“A golden opportunity”: the major general who became executive chief of the resettlement of the Afghans

Former Army Major General turned Chief Executive John Henderson shares his perspective on Afghan resettlement

CV: John Henderson

• 2015 Managing Director, Staffordshire CC
• 1982-2015 British Army, rising to the rank of Major General commanding British forces in Germany (2012-15)

There are probably no council heads who understand the culture shock of recent Afghan refugees in the UK better than John Henderson of Staffordshire CC.

Before taking the helm of Staffordshire in 2015, Mr Henderson spent most of his career in the military. He carried out two missions in Afghanistan – in 2004 as a colonel commanding NATO forces in the north, and in 2008 as a brigadier in the southern city of Kandahar.

In an interview with LGC, Perth-born Mr Henderson said the knowledge he gained in Afghanistan has proven invaluable in his current role as local government.

“The role of the strategic leader is to absorb uncertainty and complexity and to convey clarity and simplicity”

John Henderson

“The most important thing I learned was to manage the strategic environment which is uncertain and complex and does not lend itself to simple solutions,” he said. “It transfers very well to local government; the role of the strategic leader is to absorb this uncertainty and complexity and impart clarity and simplicity to those leading the tactical efforts. It is as important for child welfare social workers as it is for junior army officers.

Staffordshire has 180 Afghan evacuees, who are currently in transitional hotels.

Mr Henderson said he could tell where incoming Afghans were coming from based on their last names. He believes that most of the arrivals – who worked for the British government or were otherwise involved in the “Western Project” – are from the more liberal Kabul, which will facilitate their integration.

But he added that there is a “misconception” that because so many of these refugees worked for the British, “they all speak English”.

“It is striking how much less than 50% speak English,” he said. “It is likely that a middle-aged Afghan mother did not have a formal education, so certainly not.

Mr Henderson believes the councils should start with a “very different end in mind” from how they might normally approach support for asylum seekers, given the likely long-term nature of Afghan residences.

He said: “We often think of refugees returning to their countries of origin when things have improved there. But it will be the home of these Afghans.

With this in mind, Staffordshire offered Afghans in their hotel accommodation training in English. The council was also able to find places in local schools for all 89 children in the contingent.

Mr. Henderson advised councils to carefully consider the cultural challenges that Afghans may face, as “the first few weeks are when you will shape their impressions.”

Apart from the “huge shock” of the weather, he predicted that the biggest surprise will be “our freedoms”.

“We have to explain how we work and what we do – they will be surprised at how much more flexible and smaller our family structures are than theirs,” said Henderson.

“They are in a new country and feel grateful because we saved them from an uncertain situation. That’s when you reach out and say, “These are the rules of our society.” Right now they’re really receptive to that.

He told his council colleagues to be “very careful” about some of the Afghans “who call themselves community leaders” because of the deep societal rivalries that exist.

“Be careful where you put these families next to other Afghans. It is not because they come from the same country that they will become friends.

He pointed out that Burton upon Trent has a large community of almost exclusively Shia Muslim Hazaras. The Shiites “suffer from enormous prejudice” in Afghanistan, said Henderson: “If you put Pashtun families among them, it might not go well. We need to think about it and listen to these families. “

Mr Henderson criticized the way the government “does not appear to be looking” at the situation “through Afghan eyes”. “Some of their advice to councils seems pretty metropolitan,” he said.

He pointed out that the government had not provided advice on the treatment of polygamous families. Although there are none in Staffordshire, Mr Henderson knows of at least one Afghan polygamous family elsewhere – a former senior officer in the Afghan army, who is here with his two wives.

Another challenge is the large family sizes, which can present housing challenges for councils. Mr Henderson said it was “not uncommon” for a woman to have seven children.

He reported that Staffordshire staff working with Afghans on a daily basis were “really impressed with their resilience”.

“The kids go to school, the families explore – it’s amazing how they are doing. Arriving with practically nothing, they showed a real determination to rebuild their lives.

He recalled recently meeting a “group of little Afghan boys” who “desperately wanted a haircut” and “found their way to a barber” – bearing in mind that the Taliban are frowning. eyebrows on short hair. “These boys want to go to school looking like western boys, with their hair cut. The children will integrate, ”he said.

Mr. Henderson’s long military career also took him to Bosnia, Belgium, Iraq, the United States and on his last posting to Germany, where he commanded British forces in the country.

For Afghans to integrate, it will take much more than teaching them to speak English, he said.

Mr. Henderson is concerned about the credibility of Afghan professional qualifications, given the historic weaknesses of the country’s education system, especially before the overthrow of the first Taliban regime in 2001.

In addition, there are “people who have had professional jobs, but we would not necessarily give them jobs in this field here,” he said.

Some Afghans forced to flee the country quickly gave up their professional degrees, making it even more difficult to prove their level.

But Mr Henderson believes there is a “golden opportunity” for councils to match Afghans to jobs with chronic shortages of workers – especially driver roles.

“A lot of Afghans can drive trucks because logistics is a big industry there and they are very good drivers because the roads are really horrible. They drive very old trucks – Mercedes blunt nose trucks from the 1960s still run there in large numbers – so Afghan drivers are good mechanics.

“It might be worthwhile for the councils to ask if they have [driving] allowed. “

He compared the Afghan arrivals to previous influxes of highly skilled immigrants like Ugandan Asians and Vietnamese “boat people”, who “added enormously to our country because they were real go-getters.”

“We have the opportunity to shape these Afghans and say to them, ‘This country is a proper meritocracy. It didn’t matter who your father was. We might be surprised. These people will give us a real benefit and in the short term, if they can drive a truck, wouldn’t that be great? “

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