsibility he felt towards the Afghans, who seemed lost and traumatised. He felt they were being kept in the hotel under “false pretences”: many believed they would be staying there a week or two at most. While they were able to leave, they had nowhere to go: a car ferried people on errands in and out of the nearest town, but they were otherwise stranded by a motorway; many had no access to money for weeks.

Paley knew the hotel was making more money from the Home Office contract than it would through its usual trade, and he began to feel this was all his bosses cared about. “As soon as money was dangled in front of them, they lost sight,” he said. He felt under pressure to reduce costs in ways that seemed petty, such as putting out less fruit in the evenings.

[See also: Yalda Hakim’s Diary: Afghanistan’s new regime, the feminist resistance, and the horror of famine]

When contacted by the New Statesman, the hotel denied making requests to cut costs, and said it had invested in staff and building upgrades. It would not comment on its contract with the Home Office. The government also declined to say how much it is paying hotels to house Afghans, or to discuss its contractual arrangements with hotels or the procurement process, which is outsourced to Calder Conferences and Corporate Travel Management Limited, a private company.

But despite the pressure he was under, Paley felt transformed. He had never done anything so meaningful. A number of the guests were starting to feel like family. “It was life-changing for me,” he said. The first time we spoke he told me that when all the Afghans had left the hotel, he would leave hospitality and find a job working with refugees. Instead, in late October, he was fired – he says, for complaining about a colleague who showed up to work drunk. It was for this reason that he could speak to me: the hotel had banned staff from speaking to the media.

I first visited the hotel in mid-October, a day of sudden downpours and rainbows that looped over the motorway. A man was pacing outside the grey, low-slung building as I approached, and through the glass doors another man could be seen slumped over a table, head in hands. The traffic roared. The lobby had the sterile, impersonal feel of a doctor’s waiting room. Every so often, a group of children would burst into the room like a flock of parrots.

Marwa and her family were in their usual spot, having requisitioned a grey pleather sofa and two large chairs in the far corner. The only safe way to leave the hotel is by car, and so they spent most of their days inside, scrolling on their phones for news of Afghanistan. They were ten: Marwa, her mother, Maryam, her sister Nilofar, who left with her husband and three children, Mirwais and two other brothers, Qais and Shansab. Mirwais and Shansab had both been forced to leave their wives and children behind. The families were laying low in Afghanistan, hoping the Home Office would grant them permission to travel. (Marwa’s father had also stayed behind in hiding, to manage the family’s affairs.) Mirwais, square-jawed and gaunt, sat mostly in silence, staring at the carpet with red-rimmed eyes. When he spoke, it was in aphorisms. “Refugee life: the death of the soul,” he told me.

When she was alone, Marwa looked through old photos and grieved for her former life, but she put on a brave face for her family. Her English was the most fluent, and they had come to rely on her. “If I showed myself to be weak, I can’t imagine what would happen to them,” she told me. When morale was low, she cheered them up with white lies: experts predict the Taliban regime will collapse within days, she might say. Maybe they were just humouring her when they smiled in response.

Her mother Maryam often tapped me on the arm and thrust her phone towards me. “Look,” she’d say, “this is Afghanistan today.” She showed me photos and videos sent to her by friends on WhatsApp: a dead girl, her face marbled with dried blood and dust; a video of a woman being whipped by Taliban fighters, of a young man shot at close range.

[See also: “We’re going to see death on a large scale”: Afghanistan under the Taliban this winter, with John Simpson#]

Sometimes she showed me photos of her old life, their houses and many cars; photographs of her five martyred brothers and of her father, Wakil Abdul Rahman Koofi, an MP who was killed in 1978 by Islamic insurgents in his home province of Badakhshan. They were a political family: her daughter Nilofar became an MP in 2020. Maryam’s sister Fawzia Koofi is Afghanistan’s best known female leader. She ran for president in 2014 on a women’s rights platform. (I interviewed her for the New Statesman during her campaign; later the electoral rules were changed to disqualify her.) In 2020 she was a government delegate to the peace talks with the Taliban.

