June 18-24 is National Refugee Week, a UK-wide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK and encourage a better understanding between communities. To mark this, I spoke to four refugees about overcoming hardship and integrating into British society.
Driton Hoti, 25, is a Kosovan refugee who came to Britain in 1999. He lives in Halifax with his partner Jemma Flowitt, 23, and their two children, Leon, three, and Gjiana, 18 months.
Kosovo, a province of Southern Serbia, was incorporated into Yugoslavia in 1929. Although granted autonomy in 1974, the population demanded greater independence in 1990, to which Serbia responded by imposing direct rule. This led to a conflict in 1996 between Serbian security forces and the Kosovan Liberation Army, a guerrilla group seeking independence from Yugoslavia. In 1998, Slobodan Milosevic ordered Yugoslav forces to crush the 80% ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo, escalating into a full scale war in 1999 and provoking NATO air attacks on Serbian targets.
“It all started after the Bosnian war in 1995,” Driton explained. “Serbia then turned on Kosovo and day by day it was getting worse. In 1999 when I was 17, it literally broke loose. We were staying in our house but moving back and forth, back and forth. Somehow I managed to lose my mum and dad. When the war hit our village, my family ran one way and my uncle and I ran another. We went to the mountains. We couldn’t carry anything so we had literally nothing with us; we just jumped in the car, drove it for about two miles and then had to dump it.”
Driton and his uncle, Nezir, walked up into the mountains and lived there for two months, sneaking into the village at night to steal vegetables and flour. “It was February and it was freezing cold. We built shelters, but for the first two or three days we were sleeping in the snow.
“The Serbians were working their way through the villages and forcing everyone up into the mountains. There were two or three thousand of us. Then the Kosovan Liberation Army came, so everyone got together and started running. It was like Saving Private Ryan; we literally had to run for our lives. We spent a few days running- we didn’t know where, but whichever way the KLA came we’d run in the opposite direction. The mountains were steep as hell and you’d try and run but with bags of flour and vegetables on your back, and all you could hear were machine guns and bullets cracking, like firecrackers. There were loads of grenades dropping, literally every two minutes. Down on the ground, jump, down, jump. And we were starving too. There were mountain streams if you needed a drink, but I went about four days without eating.”
After several days running without food or sleep, the civilians decided to surrender. “The tradition over there is that the men get together and talk. They decided we’d hand ourselves in; we had nowhere to go so we had to give up.”
After forming a queue, the families began to walk in their thousands into the town. “Eventually we reached the main road between Pristina and Podujevo. The Serbians were absolutely good as gold, but little did we realise the UN warplanes were watching them like hawks so they couldn’t touch us.”
The Serbian Army then forced the villagers to walk five miles into Pristina before carrying out the killings. “I’ll never forget this. There’s a house on a street all covered by trees, so at this point they started dividing people. Boys from 14 all the way up to 60 or 70 year-old men were put into a garden at the back of the house. All the women and children got separated from fathers, uncles, brothers.
“That’s where I witnessed between five and 10 murders, and the beatings were constant. I don’t know what their strategy was, but they separated us in groups- it seemed to be by age and the look of people’s faces. I didn’t want to get separated from my uncle because he was all I had, but literally people were getting picked up and moved behind a shed. You’d hear two bullets, and two policemen would come back but that person wouldn’t.”
When it started to get dark, the survivors were loaded into buses and taken to the main police station in Pristina. “Just in front of the police station there were about 20 Serbian army officers. They were huge, and probably seemed even bigger to us because we hadn’t eaten- I was about seven and a half stone then, so I was half the size I am today.”
The men were then forced to walk through two rows of troops in order to enter the building. “They started beating the hell out of us. My uncle walked through them and got beaten pretty horrendously. When he reached the top, the biggest man there kicked him back down to the beginning again so he had to go through again. They used weapons too; anything that they came across. They did the same to everybody. When it was my turn, they kicked me so hard that literally everything came out and I crapped myself. But you can’t do anything about it. You just have to think: this is it, and the worst they can do is kill you.”
