Refugees in London: two stories
“When you walk down a street you see people from all around the world… But I do feel homesick.”
In a café in South London, a young Iranian woman told me she likes it here, but she is homesick.
She is one of 15.2 million refugees worldwide.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, there were almost 200,000 refugees living in the UK in 2011, most of them from Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Through the Migrant’s Resource Centre in Pimlico, I met two refugee women who agreed to tell me about their lives.
Their stories are very different, but both share a common sense of displacement, fear and loss, and are punctuated by the words “I had no choice”, which haunt me long after I leave them.
Yasmin* is 28 and from southeast Iran. She has a degree in civil engineering, and was about to embark on a Masters course, when being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time forced her to flee the country.
“If you ask any Iranian, I think everybody wants to go back, but now the risk is very high,” she said.
Tania*, 38, from Pakistan, had a blossoming IT career in international commerce, when an unexpected pregnancy brought her here.
Both have been unable to work since their arrival, and both tell me they didn’t want to come: “It really was a last resort,” said Tania.
She arrived in the UK in 2006, pregnant, unmarried, and disgraced. “In our society you don’t do that,” she said, explaining why she felt unable to return to Pakistan.
The Home Office refused her asylum application, and she has been reapplying ever since.
The final straw, she told me, is that a UK court recently granted custody of her five-year-old son to his father in the Middle East.
“It’s not right for anyone to leave people behind like that,” she said, and she should know – Tania herself is no stranger to being displaced.
Originally from Pakistan, she spent most of her childhood in Egypt, where her father worked, and then studied in the UK before returning to work in Pakistan.
Despite her qualifications and an IT job in corporate banking, Tania struggled to feel secure in the business world.
“If you are a Pakistani woman, you are just working because you are not married.”
“I’ve got an education from the UK, so they entertain me to work, and even then it’s not a guaranteed or a stable job because, at any time, if there’s a man who needs that job, they’re going to make it very clear that he gets it,” she said.
The offer of a job with a long-standing friend led Tania to the Middle East, where she began a relationship with her colleague and unexpectedly found herself pregnant, but still unmarried.
“Being from such a conservative society, it wasn’t a good idea to have an abortion,” she said, adding that she had hoped the situation would be resolved by marriage.
Her partner felt otherwise, and pressured Tania to end the pregnancy. When she didn’t, he ended their relationship and her job.
“I knew, at that time, the consequences were a lot, and there were consequences which we’re suffering till today. It’s just not ending. I don’t see an end to it,” she said.
Yasmin, meanwhile, struggles to see an end to the political situation in Iran, which led to her exile.
The daughter of an Iranian political activist, her parents moved to London in 2003, after her father claimed asylum here.
Already over 18 at the time, Yasmin was refused a visa to come with them.
“It was very tough to live in a country where you can’t say [anything] about your father – it’s really not safe to say [anything],” she explained.
But Yasmin could scarcely have imagined then that she would later join them as an asylum seeker herself, after the fiercely contested 2009 election in Iran.
“There were those who thought the election wasn’t very clean to people because Mahmoud Admadinejad, our president, cheated on the results. People weren’t happy about it,” she said.
She describes the Iranian regime as restrictive. “You can’t express yourself as you are, you have to wear [a] hijab.
“The hijab is not the matter, but when somebody says to you, ‘you have to do it’, you think you are like a doll that they play with.”
Here in London, Yasmin’s hair is loose and uncovered. She pauses for a mouthful of cake, before continuing her story.
Not long after the 2009 election, Yasmin was visiting a lecturer to discuss plans to continue her education, but got caught up in a student protest at the university.
“The security [forces] of the regime took photos of the protestors and they took my picture as well,” she said.
“They arrested some people,” she recalled. “It was horrible because I was surprised – I knew all the people weren’t happy, but I didn’t expect it in the university on the day that I had to go there.”
“Because my father was a political activist before, I was worried. One of my uncles said to me, ‘it’s not very safe to stay’.”
Afraid of what might happen, Yasmin decided to visit her family in England, thinking, “if everything is going to be ok then I’ll come back and go to university.”
She had only been in London a week or two when her uncle phoned. Security forces had called her grandfather’s house, where she had been living, and “it wasn’t safe for me to go back.”
“I stayed here because I was afraid that if I go there, they’ll ask me questions, they won’t believe I was there [at the university demonstration] by mistake,” Yasmin said.
She switched to the second person, distancing herself from what she was about to describe: “then maybe you go to prison, maybe they rape you, torture you. Everything has happened.
“They are like animals, they do everything they want, they don’t care about people at all.”
Shortly after her uncle’s phone call in 2009, Yasmin applied for asylum. She was granted refugee status three years later, in November 2012.
Tania, on the other hand, is still waiting.
“I’ve been asking the Home Office to give me some leave so that I can start working – I’m absolutely useless if I’m not working,” she toldme.
“I’m hoping to get at least [permission to] work and travel, to get some normality, have a normal life.
“It was ok the first five years because I had my son and I was so engrossed in him and his studies,” she added, her voice trembling slightly.
Her son’s departure, just six months earlier, is naturally still raw.
“The only thing that was really good in my life throughout was Ben* being born and even that was taken away from me – I’m stranded here, totally. He didn’t want to leave.”
Tania’s status as an asylum seeker means she is unable even to visit her son, and her frustration was obvious.
“I’ll only pull through when my son comes back. That’s the end – I mean, my ultimate end – is him coming back, because I don’t want him to be in a place where he’s left everyone behind.”
She’s trying to be proactive about it, and speaks highly of the support provided by her local GP.
“I’ve been going to therapy,” she said, adding, “I started a course on special educational needs, and I’m currently volunteering at the library, doing the homework club.”
Like Tania, Yasmin and her family have built a new life for themselves. Her younger sisters, in London since 2003, “speak English like natives,” she told me.
She herself is learning English thanks to free courses provided by the Migrants Resource Centre.
In the short-term, her plan is to train here as a teacher and be able to move out of her parents’ home, but eventually “of course I want to go to my country, if the regime changes and they don’t do anything to me.”
Although she longs to return home one day, Yasmin said life in London has been fine: “I’ve not had a very tough time here.”
Despite initially worrying that she might be arrested, Yasmin found the Home Office supportive: “I think because I was a young lady they treated me very well, and because I was really afraid and I was crying.”
Nevertheless her asylum claim was repeatedly delayed while she obtained written evidence from her uncle, which she says the Home Office then lost.
That was a frustrating time, because “it wasn’t my fault that they lost the evidence”, but Yasmin said that doing yoga has really “helped me to use the energy for good.”
“As an asylum seeker you haven’t any bank account, you don’t have any ID, you can’t work.
“If you start to work they can arrest you because you don’t have permission, and all these negative things for a long time make you really mentally ill,” she says.
“This has happened and you have no choice – the hard part of the story is that you have no choice.”
*All names have been changed, and some place names have been redacted.