The Koofis kept themselves apart from the other guests. Marwa felt she had little in common with the other women her age, already married with children. She was the only woman in the hotel who didn’t wear a headscarf. When we first met, she was wearing a shiny black jacket, slim-fit khakis, heeled biker boots and immaculate winged eyeliner.

The night before that visit, an argument had broken out between the Koofis and several other families. It began, Marwa said, when her mother complained about the noise, and a man ordered her to return to her room. He didn’t think women should socialise in communal areas. Paley said that as tensions rose, security was called to break up a group of men who were squaring up to each other in the car park. He thought some families resented the Koofis as representatives of a political elite they saw as corrupt and self-serving. Didn’t they understand that they were no longer in power? Didn’t they get that they were all the same now?

But of course they were not the same. One of the many dehumanising aspects of becoming an asylum-seeker or refugee – a statistic, a political symbol – is the assumption that there is no tension in bringing together people who in ordinary circumstances would never meet, people who span fraught ethnic, economic and political divides, and then forcing them to live cheek-by-jowl under virtual house arrest for an indeterminate length of time. The government’s “warm welcome” seemed more like a hare-brained science experiment or cruel reality TV show – except that no one was watching.

Around 12,000 Afghans, half of them children, are living in hotel accommodation, the minister for Afghan resettlement, Victoria Atkins, told the Home Affairs Committee on 17 November. She said 4,000 Afghan evacuees had either been moved to homes, assigned a home but had not yet moved in, or were in the process of being matched with permanent housing.

Even before August, there had been a sharp increase in the number of asylum-seekers placed in hotels during the pandemic: by February 2021 there were 8,700 staying in 90 hotels around the country. While the Home Office aims to find appropriate housing within 35 days, the Refugee Council says it has supported people who have been living in hotels for more than a year. In a report published this April, the charity said that this was exacerbating mental health problems, and that many had been unable to access healthcare. The majority of asylum-seekers in hotels had no money or ability to access basic personal-care items: the Refugee Council received requests for paracetamol, nail clippers, pens and notebooks. Only in October 2020 did the Home Office agree to give certain categories of asylum-seekers in hotels £8 a week.

Similar patterns were apparent among the Afghan arrivals: the Refugee Council noted in October 2021 that delays in receiving biometric residency permits or prepaid debit cards had left many unable to access the benefits or healthcare to which they were entitled, or to apply for work. Many had little clarity on their immigration status, though the Home Office told the New Statesman it had sent a letter dated 19 November to all hotel residents updating them on “the next steps that will be taken to enable them to apply for permanent immigration status in the UK”.

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, told me he was concerned by the lack of safeguarding checks in hotels housing children, some of them unaccompanied minors. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had said in September there was merely an “expectation that hotels meet the statutory health and safety requirements”. On 18 August a five-year-old Afghan boy died after falling from the ninth-floor window of a Sheffield hotel. In November the Times reported that some child refugees had gone missing from hotels, and that Home Office officials had privately warned ministers that children were at risk of being trafficked, harming themselves or being targeted by sex offenders.

Refugees face a postcode lottery. In some areas the children have been enrolled in local schools and families are accessing support from charities and local councils. (Marwa’s nieces were attending primary school.) In other areas, the children are still not in school and are stuck inside with nothing to do; many hotels housing migrants are on busy roads on city outskirts, with no public transport or safe walking routes. “One thing that has been consistent is the lack of planning from central government, the lack of good quality coordination, the lack of clear information,” said Solomon. “The families tell us they are grateful they got out of Afghanistan, and they’re in a safe country – but they’re desperate to build their lives again, and to be in a home where they can start to do that.”

