10:00am Wednesday 2nd January 2013
By Ben Leo
An entrepreneur from Afghanistan has swapped the bullets and bombs of his homeland for a life in Brighton as a toyshop owner.
Family man Sanjar Qiam’s dreams of a safer life for his wife and newborn son, away from the war-riddled streets of Kabul, became reality when he packed up shop and moved to Sussex in July 2011.
His feat is even more impressive as he is thought to be one of the only Afghan residents to have come to Britain on a prestigious entrepreneurial visa.
A successful businessman in Kabul, Sanjar moved to the Sussex coast with his Russian wife Sonia, 29 and son Ivan, who is now two.
He ran a management consultancy company and ventured into technology and management training.
He had done well for himself in the difficult conditions of a warzone.
But success mattered little when he fell under scrutiny for starting a family with a non-Muslim, white, Russian girl.
His homely set-up, though perfect to him, was very much frowned upon by some areas of his community.
Sanjar said: “Kidnap is an active trade and you have to be wary. I had a friend who was kidnapped and it’s something the state cannot control.
“I ran a successful business so there was the financial aspect of kidnap and also having a non-Muslim wife singled us out.
“The Taliban and criminal groups are all interlinked so there was never a shortage of criminals about.”
Sanjar and his family packed their belongings and headed for India where they caught a flight to London Heathrow. He had visions of a better life in Brighton, a world away from his native Afghanistan.
He said: “It wasn’t fun growing up in Kabul, not good.
“I was living in constant fear as there was always conflict going on.
“The worst time was the early 1990s – there was no formal school system so I had to educate myself and I didn’t have electricity for five years.
After arriving in the UK, Sanjar found it difficult to find the kind of work he was used to back home.
Turning his back on what he knew, this summer he and Sonia set up a toy shop and cafe called Rocket Science in Trafalgar Street.
He said: “I tried my old profession from Afghanistan but it is really hard to get anywhere with it without an extensive network of professionals and connection with businesses.”
As well as being well-stocked in clay, coloured sands and origami sets, Rocket Science has everything you need to make a traditional Afghani kite.
The shop’s Afghan kite fighting parties are a particular highlight for Sanjar, as well as the regular craft workshops and story reading sessions in different languages.
“The business concept is simple: we are bringing innovative toys as a medium for socialisation, combining family time with positive activities and stories.
“We are very proud of our toys selection. They come from all over the world. France, Australia, Russia, USA, Netherlands, Afghanistan and of course China.
“The business has so far created the equivalent of two full-time jobs and we are planning to hire a third person within the next few months.
“We’re already thinking of expansion plans and are very proud to contribute to the local economy and create jobs in the current economic climate.”
And despite the obvious differences, Sanjar finds similarities between his homeland and Brighton.
He said: “Around 500 bombs dropped a day in the city. Here in Brighton, dying is generally associated with older people and old age but in Kabul, it’s children, women and families who were dying.
“We are so very happy now in Brighton. It’s a city full of positive life, creative people and really friendly faces. Since we opened up the shop we have made new friends and have got to know so many people.
“Right now we are looking forward the future, which includes moving to Hanover next year.
“Brighton reminds me of Afghanistan in that it has a lot of hills which can be a comforting reminder of my friends and family back home. But I’m happy to say now that Brighton is my home.”
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