The real face of UK migrants

migrantsThe migrant crisis has dominated the news agenda for the past year, but rarely have the voices of refugees and migrants themselves been heard. Here, six people who arrived in Britain under difficult circumstances tell their stories

Mohamed, 24

“When the lorry stopped, we were in the middle of Sheffield”

“I didn’t choose to come to the UK. I had been involved in political activities working for Kurdish rights in Syria. While I was at university in Aleppo, I organised medical groups for refugees who had been displaced within the country. We became a target for ISIS. My friends were kidnapped and killed. It was an awful situation, so my family wanted me to leave along with my younger brother. Some people my uncle knew said they could take us to a safe place. We didn’t know where that would be. The first country we arrived in was Italy. I was scared of the Italian authorities. They beat me and my brother. That’s why we decided to stay with those people until the last destination. They put me and my brother into a lorry. Just the two of us. It was half empty, and quite dangerous. It was a long journey. When we couldn’t stand anymore we started shouting and screaming. When the lorry stopped I realised we were in the UK. We were in the centre of Sheffield. Our clothes looked normal, so people didn’t believe we’d just arrived in the UK illegally. When we spoke to someone from the Home Office they asked us for ID. I said: ‘We’ve just come now!’ We had no documents at all. We were transferred to London, then to Cardiff, then to Swindon. It was there that I started to rebuild my life. I want to finish university. I believe I was born to study. I believe I was born to be, not an important person, but to do something with my life and not just to live in the corners of humanity. Now we have full refugee status and I’m studying at Kent University. Whatever problems we’ve had here, we’ll never forget that when we came here we were welcomed. I want to give back to this country, and I believe I can do that through my education.”

Mireille, 34

“I had to leave home and leave everything behind, including my children”

“I came here from the Democratic Republic of Congo four years ago. I didn’t know anything about the UK, but I was forced to leave my country because of my political work there. It wasn’t safe for me to live there. I had to leave home and leave everything behind, including my children. That’s why I wrote my song ‘Je Pleure’ (‘I Cry’). When I came to the Stone Flowers project I didn’t know anything about it. It was my therapist who introduced me to it. She said I should go and see if I liked it. The first time I came I was a bit nervous, but everybody was friendly. I had lost my confidence so it helped to be in the group with other women. We started sharing our stories and laughing. I started to get my confidence back, so they said: ‘You should write a song.’ I wrote my first song, which was called ‘Soleil’. It was just a poem, but the group turned it into a song and it was so beautiful. It made me feel I could do more. I continued writing and started spending more time with the group, which had been hard for me because I’d been alone and cut myself off from people. I was thinking about what I should do next for my children. I don’t know what I can give them, but I had this opportunity to write a song for them. I haven’t forgotten them, even though they are far from me. Now I live in Blackburn. I’m going to college to study maths, science and English. My therapist encouraged me to go to college because I spoke French but not English, so language was a big barrier for me. I try to be positive.”

Manny Loet, 22

“Whatever situation you find yourself in, you can find a way”

“I came from Nigeria with my mum two years ago. She had been living with cancer, and then she passed away three months ago. Since then I’ve been trying to continue to live life and not become negative. I want to get myself out there, doing the best that I can. I thought: ‘I’m just gonna jump up there and be a boss.’ I got involved with a Refugee Youth Group and Brighter Futures and started doing campaigns. We went to the Houses of Parliament to do a debate on immigration. It was interesting to be a part of that circle trying to make a difference. At the same time, I found myself falling deeply in love with music. I thought to myself: ‘How can I do the best I can with what I have?’ I want to launch myself into the industry, but it was difficult to imagine going to a studio and paying £50 an hour on recording. I decided to build my own studio. With £600 I was able to build a studio in my bedroom that has attracted a lot of artists from different parts of Tottenham. Now I’ve been given a grant by O2 Think Big to run a workshop with young people in production. I’ve written a song called ‘Let Me Go’ which is about a lady who’s in an abusive relationship. I put it on for some friends of mine and they got really excited because it inspires people to get out of bad situations. I have residency in the UK here now, so I can work. I love to tell people that it’s possible. Whatever situation you find yourself in, you can find a way. You shouldn’t have to limit yourself because of what passport you hold.”