Inside the police station, the men had to stand up with their hands on the table for a full 24 hours. “We’d been running for the last four days and we were knackered; all we wanted to do is sleep. I don’t know what happened to people who couldn’t manage to stand for that long but they got taken away and I never saw them again.”
After 24 hours had passed, the Serbians packed the men into a hall and separated the men once more. At this point Driton lost Nezir. “I don’t know where he got taken, but the rest of us went to a private house. All I can remember is packed bags and children’s clothes. Then the men stormed the room and started kicking and beating us; I think that was the worst beating I’ve ever had. They put us against the wall and started shooting at us, like a shooting range. They were laughing their heads off. You could hear the shots ringing against the wall above your head. One of the guys from my village freaked out and tried to run. He was killed there and then.”
Driton’s group were then taken to prison and interrogated about their knowledge of the KLA. “I was not into politics at all had no information to give. I was 17; I wasn’t interested in that sort of crap.”
He was in prison for two months, sharing a cell around four metres square with 13 other men and enduring regular beatings and sleep deprivation. “I got interrogated about four times while I was there, but I was so tired I didn’t care. We were fed once a day, just stale bread that we dipped in water to soften up. At this point the UN were just flying about and bombing everywhere.
“One day the prison guards just came and said, ‘Mr Hoti, come with us’. I didn’t know what was going on, but I couldn’t care less what happened at that point because I didn’t know whether my parents, sisters and brother were alive or dead. I started to be happy within myself; I would entertain myself in my head.
“They put me in the car and asked me if I spoke Serbian. I said no, and they turned some loud music on and started driving. It was May, and I hadn’t been outside for two months. I thought they were going to kill me, but the sun was so nice and hot I was just sitting in the back and smiling to myself.”
Driton was transferred to Lipian, a bigger prison in Pristina. There, he was taken outside to a garden and lined up against the wall with 52 other men. “It was about 30 degrees. I come from the mountains so I wasn’t used to it. They left us there for hours; people were collapsing and fainting all over the place. Then they put us in buses with boarded-up windows. We had to look at the floor with our hands behind our backs, and there were three or four policemen guarding us with machine guns.”
Eventually the bus arrived at the Macedonian border, where the men were told to get off and start running. At the checkpoint, they were kept for seven hours until the UN arrived to let them through. “At that point I was the same, I was still blank. Some buses came and took us to a refugee camp around midnight. We were starving, like wild people. As soon as we reached the camp we just ate and ate. All the men that had been released, about 52 of us, started getting poorly because we hadn’t eaten for such a long time and then we’d eaten loads. We were vomiting and had sickness and diahorrea. But there were doctors and you got taken care of. It was paradise. We had tents, we had food, and they gave us clothes- I’d had the same clothes on since leaving home six months before.”
Driton had an uncle living in Germany, who he contacted as soon as he arrived at the refugee camp. “I’d always remembered his phone number, it was all I had. So on the first morning I was given a satellite phone and was told to call anyone I knew who lived abroad. I called my uncle and he was at work, but I spoke to his wife, Fatime.
“I get a bit emotional on this part of the story. All I managed to say is ‘I’m in a camp’, because I was literally so hysterical at that point that they took me away and drugged me to calm me down. I slept for 24 hours.
“I woke up to find out that my uncle had been ringing up all day and night and was getting worried sick. I didn’t call him back for a week because I couldn’t talk about it at all; I knew I’d break down.”
Driton’s uncle passed on the news that his parents, sisters and brother were safe and well. “Because he was abroad he was acting as the middle man, so he was by the phone all the time waiting for news. Finding out my family were ok was a massive, massive excitement, but in my head I was still numb. I was still walking with my head down and hands behind my back like I was used to.”
