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'The lights are so beautiful': Refugees on their first Christmas in the UK

For thousands of people, this year will mark their first Christmas in the UK. Here's what they make of festive British traditions.

For most in the UK, Christmas is a time of familiar traditions: putting up the tree, watching Love Actually for the 100th time and eating too many mince pies. 

During the festive season, knocking back a bucks fizz at midday or laying out carrots for a herd of fictional flying reindeer might feel perfectly ordinary to some – but how does a British Christmas look from the outside? 

Thousands of people will experience their first Christmas in the UK this year after fleeing war, violence and persecution in their home countries.

Now settling into their new home, we asked refugees around the country what they make of British Christmas traditions and festivities, and whether they plan to mark the day themselves. 

Zahra, 47, from Iran 

Zahra was forced to flee Iran after being persecuted for her conversion to Christianity, and settled in Glasgow a few months ago. 

She says that while there may have been “cartoons on the TV about Christmas” in Iran, she was not able to celebrate the holiday as a Christian convert. 

In spite of the danger she faced for being a Christian in Iran, Zahra feels “very glad” she converted and is now able to celebrate Christmas properly in the UK.

“I think all the trouble was worth it because now I get to know the reality behind Christmas. It means a lot to me because it’s all about love and forgiveness,” she says.

Zahra’s church pastor in Glasgow recently invited her and other refugee women to decorate his Christmas tree, serving up tea, coffee and cake afterwards. 

“It was one of the best days I’ve had since coming to Glasgow”, she says.

“He didn’t know us, we were foreigners to him, but he gave us the opportunity to come together and decorate the tree. He trusted us and invited us in, which really meant a lot to me.”

Mohammadi says this Christmas will be difficult for her as she’ll be apart from her family and a friend who came with her to the UK but had his asylum application rejected.

Nonetheless, she hopes she will find people to celebrate freely with, and says she’s “really optimistic” about finding her feet in Glasgow in 2022.

“Since I came to Glasgow, I’ve seen nothing but positive energy, so I’m very optimistic that this new year will bring me success.” 

Fatima, aged 16.

Mohammed and Fatima, 16 and 17, brother and sister from Afghanistan 

Mohammed and Fatima, both school students, were forced to flee Afghanistan in August 2021 after the Taliban regained control of Kabul.

Their parents had worked with UK and American representatives in the country, and the arrival of the Taliban meant their lives were in danger. 

The family have now settled in Yorkshire and are currently living in a hotel while they wait for more permanent accommodation. 

As Muslims, the family didn’t celebrate Christmas in Afghanistan, but Mohammed and Fatima have been impressed with the bright and beautiful decor they’ve seen springing up since they arrived. 

“For me it’s the tree [that’s the best]. The Christmas tree is very beautiful, it makes me feel happy,” Fatima says. 

The most similar holiday they celebrated in Afghanistan is Eid, says Mohammad.

“During Eid so many guests come and go, and we all say ‘happy Eid’ to each other. We spend time with family, friends and relatives.”

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Mohammad’s favourite part of Christmas so far has been “seeing the beautiful lights and trees everywhere”, though he adds that festive drinking habits have been somewhat of a shock.

“People drink so much [at Christmas] – that has surprised me!” he says. 

Both Mohammad and Fatima will be with their family in their hotel at Christmas. Though they don’t plan to celebrate the day themselves, they say the hotel has planned some festivities ahead of the 25th for the refugees staying there.

Ibrahim, 17, from Sudan

Ibrahim arrived in the UK recently after having fled Sudan four years ago. He arrived alone, and faced immense difficulties in reaching Britain as a refugee. 

He is now a student in Yorkshire, where he has been placed with a foster family. 

Ibrahim says he likes the idea of Christmas, and believes it is similar to Eid, which he celebrated at home.

“I think [Christmas] is very good – people want to help each other, like during Eid”.

He is similarly impressed by the lights and decor he’s seen in the run-up to Christmas. 

“Everything in the town changes, even all the houses – there’s lots of lights, baubles and stars, I like it,” he says. 

At home his foster family has put up a tree, where a Christmas present awaits Ibrahim on the 25th. 

Ibrahim says some of the UK’s festive food – including Christmas cake – has been surprising, but that his favourites are “turkey and sausages”. 

New Year is celebrated in a similar way in Sudan, says Ibrahim, with “a big celebration in cities with lots of music” on January 1 every year. 

In 2022, Ibrahim hopes to improve his English through studying, and obtain a job in his new local area. 

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