She was voted Afghan businesswoman of the year, has been praised by Prince Charles and has had her art displayed at the V&A museum in London and the Smithsonian in Washington. She is the subject of a chapter in a book by a former US president’s wife celebrating women in and once declared her ambition to be “the female Bill Gates in my country”.
But these days Samira Kitman is living on £5 a day in a shared house in Lancaster, north-west England, unable to work, missing her family and desperate for the Home Office to grant her refugee status so she can start a new life in the UK.
The 32-year-old fled Afghanistan in January 2016 and claimed asylum the following month on the grounds she could not return to her home in Kabul because she feared for her life. But her initial application was refused and now she is bracing for a crucial appeal next week.
She told immigration officers she had been targeted by strangers she believed were working for the Taliban, who threatened her in letters, calls and emails, and tried to kidnap her. They objected to her business activities, she said, which included the ownership of a crisp factory and Maftah-e Hunar, an arts foundation which trained young, deprived women to become artists and make a living.
They did not like the profile she was building internationally, after visits to Germany, Dubai, India, Tajikistan and Pakistan. She even made a trip to the US representing Afghan entrepreneurs, during which she met John Kerry, then secretary of state. Last year she featured in , a book by the former first lady Laura Bush.
By the time she left Afghanistan the charity had taught more than 90 young girls calligraphy skills and how to make miniature paintings. In 2014 she led one of the Afghan crafts industry’s – providing miniature painting, ceramics and woodwork to the new five-star Anjum hotel in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
They left Afghanistan a family of nine. They arrived in the UK a family of two
Kitman had a charmed life in Kabul, living in a big house and taking regular trips abroad to show off her art. Getting used to life as an asylum seeker in Britain has been tough. “It’s not easy to adjust to the life I currently have, considering the easy life I had with my family back home,” she told the interviewer when she made her asylum claim.
She was never short of money in Kabul. Now she has to choose between eating or taking the bus to appointments in Lancaster and elsewhere. When the Guardian met her she had spent the previous night on a £11 Megabus from London, where she had gone to see her immigration lawyer.
Kitman says she would not have left her country and the comforts she enjoyed had she not genuinely faced persecution and feared being killed.
“My question to the Home Office is this: why, when I was well-off in Afghanistan, where I had a good life and travelled to countries all over the world, would I give it all up to live in a shared house with strangers, living on £5 a day? I have lost everything. This was never my dream.”
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And yet her asylum claim was turned down by the Home Office last August and now she is appealing to the first-tier tribunal. Officials decided she did not qualify for humanitarian protection because she had not demonstrated a “well-founded fear of persecution”.
The refusal letter told her: “You have not shown that there are substantial grounds for believing that you face a real risk of suffering serious harm on return from the UK.”
Next week (27 March) Kitman will appeal against the decision. The stakes are high. “If the Home Office sends me back, it would be better to be dead, honestly,” she said.
Kitman came to Britain on a valid visa, having already been on a previous trip to the UK. In October 2015 she had been invited to an event at the V&A, where her calligraphy was on show. Prince Charles appeared by video-link to praise her as a true “artisan” – the royal had met Kitman a few years earlier while visiting Turquoise Mountain, where she learned her craft.
Also that year Kitman was named best woman entrepreneur at the International Women’s Day event sponsored by the women’s centre of the American University of Afghanistan.
Yet with this global success came a public profile that Kitman says caught the attention of the wrong people. She began to receive threatening messages after an altercation with a soldier outside the American embassy in Kabul and, after a kidnap attempt, eventually decided she had to leave the country. “The people of Afghanistan are not ready for a woman to be doing business and working with foreigners,” she said.
Kitman says she cannot wait to start a new life in Britain, free of fear. She finds it frustrating being unable to work as an asylum seeker and looks forward to receiving refugee status so she can get a job. “I don’t want the British government to have to support me,” she said. Legal aid is funding her appeal but she insisted: “I feel bad that the government is paying for my solicitor.”
She wants to lead a normal life – to learn how to swim, how to drive, both extremely difficult for women in Afghanistan. She hopes to one day complete a PhD and to set up an art school in Lancaster. “I want to be independent, to work and learn English and support myself. I don’t like being dependent on other people. I don’t like accepting charity.”
Patrick Howe, her lawyer, said: “Despite the terrible dangers and risk to her life, Samira has been very strong and been an incredible inspiration.”