Moving cities to start a new life can be a daunting experience for anyone but imagine being forced to flee your home because of a war.
Many refugees and asylum seekers endure long, painful and desperate journeys – travelling by overcrowded boats, cramped lorries or on foot as they trek in search of safety.
They don’t want to leave their home countries, their family and friends, but when war breaks out they are left with no other option.
Tens of thousands of refugees have arrived in the UK in recent years and the majority have grabbed every opportunity they can to make a better life for themselves in their new homeland by studying, volunteering, working and starting their own businesses.
Today marks the first day of Refugee Week 2020 (15 – 21 June), celebrating the contributions, resilience and creativity of refugees.
This year’s theme is Imagine, and there will be an online programme of virtual workshops and activities.
To mark Refugee Week, we’ve spoken to refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom have been volunteering tirelessly during the Covid-19 pandemic, about their new lives.
Mahmoud Juma is a stall manager at Breadwinners
Mahmoud came to England at the age of 15 without any family or friends. The journey from his home country Sudan took more than a year. Since then, he has been building his confidence and recently enrolled at college to study ESOL. He has also joined Breadwinners – a charity and social enterprise, which sees refugees and asylum seekers sell artisan bread on market stalls across London and has been delivering supplies during the Covid crisis. Mahmoud is now a stall manager for their Victoria Park branch. He is also supported by the Dost Centre, which works with newly-arrived young refugees and newly-arrived migrants.
Mahmoud, 18, says: “Before joining Breadwinners I didn’t have any confidence, I didn’t know any English, but since running the market I have met many different people from different cultures. It has helped my confidence and I really enjoy it.
“When I came to England I felt very lucky, because it was the safest place. It was a very, very painful and tough journey to get here. I faced a lot of challenges. When I first arrived I felt alone and I had no support until I came across some charities including Dost Centre. It was Marian from the Dost Centre who told me about the Breadwinners programme. It is great because I have been able to go camping, play football and make new friends thanks to the support from the centre. I feel this is the beginning of my future.
“During the Covid-19 crisis, I have delivered bread to 100 homes, through our new online orders. I have learnt a lot of skills from Breadwinners which will be valuable for my CV. I have a mentor with Breadwinners who has given me a lot of support, she has been texting me everyday to check I am okay during lockdown. In the future I would like to study and do a job in IT and technology.”
Since Breadwinners was set up in 2016, they have helped 87 refugees and asylum seekers through their two programmes, Risers and Breadwinners.
Risers supports young people who are seeking asylum by giving them work experience as market stall assistants. They also provide training and mentoring so they can build their skills and CV for future employment.
The Breadwinners programme supports refugees with newly received status who are struggling to find work by providing opportunities for their first employment in the UK. They work as market stall managers, earning the UK Living Wage, until they are ready to find full time jobs or run their own business.
Martin Campos, director at Breadwinners, says: “The people we support have something very special, they have gone through so much and faced a lot of challenges, they will cherish every opportunity. It is crazy to see how the people we work with develop and how far they come, from when they first started with us. Some of the people we have supported have gone on to work in nursing, the tourism industry, sales and waitering.”
Zak Mohammed volunteers to deliver food parcels for Hope charity
Zak, who is an asylum seeker, came to England in 2016 from East Africa, but he has chosen not to share his past as he finds it too traumatic. Instead he has chosen to look at the positives in his life and is “thankful” for each day and is passionate about helping others. He is a volunteer with Hope – a Christian charity which works with local churches and community groups to support those in need. The Nottingham-based charity also helps to run food banks in the city. Since the start of the pandemic, Zak has delivered around 30 food parcels a week for the past two months to residents in need with charity volunteer and friend Julie James. He is also a volunteer with Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity and in the past, he has volunteered with a charity which supports children with disabilities called Umbrella and with Sue Ryder.
Zak, 36, says: “It feels good to help others, I enjoy volunteering. Everyone is different, some people like volunteering and doing something to keep busy, but it doesn’t always suit everyone.
“When I first came to this country I felt alone and I didn’t know anyone and I had nothing to do, which stressed me out. But now I volunteer with the Hope charity, I volunteer with the Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity and I am a keen runner so I have joined a running club in Derbyshire too.
“I have been delivering food parcels for Hope for about eight weeks now, it has helped me to continue learning English, I meet different people, and I have learnt more about Nottingham too. I don’t have any plans for the future, because I have learnt to take each day at a time and to just be happy.”
Julie James, a former teacher of 32 years, now works in the charity sector focusing on refugees and asylum seekers.
Julie, 57, from Nottingham, said: “Every refugee and asylum seeker who I have worked with has wanted to contribute to society in some way or another, or they’ve looked for paid employment and this needs to be celebrated. Through the charities I work with, refugees and asylum seekers have taken part in fundraising, volunteering and day trips out.”
Mazin Saad volunteers to deliver food parcels and has been working at the Covid-19 testing centre
Mazin, who is from Sudan, came to this country in 2016 after a seven month journey. He has lived in Doncaster, South Yorkshire and most recently moved to London and was granted refugee status two years ago.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mazin has been volunteering by delivering food parcels to refugees and asylum seekers in his local community. He also worked at a Covid-19 testing centre in March and he is now in the process of setting up a charity called Sudanese Solidarity Organisation, alongside his day job as a security officer.
Mazin is also a member of the Good Chance Theatre where he regularly takes part in shows and workshops. He recently performed a poem about his journey to England for the theatre’s Migration Matters show.
Mazin, 28, says: “Since the moment I was rescued as an asylum seeker by the Royal Navy, I have felt this country has given me so much that I want to give back. I have so many people to thank. During the pandemic I have been helping refugees and asylum seekers to make sure they have food and any support they need.
“I am looking to continue this work by setting up a charity called Sudanese Solidarity Organisation, we’re in the process of getting it set up and we have just done the logo.
“We want to eventually reach out to other countries and help as many people as possible. In this country the gap between refugees and asylum seekers is big, asylum seekers have very little money to live on, they need more support.
“Over the years I have volunteered with the likes of British Red Cross and British Heart Foundation. It has helped with my confidence and it has allowed me to understand different cultures. I have met many different people through my volunteer work and have taken part in many social activities, especially with Good Chance Theatre.
“It has been great to engage in their workshops and help with fundraising too. Before the Covid-19 pandemic started, I was studying for a foundation course, which I am hoping to continue, which will hopefully allow me to enrol for an undergraduate course.”
Teem Khan, is an NHS worker, who also has his own fashion brand. He has been making masks.
Teem, who is from East Africa, came to this country as a student in 2003. He studied Travel and Tourism. After a lengthy and challenging four year process, Teem went from being an asylum seeker to being granted refugee status 18 months ago. Teem, who lives in London, has recently started working for the NHS as a warehouse supervisor. Teem has recently started his own fashion brand, with the help of TERN – an organisation which helps refugees start a business. Teem has been making masks during the pandemic.
Teem, 37, says: “The process to become a refugee has ruined my mental health, it has been very traumatic, I was not able to work which was very hard for me. It still affects my anxiety today. However I had a lot of support from people, charities and organisations.
“I have recently started my own fashion brand, but I have had to put this on hold due to the panademic. I am now in week five of my new job. I have also been making masks in my own time. For every mask that I sell, I donate one to an asylum seeker.
“Asylum Seekers don’t have a lot of money to live on from the Government and buying a mask is probably the last thing on their mind. The masks are colourful, some have sequins, some are plain and some are made from denim, I have also used fabric with printed superheroes on including Toy Story.”