Fighting to live equitably but ‘where is the empathy?’

12 Mins read

Refugees and asylum seekers strive to claim rights to free and equal lives – but at what cost, and for how much longer?

Shahed was 13 when she fled Syria to escape the war there. After relocating to Lebanon, she, with her mother and brother, spent three years awaiting international protection, often struggling to get by without much money or work.

With the help of the United Nations, the family was granted refugee status and moved to the UK in 2016. Relieved to have escaped her precarious life in Lebanon, Shahed was grateful to feel safe again – but as she soon came to realise, life in Britain wasn’t going to be without its challenges.

In 2019, there were 26 million refugees worldwide according to data from The UN Refugee Agency. The United Kingdom hosted 133,094 of them – just over 0.5% of the global refugee population.

With 85% of the world’s refugees being hosted in developing nations like Lebanon and Turkey, it’s often poorer countries that bear the brunt of responsibility when it comes to taking them in.

Lebanon alone hosts 916,156 refugees – approximately 13.4% of the country’s total population – far more than any other European nation respective to its population and resources. However, in many instances, governments across Europe have worked actively to deter and suppress numbers of fleeing people who hope to find safety on their shores.

In the UK, British lawmakers implemented new immigration rules from January 1, 2021, which have been used to prevent people fleeing war or persecution from claiming asylum if they have passed through a safe third country before arriving in Britain.

The move came among the latest measures undertaken by the government to curb levels of immigration to the country and has given rise to claims concerning a breach in international law.

Shahed, who is now 20 and living in London, said she sees these actions as ‘disappointing’.

[pullquote align=”right”]“I found some students to be racist and they didn’t help me with my English … many times I would just cry.”[/pullquote]“I would encourage people to think, how would they feel if they were in my situation? If they had a war in their country and they were trying to get out, what would they do?” Shahed told Artefact.

“I remember when I first arrived in the UK; I found it very difficult. I was living in Newcastle at the time and had very little English.

“I found it hard going to school because some people weren’t very nice to me. I found some students to be racist and they didn’t help me with my English. Instead, they would say, ‘if you can’t speak English, why did you even come here to study when you can’t understand what the teacher is saying?’

“That made me very sad and many times I would just cry.”

Shahed isn’t alone in her experience. Around 13% of the UK’s foreign-born population said that they have been insulted because of factors such as ethnicity, language, or accent, according to a report released by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

Sausan, 29, a Syrian refugee who has been living in London for the last three years told Artefact that she believed refugees could help to change negative perceptions directed towards them.

[pullquote align=”right”]“We’re not going to fight people about how they feel because that reflects on them and not us. But, as refugees, we should try to be closer to their hearts.”[/pullquote]”In life, it’s natural that some people hold negative feelings against you and I don’t think it’s our [refugees] job to change that. We’re not going to fight people about how they feel because that reflects on them and not us. But, as refugees, we should try to be closer to their hearts and explain that we want to build a good relationship with them,” she said.

“It’s possible that some people have had bad experiences with refugees in the past and for that reason, they might not be as welcoming to us [refugees]; I can understand that. However, we should remove these bad perceptions by showing people that, hey, I’m here to do something in your country.

“Maybe you can work as a volunteer in the community, for example, or keep studying and improving your English. These actions can show people how refugees really want to take take part in society, and maybe this can change the way people think,” Sausan said.

Action West London (AWL), a charity offering help to disadvantaged people, has been working throughout the pandemic to provide refugees with a network of support in some London boroughs including Ealing, Hounslow, and Hillingdon.

The services, which include employability workshops, language courses, and housing support, are some of the many examples of assistance that the organisation gives to help build a foundation for refugees as they integrate, and have been vital over the course of lockdown.

Public notice board pictured in town square

Public notice board displays AWL’s support services for refugees [Action West London]

Maryam Sharif, who is a Customer Service Officer at the charity told Artefact about the importance of having an umbrella of services available to refugees throughout the pandemic.

“I try to help and make a plan for the refugees. For example, when a client comes, I need to see their background. I have to check information like where they live, whether they live alone or if they have children. After that, we then need to assess their language needs, putting them in certain courses, and then we get them ready for jobs.

People can assume that as soon as refugees are allowed in the country that they can start working, Sharif told us. “I always like to make a plan step-by-step. I never ever have a refugee who comes to this country and tell them that the first thing they have to do is find work. It doesn’t work like that.”

Speaking further on the provision of services during the pandemic, Marcin Lewandowski, the Head of Learning at AWL and ESOL teacher (English for Speakers of Other Languages) at the organisation pointed to the “complete shift” that the charity had to adopt to keep services up and running.