Muhammad, 30

“I’m not allowed to work. I have to rely on the £36.50 they give me each week”

“I first came to the UK from Sri Lanka as a student but when I went back to Sri Lanka that’s when the problems started back home [The Sri Lankan civil war escalated between 2005-2009]. I returned here as a refugee. The charity Freedom From Torture helped me get involved with the Stone Flowers musical project. Together with the other people from a Sri Lankan background we’ve written songs that are based on the torture and other problems we had in Sri Lanka. Some people have lost families. They disappeared in their own country, and nobody can find where they are. If you were just approaching someone to tell them your problems, not many people would listen. That’s why we choose to tell our problems in song. People can listen and learn about our language and the real meaning behind our songs. When I applied for asylum they put me in Liverpool and then moved me to Manchester. It’s difficult to be moved around. I’m not allowed to work. I have to rely on the £36.50 they give me each week. I had an ID card so I could get that money from the post office – only one particular post office. Now I have an Azure card. You can’t take any money out. You can only spend it at the big stores like Tesco and Asda, not the small ones. I first claimed asylum in 2012. It was refused in a week. Then I went before a tribunal, but I didn’t have good representation. I have that now, with the help of Freedom From Torture. I’m hoping for the best decision this time. Things like Stone Flowers are really important because as refugees we’re not allowed to work. We can’t spend money on any form of enjoyment, so music is a great stress relief.”

Babar, 18

“My mother was afraid I’d be killed. She sold our house and used the money to pay an agent to smuggle me out of the country”

“I grew up in Afghanistan until I was about 12. I didn’t go to school but I went to a Madrassa and learnt the Koran and a few other subjects. My father was killed by his political enemies because he wouldn’t give them information they wanted. The people who killed him believed my mother knew this information but she didn’t. After a few months they came to our house and when my mother still couldn’t tell them what they wanted to know they beat me up very badly. After that I was very afraid and my mother was very afraid I’d be killed too. She sold our house and used the money to pay an agent to smuggle me out of the country to find safety. I didn’t know where I was going. The journey was very long and hard and bad things happened on the way. I was just 13 when I arrived alone in the UK. I didn’t know anything about Britain before I started my journey. When I got here, it was a completely different world to Afghanistan. I was able to go to school here. Me and a few of my friends started playing with The Refugee Cricket Project, which is a charity that’s part of Refugee Council. I met so many people there from different backgrounds and they became like family to me. I was training hard and studying fielding positions. In 2012, when I was 15, I had a trial with Surrey. I did my best, but it wasn’t quite enough. I kept training and I was invited to play with the Free Foresters Cricket Club, and then Spencer Cricket Club when I was 16. When I was 17, I took 44 wickets in a season for Spencer. I was at the top of the list for bowlers, and I’m at college studying as well.”

Meltem, 21

“Eight men came into our house at six o’clock in the morning”

“I was born in a small village in Turkey, but we had to leave because we’re Kurds [Kurds have been persecuted for decades in Turkey, including the banning of their political parties and language. Meltem’s mother was left deaf in one ear after a soldier hit her so hard with his gun her ear drum popped.] I was seven-and-a-half when we came to the UK. We lived in Doncaster and I went to school there for six years. My mum and dad separated, and in 2007 my mum made an asylum claim for herself with me as her dependent [However, if this claim was rejected they could be deported]. August 27th: that’s when the immigration officers came. Eight men. They took us. They came into our house at six o’clock in the morning. They banged on the door and rushed in. I was only 13. I was looking around and wondering what I’d done wrong the day before. Did I mistakenly take something from a shop? Did I cause all of this? Next they put us in a caged van and took us to the police station. From there, we had to wait. As an asylum seeker, you wait everywhere. Eventually we got in another van and they drove us to Bedford, where Yarl’s Wood is. They strip-searched us. Our ID cards were taken. We were treated like criminals. We went through eight metal doors. He would open one, and then he would lock it behind us. Yarl’s Wood is a B-class prison for innocent people. My mum applied for bail and it got refused five times. The fifth time, the judge said to my mum that she couldn’t prove that I didn’t like being in there. How do I prove that I don’t like being in there? I cut my wrists. I did it as proof. They need everything to be documented, right? What else could I do? One day, the Children’s Commissioner, Sir Aynsley-Green, came to visit me. The next day we were released. It was like nothing had happened. That’s when we started campaigning for them to stop detaining women and children.”

With thanks to The Harbour Project, the Refugee Council, Praxis and Stone Flowers, a project by Music Action International in partnership with Freedom from Torture.

Originally published in NME, 1 April 2016.