“We are made to look like monsters in the media. We are not monsters.”
This week is Refugee Week, and there has never been a more important time to shine a spotlight on the issue of displacement.
Figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reveal that 16.2million people were newly displaced last year, meaning that by the end of 2017, some 68.5million people around the globe had been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of conflict, persecution or violence.
This figure is the highest it has ever been, with 44,400 people being forced to flee their homes every single day in 2017. That amounts to one person every two seconds.
Here, five women who fled their homes to seek asylum in the UK share their stories, and tell Stylist what they want others to know about their lives.
Maya left Syria to come to the UK in 2015, when she was 15 years old. She travelled here with her mum and two younger brothers to join her dad, who had already fled the country to find a safe place with a safe environment for the family to live.
“The situation in Syria was only getting worse in 2015. Going to school was dangerous and basic living essentials, such as water, gas or electricity, weren’t available most of the time. But coming here meant I had to leave my extended family and a lot of my friends behind. Not only that, but all of my old life as well; my old self, and everything I had been used to for 15 years. I needed to acclimatise with my new environment and that required me to change, which caused a lot of suffering and challenges in the beginning.
For example, I tried to enrol in a school immediately as education was important to me and I just wanted to blend in with my new community, which meant going to school and making friends. That didn’t work out because I was turned away from school and that really affected me, and I ended up lonely and isolated. As English was a new language for me, and I’d only learnt a few bits and pieces of it in Syria, I spent my time out of school improving my English.
But now I love it here. I am working on a good cause, people are listening to what I have to say and I am being recognised for it. I have a lot of memories back home and I miss a lot of people who had a great effect on my life. There is a different language here, as well as a different culture and different people, but I am used to it now, and it’s opened my mind to new ideas and new traditions.
I do have greater challenges trying to build my life again, to fit in again, to resume my educational journey in a new system, but for me now, these are just basic life responsibilities.
I want people to know that refugees are just human beings, like anyone else. Being called a refugee doesn’t mean that you are from a certain country or you have certain manners, or a certain ethnicity, it is something that could happen to anyone and no one can control it when it does. We are fighters; we are determined to keep hope and to always find a way to live normally again.
Refugees just want to re-build our lives again, and we appreciate everything we are given and we really want to give back in return, although it might take more time for some of us. I am a refugee, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be a volunteer, because I am; it doesn’t mean that I can’t be an engineer, because I am (I am studying it in university) and it doesn’t mean that I can’t be as normal as anyone else, because I am trying to.
From me personally, I want people to know that most of us are thankful, because I am. Now, I always try to spread hope between refugees and migrants because my life has changed gradually since arriving and I think as long as they have hope and have faith in themselves, then life is going to change for good for them too.”
Maya is an ambassador for The Children’s Society and a spokesperson for UNHCR. She received Diana’s Legacy Award last year from TRH Duke of Cambridge and Duke of Sussex, and she was named the Asian Women of Achievements Young Achiever of 2018.
Mursal was four years old when her mum brought her and her sister to the UK from Afghanistan in 1995.
“I would say my home country is England, as I’ve been a British citizen for several decades now. Coming to the UK as a child refugee is not an uncommon experience, but it has given me different privileges to those who come here as adults, such as a British education and access to healthcare through the NHS.
I thank my mum every day for the very tough choice she made to leave Afghanistan, and the very difficult journey she made, alone with two young girls. Things were getting rough in Kabul and she wanted to provide a better life for us. Taliban Afghanistan was not a hospitable place for two young women to be brought up, or even to exist. Of course, a part of me is Afghani and I feel very connected to the country still.
Refugees are given certain protections under international humanitarian law because they are faced with no choice; they either stay where they are and die, or leave and have some chance of a future. Refugees have a human right to life and shelter – I use the example that, if your house burns down and you lose access to essential things like shelter and the ability to live, you can come and stay at my place.
It is one of the most advanced terms of civilisation that has ever existed in this world, this thing that we have agreed to do for each other. It is a really beautiful act of humanity that we are able to provide for each other, and it’s one that could help any one of us – we are all one push of a red button away from needing the help we guarantee each other when we become refugees.
But sadly some people frame that in a different way; they frame refugees as burdens who are being led by greed. My family had no choice but to come to the UK; my mum saved her life and our lives by coming here. Refugees leave everything behind: possessions, homes, clothes, professional identities. And of course, their communities, friends and loved ones. I have lots of family members who survived the Taliban years through the nineties to 2001 when American forces ‘liberated’ Afghanistan from the Taliban. They’ve lived through it all and experienced losses of family members and I feel very lucky to have escaped that. The members of my family who did leave Afghanistan are dotted around the globe. We’ve been spread out like seeds across the world.
