Aim: This note provides important cultural information for people providing services to Afghan refugees in the UK.
Caveat: This is a very basic introduction to Afghan culture. There is an incredible amount of diversity within the Afghan society and the intention is not to STEREOTYPE all Afghans! If you have further questions about Afghan culture after reading this document, you can email them to ACAA: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greetings and social interaction
- Obviously, due to Covid, the regular form of Afghan greetings is not currently appropriate: Women (especially acquaintances) greet each other with a hug and then kiss one another on the cheek (similar to the French greeting). Men greet each other simply with a handshake.
- With social distancing, or with someone you don’t know very well, it is more appropriate to greet someone by saying “Salaam” meaning “Hello” and placing your right hand over your heart and nodding slightly (this shows respect and sincerity).
- Generally, do not make physical contact with people of the opposite gender when you meet them. Men especially should wait until a woman extends her hand before extending his for a handshake. Otherwise, do the greeting mentioned in the bullet point above.
- In many cases, Afghan women may feel more comfortable being seen by another female when alone – whether it is a case worker, interpreter, doctor or nurse, for example.
- ALWAYS ask an Afghan’s permission before taking their photograph. This is especially true of women and girls.
- You SHOULD extend an offer multiple times. Afghans will often decline an offer initially, saying ‘No, it’s okay, please don’t worry,’ out of politeness and to show they are not greedy. Therefore, offer everything multiple times.
- DO NOT ASSUME that all Afghans follow a conservative interpretation of Islam! Some family dynamics are more egalitarian, whilst others are based on some form of a hierarchy. If you can, take the time to learn about and adapt to the practices of the Afghans you meet.
- Tea is a comfort drink for most Afghans. Fortunately there is a lot in common with British culture here! If possible, offer tea to make Afghans more comfortable.
- Respect prayer times: allow time for Afghans to pray if they ask to, and if someone is praying in the room do not walk in front of the prayer mat. Also, check the general direction of Mecca from your location in case they ask.
- Within Western culture people do not like it when strangers touch or try to calm down their children. Mostly speaking, this is different in Afghan culture: if a child or baby is crying, mothers appreciate it when others come and try to help calm the child.
Extracurricular / Food
- Most Afghans are active users of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter.
- There are many TV channels that Afghans watch (for example Tolo TV/news, Ariana TV, Lemar etc…) but they are not available on regular TV and they need a digital box (such as Jadoo) – although channels are streamed on YouTube.
- Afghan cuisine is very varied. The staples are rice (pilau) or Qabuli pilau (rise with carrots and raisons) with different types of meat – Kofta (meatballs in tomato sauce), Yakhni (steamed meat in broth), dumplings (either meat filled or with leeks), soups etc… Bread is eaten with almost every meal. Many Afghans will be used to other cuisines as many western style restaurants have been built in Afghanistan in recent years, selling burgers, pizzas etc.
- In Afghanistan, it is common for women not to learn to drive. Bear in mind that this could present barriers for them in the UK, for example travelling to meetings alone, taking their children to school or even shopping alone.
- Be SENSITIVE. There is generally a high occurrence of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder amongst refugees. The ‘firsts’ that they experience (Eid, New Year – celebrated on 21 March, birthdays) will be the hardest given the survivor’s guilt they will face.
- PROVIDE REASSURANCE AND OFFER SYMPATHY. However, don’t push for details of their personal experiences in Afghanistan. Wait until your counterpart initiates the conversation or you have a close relationship with them.
- More conservative families may fear that their close relatives, especially their daughters/sisters/wives, will forget or will not value Afghan culture and traditions. Therefore, you should reassure them that there are Afghan community groups and societies in the UK, which may help overcome that fear.
- There can be social stigma when it comes to talking about mental health, as it is not something widely discussed in Afghanistan. Therefore, if you suggest that an Afghan might need psychological help, this could be seen as offensive. Offering support for mental health should be done in a calm, explanatory and subtle way.
- Men are often the breadwinners in the household. This means that they may feel pressure to support their family at home and even those still in Afghanistan.
- If you are recommending women to work, bear in mind that this can be culturally sensitive in some families. You may want to consider talking to the woman in private before discussing it openly with her father/brother/husband.
- Be respectful if women and children are reluctant to discuss their domestic situation. Make them aware of their rights and the types of aid at their disposal but do not make them feel obligated to talk. This could cause additional anxiety and make them worried about discussing things in the future with carers and professionals.