MP’s Notebook: Afghanistan and St George’s Crypt

The speed of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan took many people by surprise, and there must come a time when we look back and reflect on what happened so we can learn the lessons. But for now we have to deal with the sadness and fear these events have created.

In particular, I am thinking of the sadness of our armed forces and their families, as the memories come flooding back, and the fear on the part of the people of Afghanistan that all the gains that have been made in the past 20 years will disappear.

Perhaps the best answer to those who ask, “was it worth it?” is to be found in the desperation of those who are trying to flee the country. They know better than any of us what was achieved, what it meant, and why they fear it will now be lost. For each of them, it was not for nothing.

I have seen that fear in the past two weeks, as have lots of other MPs, in the urgent messages and emails I have received from Afghans living in Leeds who are desperately worried about their family and loved ones back home.
They remember only too well what the Taliban did the last time it controlled the country, and none of them believe the assurances from the Taliban that there will be no revenge or recrimination.

So, together with my wonderful team we have been working hard to try and help people who have told us horrendous tales of family members being killed or threatened, having to hide in neighbours’ houses, and burning their documents and uniforms. One particularly distressing story was that the Taliban had been to the house to demand the names of all the girls over the age of 14. It is said that this is because the Taliban wish to ‘marry them off’ to their fighters, but we all know that the Taliban‘s attitude to women is about subjugation. It is no wonder that so many people are fleeing for their lives. Only time will tell what kind of future the women of Afghanistan will face.

I want to pay tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces who went to Kabul to try and get as many people out as possible. And we have all been shocked by the brutal and cowardly bomb attack by ISIS on those waiting to leave.

Leeds has already said that it stands ready to take people from Afghanistan, and we will need practical help and funding from government to help us do this. Ours has always been a big-hearted city that extends a welcome to those fleeing violence and persecution.

And to the very small number of people have been in touch with me to say that they don’t think we should help, I would say this. Difficult as it may be to imagine, if you were hiding in your neighbours’ basement, terrified for your life, what sort of help would you like to receive from other countries to enable you to get out and be safe? As the old expression goes “Do as you would be done by.”

On a happier note, in a week or so’s time I will be attending the unveiling of a new Leeds Civic Trust plaque.
I’ve written before about this wonderful scheme that commemorates people and events that have contributed so much to make us the community that we are, and this one will remember a man called Don Robins who came to Leeds in the 1930s as the rector of St George’s church in the city centre.

It was the time of the great depression. Many people were out of work and had fallen on hard times. Don Robins looked around him, saw this and concluded that he must do something to help. So he did something very practical.

He had a beautiful church but below was the crypt full of the bodies of those who had died over the centuries. And inspired by the words of St Matthew’s Gospel “I was a stranger, and you took me in” he decided that the crypt should become a place for the living rather than the dead. So he set up a soup kitchen there for the hungry, and ever since then St George’s Crypt been offering a welcome, shelter, support and solace to those on whom life has not looked kindly. It has helped countless people who have hit rock bottom to turn their lives around.

So when we unveil the plaque, we will not only be remembering Don Robins the man. We will also be celebrating what can be achieved if we put the human spirit at the services of others.