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What it's really like to be a male refugee living in the UK in 2018

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Katy Fallon
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“Everyone is busy, they don’t have time for someone lost.” Katy Fallon speaks with young male refugees trying to find their place in the United Kingdom

Windrush and Yarl’s Wood are two separate but related news stories which provide a small insight into the current immigration climate in the UK. In April, Amber Rudd resigned as Home Secretary after it emerged that the Windrush generation and their children were being wrongly targeted for deportation under the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy. Prior to this in February over 100 women in the Yarl’s Wood detention centre went on a hunger strike in protest at the conditions inside.

Unofficially, this hostile environment is bolstered by the British press. In September 2016, the U.K spent £1.9m on a wall to block migrants boarding lorries in Calais and around the same time, the first of the unaccompanied refugee children in Europe were brought to the UK under the Dubs amendment. Much of the media coverage fixated on the fact that many of the teenage boys looked older and fitted the category of the ‘lone male asylum seeker’, a demographic often perceived as the most threatening. The amendment was ended last year having taken only 350 children out of a promised 3,000.

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According to statistics from the UK charity the Refugee Council, 27,331 people were locked up in detention centres in 2017, many of whom were seeking asylum. Even though Europe is still gripped by an on-going refugee crisis with around 668,600 people seeking refuge on European shores in 2017, only 3 per cent of all EU asylum claims were made in the UK last year.

Given the current climate, ShortList asked male refugees and those who work with them about life in the UK.

Ahmad, 27, Iraq

I’ve been in the UK since June 2016. It’s hard to make friends. I have an uncle who lives here but really when you talk to most people, they are like: ‘what do you want?’

I learned English when I lived in the Calais jungle but I was surprised when I got here. I didn’t think it would be easy but I didn’t expect that it was going to be this hard. At the moment I’m looking for work, I was working in construction and I asked to go part-time so that I could go to English classes but I couldn’t do that.

Ahmad in London

The immigration system is so difficult, especially for people from Iraq and Afghanistan. I initially got refused asylum and then we had to go to court. They don’t smile – they are just doing their job – but they try to trick you as much as they can. They ask the same question but in a different way every time.

Things are sometimes different here – I met an old lady in Camden recently and she didn’t know what bus stop to go to, so I walked her to the bus stop and waited for her to find the right bus. For me it’s a normal thing to do. 

However, when I was lost and looking for the tube station in Islington, I asked someone, ‘excuse me?’ and he was like ‘no.’ I thought maybe he was angry so I walked up to someone else and asked, ‘excuse me?’ and they also said ‘no’ – then a third person: ‘no.’ 

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I told them: ‘I don’t need your money, I just need to find the station!’ Where I’m from, because it’s the countryside, if you ask directions, you’ll leave your work to show someone or you’ll drive them to where they need to go.

Most British people I’ve met have been friendly but my friends are still mainly people I met in the Calais Jungle and the volunteers who worked with me there.

Life is harder here, I mean we have a war, but I found my life easier there than here.

Ahmad is a keen artist and photographer. He hopes to pursue his talents but is looking for a part-time job in construction to support himself in the meantime whilst he builds a life in the UK. 

Alexandra, Co-Founder of TimePeace 

It was challenging to find legal support for Ahmad during his asylum claim. We knocked on a lot of doors and eventually found a fantastic lawyer who had a deep understanding of the situation in his country. The initial rejection letter he was sent by the Home Office was hard to understand; it was incredibly long and written in legal language.

The job centre said that they would send Ahmad’s benefits into my bank account whilst we were waiting for his bank account to get set up – but most people won’t know someone who is English whose bank account they can use. 

When he had his asylum case, we were in this tiny room in the Islington courts, there was about 15 people sitting there with him and [the staff] were like ‘why are you all in this hearing?’ as the majority of people would have no one with them. But it showed that he had already become part of the community.

Through the TimePeace app, we want people to meet their neighbours and find that sense of community, which fits the London model.

Alexandra, co-founded TimePeace, an app designed to help refugees integrate into the UK which is launching soon. 

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Mohammad, 25, Syria

I was living in Birmingham when I came to the UK but I found it hard to find work there. When I moved to Brighton I got a job nearly straight away. I like Brighton: it’s small and not busy like London. It’s good for me to move to a quiet city at the moment to focus on myself; London is expensive.

I’m living with a British family but I’m now looking for my own place to live. I’m also working in kebab shop and I like it – I like the drunk people: they are always so hungry! Extremely hungry! What I can do? I try to be funny and nice to the customers always.

I already had Syrian friends in Brighton and I have English friends too but they are always busy – but now I am the English man too as I am always busy as well. My English is getting better and I’m taking language courses at a college in Brighton. There are lots of different people in the class with me from countries like Poland, Spain and Iran.