I want people to remember that the refugee policy for the world is like an insurance policy that protects us all. I think people in the UK and US got a little inkling of what it’s like to live in a country with political instability a few months ago, when the leader of North Korea was making inflamed comments about what he’d like to do with his little red button and arsenal of nuclear weapons. Our orange-haired president in the US is a daily reminder of how fragile democracies and civilisation can be.
Maybe people feel invulnerable to the need to ever use the privileges that refugee rights afford us. Hopefully we will be forever peaceful in this wonderful Western European part of the world that we live in. But things can change very quickly and very badly, and if that time ever comes for us, we will be so grateful that refugee rights exist.”
Mursal is the founder of Chatterbox, an organisation working to help highly educated refugees like her mum to reclaim their professional identities as online foreign language tutors
Fatuma is originally from Burundi but she lived in Kenya for six years as a refugee before coming to the UK with her three siblings.
“I was living in a refugee camp in Kenya with my mother and three siblings when my mum got sick. She had cancer and we had to travel to Nairobi for her to get treatment. However, she passed away, and life was very difficult for us.
Then we got a call from UNHCR saying that we were going to be interviewed to try and resettle us in another country. There was no way that I could have coped in that situation with three siblings, so we went to the interview and waited six months for the reply. Then the UK embassy said we could go to the UK.
We were very, very, very happy because that is what we had been waiting for, for so long – even before our mum passed away. Living as a refugee in a camp is not easy. Life was very difficult and we faced so many challenges.
So in order for us to survive or just live a normal life, we had to travel abroad – for a better life. We prayed so hard that our mum could come here for better treatment but unfortunately she passed away before we got the reply about moving to the UK. But we were very excited to move here and we are very thankful to the UK.
We didn’t have any other family in Kenya but we did have friends we left behind. When my mum got sick, there was no way I could survive without making friends. Wherever I go, I make good friends around me, although it is not as easy to make friends here because everyone is busy.
There are big differences between Kenya and the UK – life here is totally different, and better than it is in my home country or Kenya.
I left school when I was 17 years old and went back when I was 24, which was a huge opportunity for me. It was really exciting to study and I tried really hard to find a college with English classes for me to learn English the way they speak it here. Everywhere you go and everything you do, you have to speak English.
Some organisations have interpreters but they are not available all the time. When you go to the GP, there are times when there are no interpreters available. Sometimes, you might have a sickness which you want to talk to the doctor in private about, without having someone else in the room, listening to what you have to say.
So, all these things made me feel that I had to push harder to learn English. I wanted to speak for myself and do everything for myself, by myself, without anyone’s help.
I am hoping to be a nurse one day and I am working hard towards it. Before my mum got sick, I wanted to study journalism. But when my mum was very, very sick, and she needed care, I had to do things for her which the nurses at the hospital couldn’t do for her. This made me change my mind and instead I decided I wanted to do something else that would help women like my mum, who are in need.
But without English, you can’t do anything. There are places to meet people, places you can go and interact with people and learn things, but if you don’t speak English, write and read it, then you can’t do anything.
Refugees and people seeking asylum face barriers to learning – such as a difficulty in studying English, among other things. The Government should look at ways to help people achieve their dreams.”
Fatuma, along with the charity Refugee Action, recently spoke to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness about the importance of English for refugees.
Shrouk came to the UK from Egypt in 2007, when she was 15 years old. She was originally here on holiday with her mum and little brother and sister, but due to events relating to domestic violence, her mum had to claim asylum for the four of them.
“I had no idea what it meant when my mum claimed ‘asylum’. I had never heard that word before. I was young and a bit foolish, so I thought migrants would be treated really well here – in Egypt, people go out of their way to help migrants. But I was made to feel really different and unwelcome, as though I shouldn’t be here, even though it wasn’t my choice.
The first person who really hurt me was a friend I’d made when I was 16. We were little indie kids, hanging out and listening to really bad rock music. I never tried to hide the fact that I was an asylum seeker from her, but it never came up in conversation, until suddenly one day it did. She treated me really badly. She said she hated this country for being so easy on people like me, and that it should have been much tougher. It wasn’t nice at all; I remember crying a lot.
