Long Reads

3 women on what it’s really like to try and find work as a refugee

“The uncertainty is awful, and you aren’t allowed to volunteer or work while you’re waiting for refugee status…”

Every year, the UK receives 20,000 new applications from people seeking refugee status. These people have often fled their homes under horrifying circumstances, including war, persecution and natural disasters.

Last year, the number of people being displaced from their homes was the highest it has ever been, with some 44,400 people being forced to flee every single day, amounting to one person every two seconds.

Not all refugees make it to the UK: in 2017, the British government granted asylum to less than 7,500 people. But for those that do, it can be difficult to find employment. They cannot work without refugee status, which can take months to be confirmed, and there can be language and cultural barriers, too.

A new exhibition, titled A New Beginning, launched by London-based refugee charity Breaking Barriers, is set to explore this theme. Here, three women featured in the exhibition talk about the challenges of trying to find work in the UK, while reconciling themselves with everything they had to leave back home.

Beilqes from Yemen

Women share what it’s really like to try and find work as a refugee in the UK

All my life I have been a fighter. I was forced into marriage at 16. This is the tradition in Yemen. It could have destroyed my life. But soon afterwards, I took my son and went back to my parents’ house. Divorced women are ostracised in Yemen, but my parents supported me and looked after my son while I finished my studies. I fought to study political science, which everybody said was not a subject for women. I fought to go to meetings with men. I fought to reach senior positions. Every day, men insulted me and said I was an impolite woman, trying to enter a man’s world. I continued to fight for women’s and children’s rights.

I made a good life for myself in Yemen. I had a house, a small car, and a prestigious job in human rights that gave me the opportunity to work in London in 2015. Then everything turned upside down when the war started. It was too dangerous to go back to Yemen. I was here with my elderly mother and my son. He was doing his GCSEs and I wanted him to have a good education, and my mother was too frail to cope with the dangers of war, so I decided to stay.

I lost everything, because of this stupid war. I had to start from scratch. I didn’t have experience working for British companies. I volunteered with the British Red Cross as an Arabic interpreter and case worker. I loved it and learned so much about the culture. I haven’t found a job in my area of expertise – advocacy and policy work – because I am not confident with professional standards of English. But I am hopeful I will work my way up, get back on my career path and continue to promote human rights. Now I have an administrative job with Allen & Overy law firm, and I am so excited to get experience of working in the UK.

I met my friend Megan when I was still working for a Yemeni organisation and she was researching women in leadership positions. She is American and had recently moved to London, so we both needed a friend. She has taught me about everything – from how to get work experience to navigating social situations. I’ve only known her two years, but it feels like I’ve known her all my life.

People always ask me if I find it difficult because this is a new country for me. What are you talking about? To lose your life is the big struggle, to wake up every day and open your eyes to bombing and shells, to be without food and sleep. I am living in the most beautiful, fashionable city in the world. Yes, I have struggled to find a job and learn English, but I won’t die. My son is here with me. He is building a future. Why should I worry? I am worried about one thing only – my family in Yemen. I don’t want to wake up and find out I have lost my sister or brother. We have a beautiful old family house. I don’t want to hear that my childhood memories have been destroyed by the bombing.

I told my son, it’s not important whether you know the language or the culture. Human beings are the same all around the world. What matters is your desire and willingness to be a part of this community. If you love being here, you will succeed and get what you want.

Ozlem from Turkey

Women share what it’s really like to try and find work as a refugee in the UK

When I was a few months old, my family moved from southeastern Turkey, the Kurdish region, to a mostly Turkish area. I played with other kids, but their parents kept their distance, as if we had a contagious disease. I remember being mortified when I was called names – “Kurdish with a tail” – when I was out with my mother. I knew I was different, but I wasn’t sure what I was. As a Kurdish person in Turkey, you are made to feel you aren’t really part of society.

In the early Nineties, when I was a teenager, the first Kurdish political party was founded. It was about Kurdish political and human rights, identity, culture and language. I read books about Kurdish history, distributed leaflets, attended seminars, and joined the first folkloric dance group. Soon, police raided our house. In 1992, when I was 14, I was jailed. Many of my friends from school had left and joined the Kurdish movement. I was released after nine months and went back home, but people did not want to know me. I felt isolated and left home to live with a relatives until the case was decided. In 1994 I was sentenced to 12 years, eight months. This was reduced to eight years, four months due to my age.