“We were lucky in that we had been running some of our classes virtually before the first lockdown in March,” Lewandowski said.

“So, when lockdown started, we pretty much migrated all our classes online without much of a delay since we already had that kind of infrastructure and know-how.”

Refugees pictured in an English class

Refugees take part in an English class at Action West London
[Photo courtesy of Action West London]

“Obviously there were still challenges such as getting teachers and refugees used to working in remote settings which required both the teachers and students (particularly those with lower levels of English) to adapt quickly.”

“We may have wanted to be using apps like Zoom and Google Hangouts all the time but unless the clients had the skills, it wasn’t going to be effective,” he said.

“The levels of trust that could be built between ourselves and the clients virtually was another one of those barriers. Usually, when we register new clients we would meet them personally; they would come to the office and see who we are but now, if clients get contacted out of the blue via a phone call, they don’t necessarily see the context in which we are working and that can leave them to feel a little bit mistrustful.

“This is can be a big problem when it comes to sharing personal documents online, e.g. residence status, which is required to confirm eligibility,” Lewandowski told us.

“In one sense, however, we have also been quite lucky,” said Ana Andronic who is an employment advisor at the charity.

“We’ve been working on this project for three years now so what has been really beautiful to see, is that the clients who have received support have gone on to tell their friends and families about us. So there is this knowledge of us in the community. When people needed help as covid hit, they started coming to us, so in a way, that trust has also been built by clients who were referring their friends and family,” she said.

Employment advisor, Ana Andronic stands for photo outside the charity's office

Employment advisor, Ana Andronic at the charity’s office in London [Action West London]

Shahed, who one day aspires to study international business management and travel the world, emphasised the gratitude she had for the charity which remains a pillar of support for her in these difficult times.

“My experience with Action West London has been very great and all the people are so nice,” Shahed told us.

“They’ve helped me so much, particularly when it came to applying for jobs and getting back into education. When I came to London I tried to apply to many colleges but they wouldn’t accept my qualifications or give me any help.

“But when I met with AWL they supported me in starting at a college in [west London] where I’ve been working to get my maths and English GCSEs. Now I’m working towards getting a Level 3 qualification,” Shahed said.

“I’ve learned so much and even until now they’re still helping me. I’m so grateful.”

Despite their continued efforts, the charity still aspires to do more. AWL wants to extend its support to asylum seekers who are often left in vulnerable situations while they are waiting to receive refugee status, but to do that, the group would need more financial backing.

“We help refugees, but we also need funding from the government to help asylum seekers,” Maryam said.

“I’ve met a couple of [asylum seekers] and they don’t know how the system works. They might ask people questions like, ‘Can I go to the bank and get a bank card?’ and some people lie to them. When they come to us, we have to tell them that as asylum seekers they’re unable to access certain services while they’re waiting for their papers. They’re left vulnerable.

“Asylum seekers need our help…they need the right guidance but we can only do that if we can get enough funding,” she said.

In spite of the difficulties faced by asylum seekers, one group has taken it upon itself to continue fighting for their rights.

Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group (CARAG) is a grassroots and migrant-led organisation based in Coventry that has been running since 2013. The group aims to empower newly arrived migrants by welcoming people into their community and providing them with the tools to fight for migrant rights.

The group, which is already involved with a number of national campaigns, seeks to advocate for “the wholesale repeal and reform of the UK’s immigration rules”, which it has described as “gratuitous”.

Status Now 4 All, a campaign initiated by human rights organisation RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum seeker Participatory Action Research), and launched by over 30 organisations on March 27 2020, calls upon the British and Irish governments to grant indefinite ‘leave to remain’ status to “undocumented, destitute and migrant people in the legal process.”

Status Now 4 All is the latest campaign that the Coventry group supports and calls for granting legal status for asylum seekers have continued to grow after media reports in January revealed the “cramped” conditions that hundreds were enduring in temporary accommodation provided by the British government.

The exposure of such conditions has given rise to a number of organisations that are pushing the government to grant legal status for the vast number of asylum seekers who, due to not having the legal documentation have been unable to access food, healthcare, or adequate housing throughout the pandemic.

Chairperson of CARAG, Loraine Mponela poses for photo [Loraine Mponela]

Loraine Mponela, Chairperson of CARAG [Loraine Mponela]

“CARAG provides peer-to-peer support because we are people who are all in the same situation or have been in the same situation so, we share information around most things,” said Loraine Mponela, the Chairperson of CARAG and an asylum seeker herself.

“We also exist to advocate on behalf of our members because not everyone can speak. We find that when you have lived in asylum for long periods of time, people tend to lose their voices.