My siblings had it worse than me though. My sister looks really white; she has blue eyes and straightens her hair, because in Egypt it’s shameful to have curly hair. She started to wear a hijab and people said horrible things to her every day, all the time. My mum’s English wasn’t great so I wonder how many time she was discriminated against without knowing about it, although most of the time she couldn’t avoid knowing – it was so obvious.
After we’d been here for five years my family got deported. There was a dorm raid on my home one night when I wasn’t there and my little brother and sister were dragged out of bed and taken to a place like a detention centre. We weren’t allowed to visit each other before they were deported. And then I got given asylum.
You don’t realise how bad the situation is until you get more rights. Now that I am a refugee, I can go to university and work, but I’m not allowed to vote, even though I’ve lived here for 11 years. I’m supposed to be at a conference in the US right now, but when I applied for a visa to travel there, I was held up by immigration. I don’t know why. I can’t apply to be a British citizen until 2020, and it will cost me thousands of pounds. These things make me feel like I’m still not equal.
However, I’ve just finished my masters and my community now is really lovely; I’m in a little bubble. I volunteer at Student Action for Refugees and I belly dance as Dancing Queer to raise awareness of the persecution faced by LGBTQI+ people in Egypt.
I want people to know that refugees are just people. I don’t want to victimise myself, but refugees are some of the world’s most vulnerable people. I wasn’t allowed to go to university for seven years, even though I had A-levels in Maths, Physics, Arabic, Computer Science, and Welsh Bacc. I had better grades than my classmates but I wasn’t admitted because I belonged to a group of people who were disadvantaged.
We are made to look like monsters in the media. But we are not monsters.”
Julia came to the UK in 2009, to escape from human trafficking in Kenya run by a radical sect called Mungiki. She was 30 years old at the time.
“I was in a cyber café in Kenya in 2007 when I found a website recruiting people for colleges in the UK. I had the chance to apply so I did, and I got my visa at the end of 2008. I would have studied here if I’d had the chance, but when I got here there was no college.
The person who supported me in getting my documents to come here took my passport and my visa away from me. He started using me to work for him and he made me pay him any money that I earned. He said if I didn’t he would call the home office and have me deported back to Kenya, so I felt like I had to do it to keep my place here.
I did that for three years until my visa expired. The man wasn’t willing to help me renew it and I couldn’t apply on my own as I needed him to write the supporting letter. I had no money and then I fell ill.
The man started using my documents to claim benefits in my name, and the home office found out. I was arrested in the name of committing fraud and that is how I claimed asylum in 2014.
It was a long process, trying to heal and get better. The asylum process was tedious and exhausting and took a long, long time – I didn’t get my status until December last year. It’s a long time for your life to be put on hold, with so many uncertainties and insecurities.
Before all this happened I had a good career in Kenya as a teacher. I had a future ahead of me and I was a well-respected member of society. I was a happy human being.
Life in the UK has not been easy. I have had very low moments but at least I am now in a safe place. It is not easy being away from the people you love and not being able to see them or hug them. I haven’t seen my family since 2011 and I miss them terribly.
Since I became a refugee I have tried to rebuild my life to the best of my ability. I came to Coventry when I claimed asylum but even here, I had to be under very close supervision. I had my own support worker to make sure I was safe. I worked as a volunteer for two and a half years before I got my refugee status, and I was living on £35 a week. My accommodation was provided for me and I didn’t have to pay bills, but I literally only had £5 a day for food.
I am now working as an employment officer at the Coventry refugee and migrant centre and I am helping other refugees like myself to integrate into the new society and get into the workforce. When you become a refugee you get the freedom to start rebuilding your life, but it doesn’t necessarily get any easier. There are all sorts of restrictions, and you can’t go back to the country you ran away from for the first five years.
I want people to know that refugees are no different from anyone else; they have potential and can contribute to society, given a chance. They bring a lot of rich culture and skills which can be used in the UK. It is not easy trying to fit in in a strange land. They have given up their land to seek sanctuary, and this is not easy at all.”
Refugee Week is the UK’s largest festival celebrating the contribution, creativity and resilience of refugees. 600 events are planned in every corner of the UK to mark its 20th anniversary between 18 and 24 June 2018.
If you want to find out more about refugees in the UK, please visit the Refugee Action website here
Images: Jon Attenborough, Lena Garrett, Adam Chard, Daryl Freehely, Jake Ingle, Unsplash, Topich