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Finding home away from home: Exploring Afghan refugees’ integration experiences in Edinburgh

By Sharmeen Azeem | OMC 2024

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

In 2021, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan caused millions of Afghans to flee and seek safety in countries such as Pakistan, Iran and the UK. Recent studies explore their socio-economic integration and sense of belonging within host countries. My research contributes to this literature by focusing on the experiences of Afghan refugees who arrived in the UK after 2021 and settled in Scotland. This group came through the UK Government’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), which aims to resettle twelve thousand people from Afghanistan in different cities across the UK. According to statistics provided by the Scottish Refugee Council, more than five hundred Afghan families have relocated to Scotland in the past two years. This article outlines refugees’ lived experiences, how they construct a sense of belonging in new spaces and the challenges they encounter while integrating in Edinburgh. 

I used qualitative research methods such as semi-structured interviews and participant observation to understand the everyday practices and behaviours of refugees that fostered belonging and how their experiences were shaped by gender, age and English proficiency. In their daily lives, refugees developed belonging by finding spaces to continue their cultural and homemaking practices and forging emotional connections with people from within and outside their communities.

While visiting their houses, I noticed women decorating hallways with embroidered rugs and Islamic calligraphy paintings. These acts of beautifying private spaces allow refugees to feel at home in newly allocated houses and retreat into previous routines. Outside their homes, they created spaces of belonging by celebrating community events and birthday parties in parks. Oftentimes, women found it difficult to establish ties with host community members due to household responsibilities. Instead, they formed friendships with other women from their community to counter isolation. During one interview, a respondent mentioned relying on her Afghan friends while using the bus service and hosting them at her house when she cooked Afghani food. She remarked, “Our language is the same, food is the same and there is always some sort of communication and it feels like a family”. Men enjoyed greater mobility and established friendships with people from within and outside their community. During weekends, they visited Afghan eateries and supermarkets with their families and Afghan friends. They joined English classes and sports groups to deepen their connection with host community members and find better employment opportunities. These social ties facilitated their integration by offering emotional and material support. 

While most refugees valued social networks to feel integrated, their responses also highlighted the limitations of these social ties. They hesitated to share information about their family matters with other community members. One respondent remarked, “They are just friends, not best friends”. Another respondent expressed disappointment over not receiving support from her friends when her son was hospitalised. This shows that friendships established by refugees change over time and each has differing levels of cooperation and trust. While they supported each other as friends, some respondents did not trust others from their community with sensitive information. Such responses further complicate the integration process by problematising the notion of viewing a community as a unified group where everyone relies on each other. Such aspects are missing from larger integration frameworks that only focus on the positive impact of social bonds.

Research shows refugees occupy an in-between space in the city where their “belonging/not belonging” is contingent upon contexts and social conditions. Due to facilities provided by the Scottish government, refugees feel integrated on functional indicators, including access to education and healthcare. However, cultural differences and language barriers made them feel excluded in different social settings and hampered their feelings of belonging. For example, despite having access to healthcare, one of the respondents found it challenging to navigate the healthcare system and communicate her skin condition to the doctor. She remarked “home is better than this,” as there she could have communicated in Dari - her mother tongue - and reached out to family members for medical advice.  

This article details how establishing new social ties and finding spaces to continue their cultural and homemaking practices helped refugees feel integrated in Edinburgh. However, their feelings of belonging are context-dependent and can vary according to gender, mobility and language barriers.

Sharmeen Azeem is a pre-doctoral fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives in Pakistan and conducts research on women’s political participation and collective action. She recently completed her MSc in International Development at the University of Edinburgh through the Commonwealth Scholarship program. In previous research and project management roles she has worked on projects related to child protection, inclusive education policies and women in policing.


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