There are around 120,000 refugees in the UK, and last year 32,414 applied for asylum. For most, life is not easy. Unemployment in refugee communities is above 50 per cent, and in 2015 the British Red Cross supported more than 9,000 who were destitute. Yet some successfully make new lives here. We meet seven people who, having ﬂed their homelands, have found a new beginning in London. Photographing them in the place where they first felt safe or part of this country, we ask them about the moment the UK became home
Words by Veronique Mistiaen, photography by Caroline Irby
27, from Somalia
I felt capable. It freed me of that negative cloud
I was born in Somalia in the middle of war. I was one of the few lucky girls able to take my GCSEs. Then I got a scholarship to study international business in Malaysia. I stayed there for six years, then went back to Somalia, but I had to leave at the age of 25 to escape a forced marriage. My mother paid a smuggler to take me to London in November, 2014. He dropped me in an area where there were Somalis. It was so cold. I spent the first night with a woman I’d met on the streets.
I went to the Home Office and applied for asylum. They sent me to Liverpool, then Manchester and put me in shared accommodation. I couldn’t work. When I finally got my papers in February 2015, I was told to move out of my accommodation. I had no money so I stayed with a Somali family and, in October, moved to London where I stayed with Somali cousins. I started to look for a job: I sent loads of applications and went for a few interviews, but they all wanted UK experience. Then I found Breaking Barriers [a charity helping refugees to find meaningful employment] and everything changed. They found me this two-month placement at Source8 [a corporate services company], working as an analyst and doing research. At first, I couldn’t speak. I was so shy. But step by step, my confidence grew.
As a refugee, all you hear is negative. Everything seems to conspire to put you down, so you think that maybe you are never going to make it. But at Source8, I felt positive. They trusted me with important things. I felt capable. It freed me of that negative cloud. I’ve gained skills, experience and confidence. Now, I am hopeful I can find a good job.
29, from Syria
I first felt at home when I started teaching about my country
I grew up in Damascus in a middle class, moderate Muslim family. I graduated as a dentist in 2012, but I would have had to do military service under Assad’s regime, so I fled to Beirut, then to Egypt. I applied twice to go to Canada but got rejected, so in 2014 decided to go to Europe. From Alexandria, I paid a smuggler $2,000 (£1,370) and boarded a small boat with 400 other people. After seven days at sea, we were rescued by a Korean ship and two days later reached Italy.
In Paris, I was told not to go to the UK via Calais because they check the lorries, so I went to Brussels where I worked in a Syrian restaurant illegally to raise the $1,000 (£685) the smuggler wanted. I finally made it to Dover aboard a German lorry – four months after I had set out.
In Dover, I was taken to a refugee centre full of people from all over the world. I was sent to Yorkshire in December 2014 and a few months later, got my asylum status, so I decided to move to London. For a month, I slept in churches and mosques, then I found a room in a house in Chiswick with 10 others. A journalist interviewed me on the BBC and that led to a job at Starbucks during weekends and to speaking engagements in schools.
I first felt at home when I started teaching about my country. Students are very involved; they ask lots of questions. My life in London was difficult, but at school I could forget how I feel. I am happy. I am teaching people about my country and the revolution – I am doing something important. I still dream about working as a dentist, but I need to pass two exams and each costs £3,000.
I love Shepherd’s Bush because there are a lot of Syrian restaurants and shops there. Here people speak with Syrian accents. I am in London, but I am in Syria.
Pipash Mahabubur Rahaman
34, from Bangladesh
I met people who knew me from back home; I could speak my language
I am from the southern part of Bangladesh. I worked as a political journalist for a large opposition newspaper until it was banned by the government. We were arrested and tortured several times. I decided to go to the UK because the son of our former prime minister and senior vice chairman of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party live here. I arrived in September 2014 and my wife and baby daughter joined me in July 2015.
At first, I was anxious. I was not sure where to go or what to do, but friends told me to go to Brick Lane where there is a large Bangladeshi community. I met people who knew me from back home; I could speak my language and eat Bangladeshi food. I used to come every day to meet up with friends and discuss politics. I still try to come once a week.
I feel safe here, but I need to adjust; in Bangladesh, I was on the highest echelons of society and here I am at the bottom. Life is stressful – the costs of living are so high. When I got my refugee status, I started to look for a job. Most Bangladeshi people here work in restaurants or in retail, but I want to work in journalism. I went to the Jobcentre and they said I could get a Jobseeker’s Allowance, but I would prefer if they could help me build my skills so I could work in my profession. I sent out thousands of applications and finally, in January, found a job as an invigilator. I also write for Bangladeshi newspapers and blogs. I try to understand the culture here, so I volunteer at Citizens Advice and attend political events.
I like it here: the education, the lifestyle and transport, and people are friendly. They believe in morality and obey the rules. People stop at red lights even at night! But I think about my country, my mother and my editor. I worry about my friends and family. I would go back to Bangladesh if it were a peaceful country. I still write and work towards this.
