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This is what it’s like to spend 13 years battling for refugee status

Addis had her refugee status application rejected nine or 10 times by the Home Office. She has recently been granted five years’ leave.

Addis came to the UK from Eritrea in 2008 and has been battling for refugee status ever since. The help that the Red Cross has provided her with over the years has inspired her to become a volunteer with them and help others in the same situation. She tells Jem Bartholomew about her 13-year journey.

I came to this country from Eritrea in 2008. For one year I had to live on just Home Office support. Then they refused my application for asylum.

Around August 2009, the support stopped and I became homeless. Between 2009 and 2011 I didn’t have any support and wasn’t allowed to work. I had a very hard time. I have a bad leg, with three operations over the years, and I was appealing the decision.

Then, in 2010 I was helped by a Catholic church in Coventry. The church helped me for around six months and I lived in a shared house, with men and women together. But after six months, the lady there said, “I can’t keep you.” They gave me some water and a food parcel and I went to London. In London, the Red Cross supported me. The Red Cross is so important for people seeking asylum. They can help you access food, good information, English lessons. Above all, they listen to what you need, they give you a hug, they give you love. It feels like being part of a family.

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By 2011, I had already appealed my decision with the Home Office three times. They refused each appeal. That year I was housed by St Monica’s church in Leeds. They told me, “Your situation is very bad,” and wanted to help. I lived in a house for three years – the first stretch of stability since I arrived in the UK – and the volunteers supported me going to the hospital for my leg, gave me £10 a week and food parcels.

After that, in 2016 I told the pastor: “I want to go and work for the Red Cross voluntarily.” During this time I stayed in the spare room of a BEACON Volunteer host, a singer, for three months in Bradford, followed by a series of other houses for the next few years. I was both a Red Cross service user and I provided positive support to other asylum seekers. During this period volunteering I was still appealing for refugee status, as I had been through the Leeds-based refugee charity Manuel Bravo Project from 2011.

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Before Covid, I volunteered with the Red Cross in Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield and Huddersfield. That’s why I’m happy. I got a bus pass and helped other asylum seekers access things like food parcels and toiletries. I also worked in the kitchens, providing tea, coffee and breakfast for people. It really is my family. People seeking asylum can be quite nervous. I say, “Sit down, what do you do?” I shared my story with people, and I’ve made friends with many homeless people and asylum seekers. It’s really helped me, doing that.

Around three months ago, a caseworker called me and said, “You have full status.” I said, “I don’t believe you.” They showed me, and I’d been given five years’ leave to remain in the UK! I started crying, but I didn’t really know how to feel – it was more disbelief than happiness at that moment. Even now it doesn’t feel real.

I think I was rejected around nine or 10 times in total by the Home Office. Over those 14 years, I lost contact with my daughter. The last time I saw her she was five. Now she’s around 19. I don’t know where she is. Sometimes my face is happy, but inside I’m crying – I don’t have any family members here. The Red Cross have been brilliant. They helped look for my daughter three times, near the Ethiopia-Sudan border, but didn’t find anything. I’m still determined I will find her.

When I was given my status, I decided I wanted to work with the Voices Network, a group of asylum seekers and refugees, to try to have an impact and create change for people in my shoes in the future. Refugees are too often forgotten and go through a confusing labyrinth system that pushes them into poverty. That needs to change.

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