“When living in hostile environments, it can take a toll on people in many different ways with mental health being the most difficult to manage. So advocating for people, for our voices to be heard is one of the things that we must do,” she said.

“We meet often with leaders and decision-makers to discuss the issues affecting our community. The issue of homelessness is our number one priority. Not having a home is something that people have always described as a number one challenge and as a result, we’ve had several meetings with local counsellors and our MP.”

“We’ve spoken at the Labour Party conference and gone to other local groups and political parties like the SWP (Socialist Workers Party), Stand Up To Racism, Quakers and Coventry Against Racism, just to make sure that people understand and see our presence,” she explained.

“In CARAG we say, ‘our existence is also resistance’, and so we aim to make the invisible, visible. Because sometimes it’s like talking into a vacuum since people know of us, but they don’t see us around.

“By making ourselves visible at demonstrations and in community meetings, for example, we aim to make that which we are saying also what people are seeing within the community. Otherwise, everybody will pretend as if nothing is happening if we stay quiet, and we refuse to do that because it will only be our lives that end up being wasted.”

CARAG members attend protest

Members of CARAG attend a demonstration in Coventry [CARAG]

Loraine went on to describe her own experience in the asylum system: “My asylum was refused, back in 2017, but I put in [further submissions] again in 2020,” she told us.

“I understand the government is saying they’re behind with a 10-month backlog, so, I’m not expecting any response, until after then. But for me, what I would have loved is if I could access more support while I am waiting for my application to be reviewed.

“I should be accessing financial support under what is called ‘section four’, but accepting that support would mean that I would also have to be moved to another accommodation as the financial help comes with the accommodation and cannot be separated,” Loraine told us.

“That is a problem for me because it would mean that I’d be moved into hotels where there have been reports of outbreaks of coronavirus and as I am a ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ individual, I don’t want to take the chance of contracting the disease.

“At the moment, I don’t get any support. For me, it’s about asking from this and that charity. I basically live on begging. I don’t like begging. I grew up knowing that it’s not right for me to beg and it goes against what I have always believed to be the best way to live. But it is what it is now.” Loraine said.

Gloria Adusu, a refugee mother from Ghana, has been living in the UK for 17 years and also continues to seek asylum after her claims for refugee status were refused several times. She now devotes her time to CARAG, helping to manage and run many of the group’s activities as a committee member.

Throughout the pandemic, she has been part of the team running a cooking project where she prepares, cooks, and distributes meals for members three days a week, and also sews face-masks made of African fabrics to help protect her fellow members from the coronavirus.

“No one cares about us, so we need to take care of each other,” Adusu told Artefact.

Committee member of CARAG, Gloria Adusu poses for photo [CARAG]

Gloria Adusu, a committee member of CARAG [Gloria Adusu]

“Because of the pandemic we’ve all had to isolate and for a while now, we haven’t seen some members of our community and that is quite disturbing. Most of our meetings have been running via Zoom but not everyone has been able to afford the equipment and so they haven’t been able to come on board. It’s honestly a worry.

“It worries me because my community has been really important to me. CARAG is the best thing that happened to me, to be honest with you,” she said.

“When I first came to Coventry I didn’t know anyone and I had lost trust in everything and everyone. I didn’t want to get involved in any other groups because by that time I had had enough with the asylum process and the way they were tossing us here and there.

“But once I found out that there were people going through similar experiences to me, I was encouraged and my confidence came up. It’s a big family that I am in now and I am so proud to be part of CARAG,” Adusu said.

March 27, 2021, will mark the one-year anniversary of an open letter that was addressed to the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin. The letter, send by RAPAR requesting status for undocumented people within the legal process, has been acknowledged by both prime ministers though a decision concerning the fate of the undocumented is yet to be finalised.

CARAG while also shifting its focus to those most affected by the coronavirus will continue to support migrants through the pandemic, including the so-called ‘hard to reach’ communities, ahead of a ‘Status Now 4 All’ relaunch event, which is also marking one year since the campaign started.

The summit will feature a plan on how to continue lobbying both the British and Irish governments in order to grant undocumented migrants access to basic rights as a public health measure.

Loraine Mponela remains hopeful for the future but urges for change now. “For me, my priority is that we are in the midst of the pandemic,” she said.

“If we really value people’s lives, it doesn’t matter whether someone is an asylum seeker or refused, or whatever. But for me, if we are putting the lives of people first, this is the time where I will actually see that our leaders have good empathy.

“Because all too often, I ask myself…where is the empathy? Does it even exist?”




Featured image by Markus Spiske via Unsplash.
Edited by Jussi Grut and Susu Hagos.

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