After fleeing for his life more than once, Kurdish refugee Salah Rasool found a new home in Wales. He offers advice to people who are new to the UK today
“We walked for 11 days and nights to the Iranian border. It was pouring with rain and Saddam’s helicopters were surrounding us. We lost my sister and her husband.”
These are the memories of Salah Rasool, a Welsh-Kurdish father and humanitarian. His missing relatives were found alive three months after they sought refuge that night, but this wasn’t the first or the last time they would be forced to flee Iraqi Kurdistan.
The first exodus came in 1975, when Rasool was just a baby. His family had to abandon home again during the Iran-Iraq war when he was 16, just before his pregnant mother suffered a stillbirth. Then the Kurdish civil war hit and they fled a third time in 1996.
Rasool describes how each time they returned to an empty house, having lost everything: “I felt that nothing could be permanent as there was never political or social stability,” he says. “It made me feel powerless and hopeless. I realised that our lives and future were in the power of a dictator and his brutal regimes.”
After the family’s third exodus, Rasool felt he could not endure another. The young biology graduate trekked across Iran’s mountains in search of a new home. To get to the UK, he spent nine months working as a tailor, hidden in a shop, where he was “at the mercy of the greedy, inhumane owner”. He earned just enough to make it to mainland Europe by foot and endured a long, harrowing journey to the UK, where he was finally granted leave to remain. “I was free to work, study, to be treated as a human. My world had opened,” he says.
I was free to work, study, to be treated as a human. My world had opened
But his journey wasn’t over quite yet. After several weeks visiting Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, Rasool followed a friend’s suggestion and ventured into Wales. The hills dotted with houses descending to the city of Swansea immediately reminded Rasool of his native landscape. “My heart felt open and for the first time in many years I was ready to make my life,” he says. “I felt I was free.”
The Welsh concept of hiraeth is similar to homesickness. It is nostalgia for a loss of some kind, often connected to a sense of homeland, hovering between sad and wistful. This bittersweetness is part of Rasool’s new life: “While I’m here in Wales, I still count Kurdistan as a home. And when I’m in Kurdistan, I feel that Wales is where I’ve made my home,” he explains. “If I dwell too much it makes me sad, so instead I think both are home – my life has been enriched. I feel privileged.”
Rasool’s first job in the UK was in a factory that made crisps, and in his spare time, he volunteered as an interpreter. Before long he was offered a full-time role with the Welsh Refugee Council, helping others seeking new lives in Wales. “It made me feel like I could contribute and build bridges,” he says. “I felt valued.”
Rasool’s love for his adopted home is clear. “Wales made it possible for me to find a house, get a job, join English and Welsh classes and to meet people – warm, humorous and honest people. There really is something magical about this land.”
He met his Welsh wife while working at the Welsh Refugee Council and the couple now have two children: “I became part of something permanent, bright and happy,” he says. The couple’s wedding, nearly 10 years ago, made national headlines for their decision to take the vows in Welsh – a celebration of Rasool’s new homeland.
Wales made it possible for me to find a house, get a job, learn English and meet warm, humorous and honest people
Now living in Cardiff, Rasool is an active member of the Kurdish-Welsh community, and is keen to help others settle in. His advice for newcomers? “Learn the language, meet local people and other communities and step out of your comfort zone,” he says. “Volunteer, set yourself challenges and give something back to the UK.”
He admits it can be difficult to strike a balance between looking back and moving forwards. “Don’t live in the past, but don’t forget your roots,” he says. “Appreciate the freedom and make the most of your new lives.”