In the Macedonian camp, Driton was also reunited with a cousin, Behar, who had been studying in Pristina. “That was another of the best things that could have happened. Then the Red Cross or Unicef organised for all prisoners of war to go to England for medication. I wanted to go to my uncle’s in Germany but I was told I had to go to England first. I tried to get my cousin to come but he said no.”
On the 12th June 1999, Driton flew to Leeds-Bradford airport. “I was thinking: whoa, who are we to get looked after like this? I was 17 and I’d never been on a plane or seen a big tower building. When we arrived, everything was organised. It was ‘come this way, come that way, we’ll do this for you’. They gave us ID papers and put us into minibuses where we were taken to Savile Park in Halifax.
“I was still numb when I came here. I didn’t know how to have friends; I didn’t know how to laugh. I was in my head all the time, not talking to people. I was still unable to believe what was happening, and suspicious that something might go wrong. We were so frightened all the time that social services started bringing the police and army into the building for a game of football, to show that they were just normal people.
“We were treated like kings. There was a doctor’s base and social services inside the centre. It was paradise. We didn’t have to cook and we were given chequebooks to get shopping and clothes- all I had was a pair of jogging pants I’d been given in the Macedonian camp. It couldn’t get any better, we got given plenty.
“For us to be able to get up and run about town and play football was amazing. In 1999 in Halifax I don’t think there were any Kosovans, and the locals were lovely. We’d walk down the street and people would come out and say, ‘Come here love, I’ll make you a cup of tea’.
“Before I came to Britain, I didn’t really have any opinion on British culture- I never expected to be here so it never crossed my mind. When I first arrived I really enjoyed having more freedom and seeing people acting as who they were, rather than having to act a certain way. Now I am used to the culture; I feel part of it. I’ve made lots of brilliant friends here, so generally I would say the British are good people.”
Driton met his partner Jemma in a park near to the refugee centre just five days after he’d arrived in Britain. “I was 15, and we only hung around with them for entertainment value,” Jemma laughed. “They couldn’t speak English and we found it funny.
“Before I met Driton and the rest of our friends I really didn’t know anything about refugees. When I heard there were some Kosovans moving into our area, I expected them to come from a place where everyone lived in mud huts and couldn’t afford to eat. Now I know the real stories and have experienced a taste of how they live for myself, I have a great deal of respect for the foreigners in our country and can completely understand why they are here. They just want some of the opportunities that we take for granted and expect for our children; this is their only way.”
Driton and Jemma became close friends and began a relationship in December 2000. Despite his initial welcome, Driton told me that he has encountered some prejudice since coming to the UK. “When we first came, sometimes people stuck their fingers up at us in the park. But we didn’t know what it meant, so we’d just smile and do the same,” he laughed. “We thought everyone was nice. I have had abuse, but it never hurts me. Every single person is entitled to their opinion.”
Jemma is more critical, however. “People dislike refugees because they don’t understand the issues, and there is so much bad press. I think if people had more information there would be less of a problem.
“The system stinks too. There’s no communication between different areas, there’s no compassion, and it seems nobody really cares whether they’re here or not. They’re just files locked away in a drawer, not people.”
In 2006, Driton was able to visit his family for the first time. His mother, father, brother, two sisters and extended family still live in the same village in Podujevo, about 23 miles from the capital Pristina. Driton didn’t share his story until he saw them in person, seven years after he’d left. “We couldn’t talk about it on the phone, it was too hard. We’d say, ‘oh, next week.’ But then it’d just be small talk again.”
He found out his uncle Nezir had also been sent to prison. He was released on the day Driton boarded a plane for the UK. “I was on the plane and we could see the UN landing in Kosovo. They opened the prison and just told my uncle he was free, so he just walked and walked until he finally got home.
“Now, you can feel the freedom,” he says of Kosovo. “Go where you want, do what you want. It was painful to go back at first, but it does get easier and easier. I took Jemma back to the place where we were beaten at the police station. I get emotional talking about it, but to go and see those places doesn’t affect me so much.”
