Opinion

I spent 40 days homeless sleeping behind Tesco while seeking asylum. Here’s what the system taught me

Omer slept rough behind a Tesco after being evicted from asylum accommodation. In his own words, he recounts the kindness shown to him by locals and the toll of the asylum system

'I feel freedom now', says Omer after half a decade in the asylum system. Image: Refugee Council

Omer, a refugee from Saudi Arabia of Eritrean descent, spent five years in the asylum system, during which he spent 40 days homeless sleeping behind a Tesco. He’s been supported by the Refugee Council, whose new report has found that, in the two years to September 2023, there was a 239% increase in refugees requiring homelessness support from local authorities.

I came on a flight from Saudi Arabia in 2019. I didn’t know anything about the UK, I just knew that there were rights in this country. In my country, the government can put you in prison, with no solicitors or anything, even if your family ask about you. You can just disappear.

My asylum claim started in Croydon. I was scared, because the officer there said you should have claimed at the airport. He started shouting in my face. I said I didn’t know how, but he said ‘you’re lying!’

From there I was sent to Cardiff, sleeping in a room with five people and a broken toilet. It was a nightmare. After that, I was in Woolwich. We had no internet, I didn’t have a phone to call my family.

In December 2019, I got a call saying I had been given a positive decision. The first thing that came to my mind, I had some money on my Aspen card. I knew that the people in the accommodation had been here a long time, sometimes five years, 11 years, waiting for a decision. I thought if I told them I’d got this decision, it will break their hearts, they’re still waiting. I decided to buy a £20 cake to share, to make them happy.

“People should put more pressure on the government to allow asylum seekers to start work and to study”, says Omer. Image: Refugee Council

But then I got another call saying my claim had in fact been refused. I was told I had to leave the accommodation, and by the time I received my refusal letter I had just eight days.

When I left accommodation in January 2020, I spent the whole day walking around. I went from Costa to Tesco. I spent the whole night walking around. It was a nightmare. I thought I wouldn’t survive the night. I called the Red Cross, they couldn’t help. Everything was closed at night, there was nowhere I could call.

I tried many charities. A charity gave me a place to stay for a night. In the morning we had to leave. The lady at the shelter was very nice, she gave me a small mattress, she said just in case. I still have it now. I survived with that.

I was told to go back to Woolwich, but when I got there, they said it was the wrong information, no one was waiting for me. I went back to Tesco. There was a hiding place at the back where I could stay. I spent 40 days and nights there. 

I tried to call many charities. It was then I reached Refugee Council. I went to the library and sent an email. Kellie from the Refugee Council called back. I remember the first call. I was walking around doing nothing. She said “nobody should be hungry.”

She sent me a £30 Tesco voucher. At that time I had 50p. I can’t forget that, but it’s a challenge to talk about it. This £30 was like £3 million in my pocket.

After 40 days on the street, the Home Office put me back in asylum accommodation because of Covid.

Local people were helpful. When I became diabetic, a charity called The Bike Project gave me a bike. There was a volunteer called Hannah, she showed me how to ride a bike, she sent me text messages, she looked after me. She even came to see me in court.

After five years in the asylum system, I was finally granted humanitarian protection. It was difficult to be in the court alone, you feel you did something wrong, or something. Hannah gave me emotional support, it was incredible. I got incredible support from the local community, people who didn’t even know me.

I’m free, I feel freedom, now. I’m trying to help others, that’s what’s making me speak. I told my housemate what happened to me. He said he had the same problem, people not receiving his email or his post. He had the same problems.

I know many friends of mine, they’re still facing this issue, they’re getting the same process, becoming homeless.

The system is still doing the wrong thing, again and again and again. We can work together with Refugee Council, to raise our voice, our situation, to ask the government to change these rules and find a better situation for asylum seekers.

I spent nearly five years waiting. I have to start from zero now, but I’m happy to be free now from the depression and stress, from the Home Office, the house manager. Every day you have to look for post from the Home Office! I think now I’m free, I can do whatever I want.

I’ve had support from the Refugee Council in so many ways, for all the things I was facing. They gave me a housing solicitor, they showed me my rights, how to complain, how to deal with all this tough stuff. I remember this £30 was like £3m in my pocket! Because they got support from local people, if they didn’t get support they couldn’t offer me this. They gave me mental health support when I faced difficulties.

Hannah invited me to her family on ChristmasDay, they knew I’d be alone, they invited me to her family. I spent a lovely day with them.

Local communities, if they know, they will support people facing terrible situations. People should put more pressure on the government to allow asylum seekers to start work and to study. I’m starting to study in college now. Education is medicine for everything!

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