The Koofis had been exiled before. Maryam Koofi went into labour with Marwa while fleeing for Pakistan as the Taliban consolidated power, in March 2001. She gave birth in the Afghan border city of Jalalabad and left hospital an hour later so that the family – five boys, three girls – could press on to Peshawar, in northern Pakistan. They returned to Afghanistan in 2002, after the Taliban had been overthrown and an interim government named.

Marwa, born six months before 9/11, was a child of the new Afghanistan, a country built on American dollars and destruction. Between 2001 and 2021, the US spent $145bn on aid and reconstruction in the country (Afghanistan’s GDP was only $20bn in 2020). The donor money – and a resurgent opium trade – created and enriched a new elite. The Koofi family worked in construction, building hospitals, schools and other infrastructure projects financed with foreign aid.

Fifteen years and a whole universe separated Marwa from her elder sister Nilofar, who married at 17 and had her first baby a year later. Marwa was educated in international schools and the prestigious American University of Afghanistan; her mother hoped she would never marry. “I had a good life, for an Afghan girl,” Marwa told me. “I had an independent life.” She enjoyed a rarefied freedom, moving around the city in an amoured car. She had a glamorous wardrobe and a black 2020 Mercedes Benz that she loved so much she preferred not to use it, in case it got scratched. The month before the Taliban takeover, she went to a family engagement party that was mixed, the men and women celebrating together rather than in separate groups, as is traditional, and Marwa felt sure that she was glimpsing an exciting new future.

In his 2021 “lessons learned” report, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, wrote that America’s excessive aid spending and failures of oversight had fuelled rampant corruption, ultimately posing an “existential threat” to efforts to rebuild. The US and Western powers flooded Afghanistan with more money than its economy could absorb; instead of fostering representative, accountable institutions it created a state built on graft. “Corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan; it is the system of governance,” the Afghan national security adviser Rangin Spanta had observed in 2010. As the Taliban advanced in the wake of the US withdrawal, it became apparent that five-sixths of the Afghan security forces’ 300,000 troops existed on paper alone, the New York Times reported. Soldiers were going unpaid and hungry, while warlords cut deals with the Taliban rather than risk their lives for a government they didn’t consider worth defending.

[See also: As sanctions bite, Afghanistan edges towards famine]

The Koofis acknowledged that flagrant corruption had hastened the government’s demise. For their own part, they said, they were motivated by patriotism and a commitment to women’s advancement – which is why Maryam and Nilofar had stayed in politics despite the danger. In 2014, four years after she entered parliament, Maryam was shot in the leg. The perpetrators were never identified. Marwa begged her mother to give up politics, but Maryam refused. (In 2018 Maryam and her sister Fawzia were banned from running for parliament over alleged links to armed groups, charges they denied.) Fawzia Koofi has survived at least two assassination attempts, including a shooting in 2020. “Afghan women are strong,” Marwa told me, “they have always fought for their rights.” She thought one day she’d enter politics, too.

Even the richest Afghans lived with a background thrum of danger. The second time we met, Maryam showed me a photograph of a toddler with huge, ink-black eyes and impossibly long lashes: Safar, her youngest son. Though by then we had spoken for hours, Marwa had never mentioned her baby brother. They were like twins, she said now, her expression inscrutable. He was unbelievably beautiful. When he was three years old, he was run over by a car. The driver carried his lifeless body to their apartment, and Marwa was the first to see him: one side of his face crushed, the other perfect. “They say that beautiful people will never live for long,” Marwa said. Nilofar left the table abruptly. The others were silent. Long afterwards I found myself thinking of Safar, and what it might mean to be too beautiful to survive.

The nights drew in and the weather grew colder. Another 50 Afghan refugees arrived at the hotel in late October. The mood darkened; the guests now understood they would not be leaving soon. There was a woman there whose three-month-old baby had been crushed to death outside Kabul airport; there was a girl who kept collapsing with seizures; two mothers had suffered miscarriages while in the hotel. A group of residents sent a letter to the Home Office in November, thanking the British government for evacuating and accommodating them, but also highlighting the “extreme stress” they were under and requesting more medical care. They asked for a playground for the children, so they could “express their fun-loving nature” and develop the social and physical skills they would need to become “effective members of British society”.

