What must it be like to have to flee your war-torn country? Or hastily leave your home and everything you know to be familiar because a family member is in danger of being murdered? Then, after dangerously crossing continents, countries and oceans to reach safer lands, find yourself unable to communicate because you don’t speak the language? And every time you try to further yourself through study or securing a job – all the while overcoming culture shock and isolation – one obstacle after another is placed in front of you?
Immigration is a vexed issue in the UK today, politicized and surrounded by misunderstanding and misinformation. But can we even begin to understand how difficult life must be for a refugee?
We’ve seen the horrific photos of families arriving in small boats to British shores after miraculously making it across rough seas, and we’ve read about the war, persecution and natural disasters that have torn their countries apart. But have we ever really listened to their stories?
Breaking Barriers, a UK-based charity which helps refugees find employment, is sharing the moving accounts of women who fled their home countries in a new London exhibition called Claiming A New Place On Earth.
To mark the exhibition’s opening, find below three of the women’s powerful stories.
Emily Agbaso, 19, from Ukraine, aspires to be a travel agent
I am from Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. My mother is Ukrainian, but my dad is Nigerian. They were both English teachers. I have two little brothers. Life was not pleasant in Donetsk. We were the only multicultural family in the area. I was the only different kid at school and the other children didn’t want to sit with me. Even the teachers had a bad attitude towards me. I was always the worst student in Ukraine, but here I am one of the best.
When I was 16, we came to London on a two-week holiday. I loved London. It was the first time I felt like a normal person. No one looked or pointed at me.
When it was time to leave in June 2014, we saw on the news that our airport had been bombed: there was a war in my country. We couldn’t return home. We applied for asylum in Croydon and were sent to Cardiff, then Newport, where we were given a house and £36 each per week by the Home Office.
I went to college (which is free to asylum seekers) to study English and was the best student. I then took a two-year level 3 Travel and Tourism course and got a distinction star. My dream is to promote destinations that people might not think about and help them discover new cultures. I can’t wait to work, so I can pull all my skills, energy and ideas together, but our asylum claim got denied in 2015, so I cannot work. My parents, who are both graduates and have lots of experience, cannot work either. We have now appealed and are waiting.
When I finished college, I got an amazing opportunity: to be a volunteer steward for the UEFA Champions League Final in Cardiff. I was so excited. It was the biggest event in Cardiff and I wanted to see it from the inside. It took six months of attending training and talks to prepare for it. Then the day before the game, I had to show my papers in order to get accreditation. But because I am an asylum seeker, I couldn’t get it, even though it was volunteering. It broke me down. For three weeks, I didn’t leave the house and spent all day in bed.
I somehow found the will to continue and applied to uni. I got offers from great universities and applied for bursaries, but as an asylum seeker, I couldn’t access government funding. I don’t know what I can do now. I have finished the highest level of my course, but cannot go to uni. I cannot work and I cannot do work experience. I feel that everything is blocked. I don’t want to waste my time, so I try volunteering at events like the Green Man festival.
Still, we are grateful to be here. There are more opportunities here for us than in Ukraine. We are not hungry and we are not on the street, while people of Donetsk are sleeping in tents and have no food.
Maheen Habib Gill, 19, from Pakistan aspires to be an accountant
I grew up in the Punjab region of Pakistan with my mum, dad and my two younger brothers. My mum was a doctor and my dad a forest officer. It was a very good life with lots of cousins, friends, bike rides and going to school. Then someone tried to kill my father (his left side is now paralysed). Our lives were at risk. We didn’t want to leave our country, but we had no choice. I was 16.
We arrived in Newcastle and applied for asylum. After two months, we were sent to Cardiff, then Newport. We had no idea where it was. We were given a small house up a hill and went to Poundshop to buy everything we needed. When you move to a new country, you don’t know anything about life there, but you have to adapt.
When I started school, I couldn’t communicate at first. We were in an English school in Pakistan, so language was not the problem – it was self-esteem. I had a very low self-esteem because I was an asylum seeker. Even now, I don’t like people to know. It’s something personal. Only my very good friends know. A year ago, in assembly, our teacher mentioned asylum seekers and asked what it was, and no one knew. I’ve created a group with three friends who are also asylum seekers: we go around universities, explaining what is an asylum seeker and why they need financial help.
I was hoping to go to uni this year to study Business and Accounting, but I would have had to pay £25,000 in tuition as an international student. So I am going to college (which is free for asylum seekers). I’ve done Business Administration this year and will take accounting next year. I want to be an accountant. I did work experience in an accounting firm and thought that it was something I’d be good at.
As an asylum seeker, I cannot work. My parents cannot work - but we receive £36 a week each from the Home Office. If my friends are going out, I have to think over and over “Do I have enough money to go out with them?”
We have no idea when we’ll get our refugee status. Being an asylum seeker means waiting – always waiting. We’ve been waiting for four years now. It’s stopping you doing so much that you could achieve: I would be driving by now, I would be working, I would be going to uni. What helped me is going to college and working in a charity shop on Saturdays: having friends and having something to do.
Madina Bamba, 19, from Ivory Coast, aspires to be a nurse.
I lived in Abidjan with my dad, my sister and my little brother. My mother had left when I was very young, but we had a normal childhood, going to school and all. Then, when I was 12 and my sister 14, my dad took us to London to escape female circumcision. We stayed with one of his friends in Croydon and went to the mosque. After prayers, we didn’t see him at the door. We sat there and waited. After many hours, a lady approached us, but we spoke only French. She took us to her home and the next day brought us to the police, then to the Home Office where we were told to apply for asylum.
I was in shock. I couldn’t understand why our father had left us. I cried every night. We went in foster care on the same day. The lady was very strict and it didn’t work, so I was separated from my sister and put with an emergency family, then in a children’s home. I was 13 – the only girl there. It was violent, very intimidating. No one was looking after me, but a boy there taught me to speak English. Three months later, I started year 8 in a girls’ school in Croydon. I was bullied at first because of my accent and because my name is “Bamba”, but eventually I made friends.
I stayed for six months in the children’s home, then went to live with my sister in another foster family. The lady was very caring, cooked for us and made us feel comfortable. She was like a mother to me. It was the only time I was happy. But she got other children and we had to leave. We stayed in different foster families and my sister and I grew apart. At 16, I moved to a semi-independent place with three other girls.
At 18, I got moved to a hostel with two boys, then I got pregnant and was given this basement flat. Mark, my baby, is now 13 months old. I get along with his father, but he is French and lives in France most of the time. My son is French, but I have no status. I was considered an unaccompanied minor, but at 18, was supposed to apply for an extension, but didn’t receive the letter, so my status expired. I tried to get a solicitor, but I have no money. I receive £45 a week from the Home Office and my son £20, but I cannot work.
My baby makes me stronger because he needs to have a future, but my life would have been better if I had stayed in Africa. I wouldn’t have suffered that much. I am confused and unhappy most of the time. I stopped going to school after I had my baby. Now I just stay at home, alone, doing nothing. I have no money, no friends and no one to turn to. The most painful is not working and having people think that I don’t want to work, that I just want to sit here and take benefits.
But Young Roots (a charity for young refugees) has helped me enrol in a sixth form college in Croydon to study for an extended diploma in Social Care. They have childcare there, so I will start soon. Then I’ll feel a sense of accomplishment in my life. My dream job is to be a nurse because I enjoy people and caring for them and listening to them.
Claiming a New Place on Earth is at Protein Studios, London EC2A; 10-15 October 2017. Photographed by Caroline Irby and interviewed by Veronique Mistiaen.