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London, United Kingdom – Shams Rahman Fazli is fortunate that he, his wife, and their six children were able to leave Afghanistan.
Fazli, who works for the British ambassador to Kabul, and his family arrived in the United Kingdom at the end of July, shortly before the Taliban’s coup.
The group wanted to identify people like Fazli – who worked with foreign governments – as potential candidates.
By moving to another location, they were able to bring in the essentials, including the one that has been most useful – a smartphone.
When Fazlis was stranded in various cities in England and settled in a number of hotels, the Shams formed a WhatsApp group to connect with relatives still in Kabul.
While they are concerned about their safety, the messages are encouraging.
“This is how we communicate with each other and find out what’s going on with each one of us,” he told Al Jazeera.
Fazli now lives in the northern city of Bradford after arriving in England as part of an emergency evacuation of more than 7,000 Afghans and their families who assisted British troops in Afghanistan, a system known as the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP).
Although he had his own phone, many others do not, except for some tools, which makes their integration very difficult.
Organizations and businesses have now stepped in to address the digital divide.
“It is very important for these families to have good digital tools,” Krish Kandiah, a supporter of Afghans Welcome, a coalition of Christian organizations that help Afghan immigrants who have recently settled in the UK, told Al Jazeera.
“Using a mobile phone is the only way to connect with their families [back home]. ”
The partnership has partnered with the British Children’s charity Barnardo’s and mobile operator Vodafone to provide 5G tablets and mobile phones to Afghan families, with the first delivery last week.
Other groups that support digital access for these newcomers include British food retailer Tesco, who has partnered with the British Red Cross to issue 600 SIM cards with a three-month loan.
British mobile operator Lycamobile has teamed up with city councils across England to provide 1,000 SIM cards to Afghan people in London and Leicester.
“Closing the digital divide in our region must be a priority,” Navanit Narayan, head of Lycamobile, told Al Jazeera, adding that the epidemic has strengthened the need for virtual connectivity.
Dealing with digital unavailability
Emily Knox, head of the Red Cross program that helps immigrants reunite families and refugees to reunite with families, said her work during the epidemic has highlighted the need to address digital insecurity.
“What we have found … is that when people are separated from their loved ones, it becomes difficult for them to get along,” Knox told Al Jazeera. “Someone once told us, ‘I’m in the UK’, but in my mind … they have a different partner.”
The Red Cross Alliance and Tesco and other retailers have provided 311 SIM cards and 126 mobile phones to needy Afghan families, including Haji *, his wife, and their three children.
She arrived in the UK after a grueling journey.
After being injured in a road accident in Kabul, it was clear that Haji should leave. He hid for four days and boarded one of the last flights from Kabul, passing crowds at the airport airport in the early days of the Taliban’s takeover.
Upon arrival in the UK, he was provided with organizational requirements – leaving nothing but clothes on the back – including a SIM card.
“Getting a SIM card from them has been very important – I am very happy to have it because it means I can let my friends and family know what made it so safe and secure,” Haji said.
Afghan women and children, the organizations say, have a greater need for digital empowerment.
Most Afghans who know English are men, said Kandiah, of Afghans Welcome.
While her alliance put online resources in the two most widely spoken Afghan languages, Pashto and Dari, some Afghan women are illiterate. The group is currently working to develop audio recordings in their native language.
Women who are “very lonely”
Knox also said that the Red Cross is focused on providing Afghan women with mobile phones.
“Our findings are … family women [who don’t] have their own phone… [are] feeling a little lonely, ”she says.
Meanwhile, some Afghan children have not been to school for several months – first due to the epidemic, then political instability in Afghanistan, and now, they expect to be established in the UK.
The laptop system that the UK government launched at the height of the epidemic of at-risk children has now been expanded to include Afghan youth, Kandiah said.
As Afghan children wait for stable housing and school enrollment, “technology allows children to access educational programs”, said Kandiah.
Fazli, who has not yet benefited from any technology programs in the UK, hopes that his children will be able to access cell phones and laptops – especially his two daughters.
The main reason Fazli left Afghanistan with his family was because he feared for the future of his daughters’ education in the Taliban regime.
“She should be attracted to the internet,” Fazli said of her daughters. “To find out what’s going on in our area … [and to be able to] … Change [their] education. ”