She escaped the Taliban at the age of five, and together with her family she searched for refuge in unfamiliar countries. Earlier this year, Lewisham-local Rabia Nasimi, 23, began a PhD at Cambridge.
Her life before Lewisham seems distant as Rabia stirs the cup of green tea she just ordered in the French patisserie we meet in. She doesn’t remember much of Afghanistan, nor the month-long journey here – though her parents have told her stories. Stories of a strenuous journey, and stories of being a refugee in a foreign country, not knowing the culture nor the language.
“My parents are the reason for my success. They brought me here and took this major risk for me, for us,” Rabia said.
None in her family spoke English when they first settled in Lewisham, and her parents struggled with integration. “My father had an idea and spoke to some people about it, including the local MP and Mayor, and then said, ‘Let’s set up an organisation. Let’s try help others who are also finding it difficult’,” she said.
From an early age, Rabia was active in the Deptford-based organisation, The Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), aiming to support immigrants. As her English grew stronger, she assisted her parents in reading letters and emails. “With the charity sector and the limited funding often available, people who set up organisations often need to rely on people close to them who believe in the cause and the vision to support them, often with no costs, in our case – it was our family,” she said.
“My exposure to refugee stories has not been limited to my own,” she said, and thinks her experience in helping others has enabled her success. But the charity sector has not solely been a positive experience for the 23-year-old. “A lot of people might assume ‘she is doing so much for the organisation she must have a high salary doing it, she must be getting money out of it’.” she said.
“What they do not understand is that I don’t have a salary, and that I am actually doing this voluntarily. Regardless of how I try and get the message across, some people just don’t understand which can be disheartening, but I am very willing to continue what I do.”
Having experienced her own family struggle with integration, working voluntarily for people who might assume she’s gaining from it, is upsetting for Rabia. “I think it’s quite difficult for people in the diaspora, especially the first generation, to understand civil society. To understand the way charities work. But it is a lengthy process and I am positive perceptions will change.”
She added: “If someone asked me what I really wanted to do right now, it would be to be sat in a library reading my books. I’m doing more because of how much this means to me, because I see how much impact the work is having.”
Rabia hopes her story can be of inspiration to other refugees: “I hope that for people who have taken a similar journey, my story can be of inspiration and enable them to aim high, to know it is possible.”
Growing up in Lewisham and being part of the Afghan diaspora, Rabia feels at home both in the UK and in Afghanistan. She thinks growing up in a country that has allowed her to keep both of her identities has enabled her journey, and she wants her studies at Cambridge to be of benefit to both. “I hope my studies can be of help not only for Afghanistan, but also the UK and the international community, for people to be able to help support the reconstruction and rebuilding process.”
In between being a PhD candidate at Lucy Cavendish College at Cambridge and working for ACAA, Rabia rarely has time to relax, and she keeps three separate diaries to manage her life. But this doesn’t stop her motivation. “I am in this, regardless of where I am or what I do,” she said, “Even if I was to finish my studies and go on to work in say government, my attention will still be with the organisation. Because it means a lot to me, and to my family. And I can see the impact its having. People are actually growing and achieving.”