In early December, at least nine residents fell ill with coronavirus and were asked to isolate in their rooms. One guest sent an urgent letter to the local council, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence. “It is only a matter of time before someone dies at this premises due to staff negligence,” the letter said, alleging a lack of Covid precautions, medical care or monitoring of those in isolation. It said the guests were treated in a “degrading manner” and “with disgust due to our race”.

In a statement, the hotel denied these allegations. It said staff had conducted extensive testing along with other safety measures, including regular welfare checks on those isolating, and it had followed all Home Office and health authority advice. It said it had actioned medical requests and arranged travel for hospital and doctor appointments. It strongly denied accusations of staff negligence, describing them as “offensive to the hard work all of the staff members have put in to ensure that the residents are as comfortable as possible”, including arranging Christmas gifts and birthday parties for the children, and driving guests on errands. It said it had a diverse workforce that was trained in equality and diversity, and “zero tolerance” towards racism.

When we spoke by phone, the resident who wrote to the Home Office told me he had volunteered to accompany staff delivering food to isolating guests in order to check on their welfare. A few days earlier, one woman who was isolating was found unconscious in her hotel room. The letter-writer, who was still hoping that his wife and children would be able to join him from Afghanistan, said that he, like everyone in the hotel, had arrived in the UK after much suffering. “Everyone knows in Afghanistan if you go to Western countries you will be treated in a good way. But when we come here, we feel hurt.”

[See also: Yogita Limaye’s Diary: The mercurial Taliban, selling children to survive, and the betrayal of Afghan women]

In August the government committed to inviting 20,000 at-risk Afghans to resettle in the UK over the next five years (this figure will include some of those evacuated in the summer). But as the NS went to press, the resettlement scheme was not yet open to referrals from Afghanistan, leaving many stranded. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has worsened. The Taliban has barred many girls and women from attending school, university or work, and targeted human rights defenders and dissidents. The US government froze the Afghan government’s foreign reserves after the Taliban takeover and much international aid has been suspended. There has been a bad harvest. By October the World Food Programme was warning that 23 million Afghans were at risk of starvation.

The Koofis’ bank accounts had been frozen since August, but the family was in a better position than many. The second time I visited the hotel, in late October, Marwa’s father had recently sold a car to pay for food: in ordinary times the car would have cost $15,000, but he was desperate enough to sell it for $2,000. Sometimes I imagined, as no doubt Marwa did, too, what would happen if their accounts were unfrozen. Sometimes as I was dropping my daughter off at school, or catching a train to work, I would find myself thinking of the hotel, all of those people sitting in their usual spots, waiting for news.

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Nothing changed for Marwa, but I saw something change in her. The first time we spoke she’d seemed in denial. She’d been refusing to leave the hotel when it organised shuttles into town, saying she had no interest in “sightseeing”. Gradually, her resignation had given way to enthusiasm. She was planning to apply to study international relations at King’s College London, even if (perhaps especially if) that meant living in the capital alone. She hadn’t stopped dreaming of one day returning to Afghanistan, but she was starting to see her exile as an opportunity rather than a trial. “Afghanistan’s going to be fine. It doesn’t matter how many years [it takes], but it’ll be fine. And then I’ll be well-educated. I’ll have seen different environments,” Marwa said. “If I’d only lived the life I had in Afghanistan, I’d have never known hard times. I’d have never understood what other people go through.”

Some names have been changed

Update: On 11 March 2022, as the Home Office faced calls to waive visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees, the Koofis were still in the hotel and awaiting resettlement. While the government has suggested that UK families will be able to host Ukrainian refugees, the residents have been warned they may lose their asylum status if they leave the hotel.

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special