I didn’t want to go to jail. So I left the city, assumed a different identity, and worked. I was very young and couldn’t be in touch with my family. I didn’t want to leave Turkey, but after five years of living this way, I had no choice. In 1999 I came to the UK to join my sister, who came for the same reasons. Suddenly, I had nothing to hide and nobody to run from. I started to listen to myself, and remembering what I had gone through, I fell into a severe depression. I couldn’t communicate with the world outside. I was here and walking, but I was like a dead person. On top of this, I couldn’t speak English. I came here with literally just “Yes” or “No”. There were times when I was in tears with frustration that I couldn’t express myself. I worked hard to learn English.

At first, the Home Office told me I was telling somebody else’s story – that it was true that these things happened, but not to me. I hated that. But in 2000, a year after I arrived, I got my status, and straight away I got a job as a shelf-stacker in a supermarket. I kept studying at the same time. Alongside working in retail, I got involved with Kurdish and Turkish human rights organisations. A group of us advocated for Kurdish women’s rights at the UN. That was a big achievement.

I got married, I’ve got two lovely kids, and I am settled. I studied at university. I’ve done a law degree and a masters in International Finance and Economics, which I’m proud of. I’ve been working with Suzanne at Breaking Barriers for two years, and she is absolutely a star of my life. She made me think: I have to keep going. She’s more than a caseworker. When I’ve had personal ups and downs, she has listened to me. 

Breaking Barriers has helped me to build a career in law, providing me with mentors and giving me the confidence to approach big organisations. My aim now is to become a qualified solicitor in commercial law. I’ve recently got a full time job as a paralegal. I will always do something for my community, and maybe one day I’ll get involved in Kurdish politics, if there is a need. 

Mayada from Sudan

Women share what it’s really like to try and find work as a refugee in the UK

It is warm in Sudan. There’s sun all the time, but I don’t only mean the weather, The people are warm too – family, friends, everyone helps each other. But from when I was young, I felt that something was not right. I noticed some laws were restrictive. I wanted to change the rules that place so much pressure on people, particularly women. That’s why I decided to study law.

The first time I came to the UK was to do my masters: human rights and humanitarian law at Essex University. After that, I went back to Sudan. It’s difficult for people who work in the human rights field in Sudan - even if you say something on Twitter or Facebook you can be detained. Around three years ago, I had to leave the country. I came back to the UK, this time to apply for refugee status. I knew the theory of the law – that you have the right to seek protection – and then I saw the practice. The uncertainty is awful, and you aren’t allowed to volunteer or work while you’re waiting. In the end, it took six months to get my papers. Then I was free to go and work and do everything. Everything is different here to Sudan, so it was a bit of collision.

When I moved to London, I thought it was just so big. But I liked it straight away, because you see so many different people and so many languages are spoken. You don’t feel like you are a foreigner, because everyone is from somewhere else. But it’s so expensive, and it costs money even to travel to job interviews or to dress in a certain way. I wanted London to be my home, and I couldn’t feel at home unless I was active and contributing to society, living and working.

I was applying for jobs all the time and volunteering. So I was busy – but I was stuck in a circle. I couldn’t find a job that paid the bills and was in line with my interests and expertise. Through Breaking Barriers, I was offered work experience at the law firm Mishcon de Reya. I took a gamble and I left my job to do the work experience. Soon after that, I got a paid job as a personal assistant, and now I am a legal administrator.

At first, everything felt so difficult – it was a new environment and the work wasn’t easy. I met Anthony Julius on the first day I came to Mishcon. He was so nice. He said: “you’re welcome here”. After a few months, I felt I wasn’t moving forward and that in such a big firm, I would never be able to progress. I met with Anthony and told him that I didn’t know how to navigate the system, and was thinking of returning to the charity sector. He told me not to give up on my legal career. He said that refugees have got the resilience, and that I could make it. He arranged for me to have a mentor within the firm. My mentor has given me so much encouragement. 

Now I’m on the immigration team, and I have another mentor who is so supportive. This is an area of law I’d like to continue to work in. Anthony and my other colleagues at Mishcon know that people can learn if they just give them the right environment.

There’s a quote that I like by Albert Schweitzer: “Sometimes our light goes out, but it’s blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light.”

A New Beginning launches on 4 October at Protein in East London

If you want to help support refugees find employment, visit Breaking Barriers for more information

Photography: Leonie Hampton, Jo Metson Scott and Diana Markosian