Social Justice

Refugee Week: This is what refugees in the UK want you to know

Three refugees tell their stories for Refugee Week 2023.

Joel Mordi fled Nigeria for the UK after he held a LGBTQ+ Pride march in Nigeria, where same sex relationships are still illegal. Image: Joel Mordi

Refugee Week 2023 is here, from and 19th to the 25th of June, and it will be the 25th anniversary since the annual event began. Refugee Week is a large arts and culture festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary.

Refugee Week allows people who’ve sought safety in the UK to share their stories, the challenges they face, and gives them the opportunity to connect beyond labels. 

The Big Issue has interviewed refugees who, in their respective journeys, have battled danger, bureaucracy, discrimination, and who are now attempting to rebuild their lives and find a permanent solution.

Here’s what these ambassadors for Refugee Week had to say about being a refugee in the UK: 

Zahra Shaheer, 33, from Afghanistan 

Zahra Shaheer escaped from Afghanistan when the Taliban took control. Image: Mona

Single mother Zahra Shaheer, 33, obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science and law in Afghanistan before working as a journalist for 10 years. She fled her home country when the Taliban regained control in the summer of 2021. 

She tells The Big Issue: “On August 15, 2021, I presented the radio news at 9am. The top story was the government’s negotiations with the Taliban. I rushed through the bulletin, stumbling over words, something I had never done before.

“Within days, we witnessed the Taliban capturing the cities of Herat and Mazar. Everything was moving so fast. Yet, somehow, I still didn’t believe the world would allow the Afghan government to collapse.”

It was through connecting with a British journalist that Zahra was able to seek urgent relocation. She then contacted the Committee to Protect Journalists – a nonprofit organisation that promotes press freedom worldwide – and tried to arrange a flight to the Maldives. After the flight couldn’t be secured, she contacted the British Ministry of Defence and was able to arrange a journey to the UK.

Under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan are forced to cover their heads and faces. Image: Supplied. Image: Supplied

Since relocating, things have gone from bad to worse for Zahra and her family. “When I arrived in the UK, my life became difficult,” she explains. “Being alone with my two children in a new place, leaving my mother behind, was very stressful. I lived in a bridging hotel for six months, and it was a challenging time for me and my children.

“Resettling somewhere new, with a different culture, language, and system, can be very difficult for someone who is a refugee. I have personally experienced the challenges associated with it. However, I have proactively taken steps to overcome these difficulties by attending various courses and sessions aimed at helping me integrate into society as quickly as possible.”

She continues: “I never gave up, I started helping women in the hotel by providing interpretation services with the limited English I knew. Language has been the biggest barrier, and I am actively trying to improve my English, as I was a fluent journalist back in Afghanistan.” 

While her tenacity has landed her some successes, living in the UK has been difficult for Zahra and her family, and she wants people to know that refugees only emigrate because life at home is even harder. 

“No one would willingly leave their home, family, and career behind to become a refugee. I was happy and had a good life, but I had to flee to rescue my children’s lives and my own. Being a refugee is not a choice; it is a forced decision to leave everything behind.

“I became a refugee for the safety of my children and myself, and I am grateful to the UK government for providing us with safety. If I had stayed in my country, I would have risked losing my children’s lives, and the Taliban would have posed a threat to me, possibly forcing me into marriage as a single mother.”

Gaida Dirar, 34, from Sudan

Gaida’s parents originally fled Sudan and then Libya but now feel settled in Hull. Image: IMIX

Gaida and her family of seven, who fled Libya to come to the UK, can relate to Zahra’s situation. Now 34, she has become a refugee rights advocate and public speaker. She works as a resettlement worker with the British Refugee Council covering Afghan refugees. With her sister Mayas, she set up an artist collective called Arafa and the Dirars, using their art to tell their stories and raise awareness about refugees and asylum seekers. 

Their family first arrived in Hull in November 2015 under the government resettlement program, after fleeing the civil war in Libya in 2011. Before that, their parents fled from Sudan.

“There is no way to describe the experience in a few words but the journey was life transforming and challenged our survival instincts physically and mentally,” explains Gaida. “There was so much loss and fear, from the time the war started in Libya to when we decided to flee, to when we arrived in the refugee camp, and when we finally came to the UK. 

“I cannot say which part was the hardest as every time was hard, but maybe the wider family separation was the hardest bit for me.”

Now, the Dirar family feel well connected to their Hull community. They work, volunteer, go to university, and have a big active network. Like Zahra, Gaida wants people to know something about refugees. 

“Pictures of refugees appear in the news and people feel far removed from it. I used to think the same before I fled war… I remember the war started one afternoon in February 2011 when I was living my best life with my family, and I’d attended university in the morning. But then everything changed and we had to leave it all behind.”

Making the decision to leave weighs heavily on those fleeing, but it’s only for their survival they choose to escape. “We do not choose to leave our homes where everything we know and our friends and families are,” Gaida says. “We feel homesick every day, we lost everything, and we had a full life before we became refugees.”

People also assume that refugees choose where they go, but often it depends on several circumstances. Gaida adds: “People don’t know that we did not choose the country we settled in even though we are very appreciative now for the chance to rebuild life in peace and safety.” 

She adds one final point: “And I would like to say that migrating was never about money or economics as we had everything back home, from big houses to technology, free education, jobs and more. But it is always about safety and peace.”

Joel Mordi, 25, from Nigeria

Joel is now living in the UK and an award-winning campaigner. Image: Mona

Another person who fled their native land in pursuit of safety and security is 25-year-old Joel. He left Nigeria due to homophobic violence after he organised an LGBTQ pride protest. His turmoil wasn’t over when he arrived in the UK; he was taken to a detention centre where he faced more violence. 

“I was assaulted by the other detainees and not cared for by the guards and officials,” he explains.

Joel Mordi organised the first LGBTQ+ pride event in Nigeria, where same sex relationships are still illegal or persecuted. Image: Supplied.

“After the detention centre, I was homeless and moved to several hostels in London, and then a series of temporary accommodations with homophobic roommates, housemates and neighbours. I was also physically attacked and made homeless. Even now, I am in temporary accommodation.” 

Although he doesn’t have permanent housing, Joel was able to get his refugee status and is now studying online with Oxford University.

He wants people to know the real plight of refugees: “You’re reduced to the negative tag that comes with being a refugee/asylee. Most of us are positive people who have endured difficult unforeseen journeys into our host countries and continue to contend with harsh realities. So much so we compensate and oftentimes overcompensate via our contributions to host nations that still go unappreciated or unnoticed.”

As Joel explains, being a refugee can feel like you’re expected to be ‘the good immigrant’ where you’re infallible and have to make exemplary contributions to the country. But everyone, regardless of the capital they may bring, should be welcome, particularly where they’re fleeing conflict and violence. 

Joel’s story is being featured in My (Refugee) Life, a short film from the charity Breaking Barriers. The charity has received funding from the Refugee Transitions Outcomes Fund, backed by Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm of the Big Issue.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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