Mohammad (centre) holding his dishes 

I’d love to open my own restaurant one day. I love cooking but I especially like cooking eggs. I started cooking when I lived in the Calais Jungle, before that I’d never cooked before. I cook lots of Syrian dishes but I like British food too, my favourite is mashed potato.

Life in the UK is interesting and I’m optimistic about my future. I don’t want to give up ever.

Mohammad, whilst continuing to work in the takeaway shop, will be running his pop-up Syrian brunch in London this summer, www.moseggs.co.uk  

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Tenzin, 20s, Tibet

My story is a bit bad, I came here initially as a student and I did a bachelors and masters degree before I asked for asylum in 2014. It’s been a very difficult journey because where I’m from you can’t speak freely. When you come to the west, coming from that environment, you have this idealist view of democracy, justice and fairness so when I encountered the asylum system, I was really surprised and really disappointed to be honest. I didn’t expect it from the UK having lived and studied here.

When you are applying for asylum it’s like entering into a dark tunnel with no end in sight so it’s completely different psychologically – the future is so uncertain and the process is so unclear. During one court appearance the judge realised that his daughter and I had gone to the same university and he changed his tone completely.

The asylum process made my question my own existence, but I didn’t lose my sense of self, even though the whole system is designed to dehumanise and demoralise you, it took me four or five years to get through it all.

I don’t personally associate the country with this process, because of my education I have friends here and lots of roots so I haven’t really encountered much of a problem with integration, but I can’t imagine how it is for someone who doesn’t have that. I now work with people who are asylum seekers and they go through horrible stuff.

A refugee, to me isn’t necessarily someone who is a victim, in most cases they are running from a very brutal regime and of course there are people who stay and fight but not all the refugees are activists, they are just fleeing persecution.

I can only speak for myself but having seen the normal life as a student to then get into the asylum system, it was a nightmare.

Tenzin, (not his real name) wishes to remain anonymous due to the political situation in his country. He has been successful with his asylum claim and currently works with refugees in the UK.

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Steve Ali, 26, Syria

It’s really challenging, getting to a place very different from what you know. I knew people from when I was living in Calais so I started hanging out with them.

There is no active integration process here: you wait, you can’t work, you can’t do anything, and you don’t have the means to do any activities. It’s also quite difficult because people don’t trust strangers and everyone is busy in the UK and doesn’t have time for someone who is lost and needs some kind of guidance.

Another thing is, it’s very difficult for asylum seekers to open bank accounts; you get refused from most banks, all that is really difficult but having that extra layer of being a refugee makes it harder. You don’t know anyone, you’re still in the very beginnings of the aftermath of dealing with stuff. Most refugees have post-traumatic stress, they are broken, they don’t feel entitled to anything and they are at the lowest point.

I wouldn’t say my experience is the traditional ‘refugee experience’ though. I’m currently working as a translator for the BBC and NBC Universal. I also make jewellery and do some radio too. I’ve realised that a lot of it is about networking and how you present yourself. 

One of the things I focus on is to meet as many people as possible, that’s where the opportunities that I’ve had come from but it’s hard, especially as a refugee. The biggest possibility of talking to someone you don’t know in London is when you’re in a pub or nightclub when everyone is pissed. 

Steve Ali

I haven’t really experienced much of a stigma but sometimes I’ll be talking to someone then it comes to the point in the conversation where they ask ‘where are you from?’ and I say ‘I’m a Syrian refugee’ –  and the dynamic changes to a weird power gap. I notice that so much in people.

I think I will be here for a while, nobody sees Syria getting any better any time soon.

Steve lives with a British couple and their cat in London. Alongside his translation work, he also makes his own jewellery, which can be found on roadfromdamascus.

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Sara Nathan, Co-Founder of Refugees at Home

It is particularly difficult for young male asylum-seekers to integrate as they are dispersed to a hostel where there may be no Brits living at all. They are not usually eligible for English classes and are forbidden from working, so how can they integrate?

Where hosting helps is that the guest moves right into a British home and gets a crash-course in the British way of life.

My first guest, a Syrian, refugee with recent status and minimal English, arrived from Manchester on December 23rd. He spent Christmas with us with all the traditions from stockings to plum pudding (he was shocked that we set fire to the pudding!). Boxing Day involved the pilgrimage to watch Arsenal play at home. By then he thought we were mad but seemed quite comfortable with it.

(Left to right): Reza from Iran, Sara Nathan, her husband Malcom, and guest Murtesa from Ethiopia

When he left, about nine months later, he said: ‘When I came to London I had no English, no friends, no money and no job. Now I have money and friends and a job and I speak some English – and it’s thanks to you.’ I nearly wept.

Refugees At Home has hosted refugees from 55 different nations so far. Some of the people who spoke to ShortList for this article have also participated in the scheme.

(Pics: Getty, Ahmad, Mohammad, Steve Ali)