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Refugees: The heartache, the horrors, the kindness

Recently arrived refugees tell The Big Issue about the horrors they have faced – and their hopes for the future

The number of refugees in the world is equivalent to the entire population of Britain. That’s 65 million displaced across the globe for reasons not of their choice. Very few reach the UK: Britain is not even in the top five European countries that accept refugees. As horrifying scenes emerge from Aleppo focusing our attention on the brutalities many face, a few of those who have recently arrived here tell Adam Forrest why they want to make the best of the new chance they have been given, and reflect on what they miss most about home this Christmas…

Sozan Abdullah

Sozan Abdullah, 35, arrived in the UK in January this year, having fled the march of Isis in northern Iraq. She came to the UK from a camp in northern France with two of her young children before being reunited with her husband Tahsin, 36, and her two other children in July after the Home Office approved her husband’s transfer from France to the UK under the family reunification programme. The family has been supported by the charity Refugee Action.

“The family, my husband and I and the four children [above], we all left Iraq in the summer of 2014 because we were very worried about Isis. We are Kurdish, and they were getting close to the village in the north where we lived. We were worried they would attack us. So we left home and tried to find somewhere safe.

“We travelled to Turkey and then into Europe before we moved up to a refugee camp in France, near Dunkirk. It was like the place they call the Jungle, in Calais. It was similar to that – not very nice. It was very cold and we didn’t sleep much. It felt dangerous there, lots of fighting. I was getting worried about my children’s health.

We were very worried about Isis, and travelled to Turkey then into Europe, where we came to a refugee camp in France

“So I came to the UK with my nine-year-old son Mohammed and baby girl Rwen, who is now almost two. We came to Bradford. We were able to get a small house and we were happy to be in England. There was another refugee here who put us in touch with Refugee Action, and helped register me with the doctor and they also helped Mohammed apply for school.

“I missed my husband and my two sons Salam (10) and Mustapha (eight) who were still in the camp in France. The Red Cross helped us with a solicitor to make our case. And so in July my husband, Salam and Mustapha were finally able to come here. We were very, very happy to see them. The house is now full of noise with the family all together again.

“People have been very helpful here. Financially it has not been easy but I hope we can manage. At the moment we are relying on a foodbank in Bradford. I hope my children are able to go to school and get a good education here. That is my main hope – a good education for them. I have refugee status, with leave to stay in the UK for five years, and my husband is making his asylum claim.


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“The thing I miss most about home is my brother. My brother is a couple of years older than me, and I relied on him a lot. Our parents are no longer alive. He lived close to us and he had five children, so my children miss their cousins. I do not miss much else. Not the land or the food. We had a hard life, as farmers. And it was not safe for us there. But I miss my brother very much.”


Abdo was 17 when he left Sudan and came to Europe – a journey of more than 3,000 miles – crossing the Mediterranean on a crowded migrant boat. After arriving in the UK to make his asylum claim here at the end of 2015, Abdo, now 18, was able to get support from the British Red Cross Young Refugee Project.

“Life was very difficult in Sudan – it became very dangerous for me. My brother told me I should go and get away. So I left alone – I left my mother and father, my three brothers and two sisters in Sudan. I got to Libya, and I was part of a group of people crossing in a boat to Italy. It was a crowded boat, and I had no lifejacket. When I got to Italy it was a very uncertain time. But I was able to come to the UK to make my asylum claim here. A group of us went to France, to the camp at Calais – it was very bad. Lots of fighting.

“I was happy to arrive in the UK at the end of last year. Since then I have been living in a village in Kent, a very quiet place. Not too many people. But a very nice place. I have been going to Lewisham College every day. I get up at 7am and get a train into London. I have made friends there, and I really enjoy learning English. I would like to continue to study if I can, maybe to become an engineer one day and help build housing, schools and hospitals.

“The Red Cross group in Kent have helped me settle in. There is a group of other refugees and volunteers who meet together on Tuesday evenings. Our group is going to Westminster Abbey soon to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury. Although I am Muslim, I am looking forward to Christmas here. What I miss most about Sudan is my family and friends – playing football with them, going on trips, doing normal things with them. The adjustment has been difficult at times but I am enjoying life here in England.”


  • Britain received only three per cent of all asylum claims made in the EU this year. The UK refused 71 per cent of the asylum claims made here in the last three months of 2016.
  • 4,663 men, women and children have lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea this year.
  • Numbers of asylum claimants reaching Britain fell in all but two of the top 10 countries of origin this year: claims from people fleeing Bangladesh and India went up by 65 per cent and 27 per cent respectively.
  • The five most common countries of origin for asylum seekers in the UK: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria


Ali, 56, his wife and their four-year-old son fled bombing in the Syrian capital Damascus in 2013 and spent three years as refugees in Lebanon. They came to the UK in August and were housed in Glasgow under the Home Office’s resettlement programme. They have found support at Maryhill Integration Network.

“We left Syria because our home in Damascus was bombed. We were not in the building so we were okay but everything we had – all our possessions – were all destroyed. We could not even save any of our photographs from the building. The area was not safe any more. So we left to go to Lebanon, with some of my neighbours. Other neighbours went to Egypt or Turkey or elsewhere. It was difficult in Lebanon. We had a small room in a basement to live.

We left Syria because our home in Damascus was bombed. All our possessions were destroyed

“But there were so many Syrians in Lebanon, and it was difficult to get any services. There were a lot of problems. I feel very fortunate to come to the UK as a refugee this year. Glasgow is a beautiful place. There are some nice parks. And we have a good flat in a high-rise building here. People have been good and helpful to us. So our experience here has been good so far.

“The thing I miss most about Syria are my sons. I have five sons back home in Damascus, between the ages of 23 and 30. They decided to stay but life is very difficult for them there. I miss them the most but I also miss my home – we had a beautiful home, before the war began. I hope one day we can be reunited as a family. And I hope my country can find peace.”


Adnan, now 17 years old, was only 16 when he left war-torn Syria. After crossing Europe and living in the Calais Jungle for five months, last January he was reunited with his two older brothers, already in the UK as refugees. Adnan has received support from Safe Passage UK, part of the Citizens UK network, while making his asylum claim.

“I slept outside in many countries – Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Germany and France. I was in Calais for around five months. It was miserable. Tents didn’t last very long, so you didn’t know if you would have to sleep outside. And there was a lot of fighting between gangs. My situation back in Syria was hopeless. I had no future. My mother and father thought I would be taken and forced to join Assad’s army. And I didn’t want to join the army and kill my own people.

It has been difficult to adapt to a new language, new people, new life

“So my mother and father said I should go and get to safety in Europe and try to reach my older brothers, who had gone to the UK. When I finally got here in January, it was very good to see them. They live in west London. I like London, I liked to see the sights like Big Ben. But it has been difficult to adapt to a new language, new people, new life. I am studying at college and improving my English and trying to create new friends.

“The thing I miss most about home is my family, and the traditional food at home. I miss my mother’s cooking. I miss the Kibbeh, which is a kind of mincemeat and swede fried together. All of us Syrian refugees – we all miss our homeland.”

Adnan is not his real name.


We’ve read about hundreds of thousands “swarming” across Europe to easy-access, soft-touch Britain. The truth is a little more complex. Ninety per cent of all refugees are currently seeking shelter in developing countries – most never contemplate heading for rich Western nations. In the first two weeks of November, Uganda received 44,000 refugees from South Sudan. That’s more than the entire number of refugees who have arrived in Britain all year.