Tsigie Tesera Tewabe
30, from Ethiopia
I came to London and the Refugee Council helped me; lots of people helped me
My mother worked tirelessly to raise me and my six siblings in Bahir Dar, a city in north-western Ethiopia, but my grandfather helped and encouraged us to go to school. I studied hard and got a master’s in urban management. I worked for the UN’s World Food Programme and was interested in creating better communities. If you want to make changes in my country, you need to join a political party, so I became active in the ruling party. I was passionate and motivated and soon became a regional leader.
In 2013, I got a scholarship to do an MBA in the Netherlands and later came to London, planning to further my studies. But things changed suddenly. I found out that the ruling party took away my land — a land I had saved for over the previous five years [under the country’s land-sharing scheme] and where I was planning to build my house.
I then learned that the government had arrested my mother. I had no idea what was going on. Perhaps it was because I had, as a senior member of the party, learned about many secrets and wrongdoings? I felt totally confused and very scared, and decided to stay in London. I had planned to do a PhD and now I was a refugee. It was humiliating.
After I applied for asylum, I was sent to Cardiff. I didn’t know anyone and I couldn’t work. I was sad, stressed and confused. Here too, I had no freedom and couldn’t do anything.
In May 2015, I got my refugee status and things got better. I came back to London and the Refugee Council helped me; lots of people helped me. I now rent a room in a hostel in Canning Town where I work part time as a receptionist. I also work as a finance officer at the South London Refugee Association. I want to continue doing community-building work and become a certified accountant, but in order to take the exams I need a loan.
My life is quiet. I have no social life. I need to learn about the culture, the rules — I need to learn about everything. But I feel happier now. I am safer. I’ll be fine.
46, from Iran
Imagine you have been kept in a cage then the door suddenly opens
I am a cultural and human rights activist from Ahwaz, a region where much of Iran’s Arab minority lives. The government wants to destroy our language, culture and even our land. When I was 14, I was arrested and tortured after a protest. After that, my name was in the system and I got tortured a lot. In 2000, we decided to leave. Seven of my friends were arrested while fleeing and three were hung, but I made it to Turkey on horse and on foot across the mountains. My wife and our children joined me there. But we couldn’t make a living, so after three years my wife returned to Iran and I went to Italy, France and Holland, and finally arrived in Coventry in June 2003, smuggled aboard a lorry.
I went to London’s Elephant and Castle, which has a large Ahwazi Arab population. In February 2004, I got my indefinite leave to remain. From the first day I arrived in England, dirty, exhausted and hungry, I felt like a newborn. Imagine that you have been kept in a cage for years then the door suddenly opens. I am safe here. I never felt at home in my own country because I was a second, third-class citizen. But here, I feel myself. I feel part of the country – 100 per cent British.
Now I try to give something back: I work as a mental health nurse and volunteer to help other refugees.
Charles (he prefers not to give his surname)
47, from Senegal
The place where I feel most at home is the British Library
I was born in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, but my father’s work took us to various African countries. I went back to Senegal to go to secondary school, then went to medical school and passed a very prestigious exam that opened doors for me to work in hospital, do research and teach at university.
After completing my speciality medical training in Bordeaux, I also worked for the UN as a consultant in reproductive health, female genital mutilation (FGM), gender-based violence and HIV, and created an association to cater to the needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
That’s when my problems started. I was repeatedly assaulted by masked men who said that the work I was doing was “haram” [forbidden under Islamic law] and sinful. I couldn’t report the attacks to the police because homosexuality is illegal in Senegal. The last attack was the worst: I was kept in a room for three days with no food or water. I thought I was going to die.
In 2011, I fled to England because it is a tolerant country where people are open-minded and respect differences. Things were very difficult, but now I have permission to work, have passed my last exam to register as a doctor and recently got an opportunity to do a six-month training stint in a London hospital.
Things are getting better, but I am away from my country, from my people, and sometimes I think: “I studied hard for 11 good years, I had a good job, yet I lost almost a decade of my life living in limbo. Why should I have to go through all of this?”
But I have no regrets. Those who want to change the world have to face big challenges. And here I can have a future. I want to feel safe, work as a doctor and live in a quieter, greener place.
The place where I feel most at home is the British Library. I spent a lot of time there, studying for my exams, writing, thinking. It’s a place full of history. When you study there, your motivation is boosted by the legacy of all the great people, like Karl Marx, who did research there.
Breaking Barriers is hosting a photography exhibition, sponsored by Mishcon de Reya, displaying portraits of London-based refugees and telling the stories of how they fled persecution or war and have now found freedom in the UK.
When: 11 – 18 July
Where: The Proud Archivist, 2-10 Hertford Road, London, N1 5ET
More info: facebook.com/BreakingBarriersUK