Three months after his arrival in the UK, Driton started college. He studied for four years, firstly English and Maths, then computing, and finally electrical installation. He is now a successful electrician and employs several people, as well as earning money from two rental properties.
“The way I try to win my argument is to say I’ve got my own family, house and job. I’m not taking anything from you. I am very grateful to this country because I’ve been given an opportunity to do what I want to do; I’ve been to college, I’ve learned a language. I used to be 100% Kosovan, but over time I’ve become gradually more English. Now I don’t even think or dream in Kosovan.
“In life you get good stuff and bad stuff. The last thing I want is sympathy. I don’t want people to read this and feel sorry for me; I want them to realise that if I can do something with my life then anyone can.”
Olivier (Oli) Nkunzimana, 22, is a Congolese national who came to the UK from Burundi in 2006. He lives in Leeds.
The infamous Rwandan genocide of 1994 ended when Tutsi rebel forces overthrew the Hutu government and seized power. Thousands of Hutu militias responsible for the murder of an estimated one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus then crossed the border into the Congo for fear of reprisals.
“They came with the same ideology, so when they found a minority of Tutsis living in East Congo it was very hard for us,” Oli said. “They came to find the Rwandan refugees, and the massacres didn’t start straight away but there was a lot of fear and tension. At night nobody slept and you had to switch on the lights as if you were there.
“The new Tutsi government in Rwanda tried to liberate the East Congo from those people. But there was a change in government in the Congo and they had a conflict with Rwanda then, so the government who had been protecting the Tutsis started to come after the Tutsis again.
“My parents decided it was no longer safe to live there, so we moved to Burundi in 1996 when war broke out in the Congo. A lot of people died in those two years. People’s livelihoods and belongings were taken and cars and property stolen.”
Despite a civil war between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi which began in 1993, Oli explained he and his family felt safer there. “It was strange because Burundi was going through a war too, but there was a bit of law and order that didn’t exist in the Congo. In the Congo, there was a lot of rape and child abuse.
“We lived in Burundi for ten years, but with so many wars going on and a culture of warlords the militias became very powerful, crossing the border to recruit young people. So when I got to 11 or 12, they started trying to recruit me. They knew where the Tutsis were living and at that age they thought we were fit to be in the army.
“The militias think they own you. They brainwashed people and asked them what they were doing, living a comfortable life while others were fighting. They were pretending to protect Tutsis, but we were recruited to kill other Tutsis. People who joined were seen as betrayers, but sometimes they were recruited by force.
“Being a Christian it was very hard for me. I could not join the army or kill anyone; I believe you can fight battles in other ways. There was a gentleman I was working with in the ministry who believed in me, and he persuaded me to leave in 2006.”
The Minister paid for Oli’s passage to the UK, something he is eternally grateful for. “I’ve been lucky, I know where my family live. My friend Germaine [another Congolese refugee living in Leeds] doesn’t know where his wife and children are, or even if they are alive.”
Oli flew to London, where he was taken to a refugee induction centre before being driven to Liverpool. “It’s like someone delivering goods somewhere. You sit in the back, there’s no talking. You don’t get told where you’re going. I thought everyone was going to be like that, I was very cautious. My first impressions weren’t good- when they were taking my fingerprints they were wearing gloves and avoiding me, then washing their hands as if I had a disease. It was a very tough day. I thought, ‘no. I don’t think I’ll survive this place’.”
Within weeks, Oli met Ed Carlisle, 28, on a project welcoming new people seeking asylum into the city. The two have since become very close friends, working and volunteering together on various community projects and regularly talking politics into the night.
“I hadn’t been in the UK for long when I met Ed, so hadn’t had opportunities to develop meaningful contact or friendship with people here. I had, and still have, a double perception of British people: some as very conservative, closed and unfriendly, but others as open, friendly, and good humoured. Ed helped me get involved in lots of really good social projects, to learn a lot about British culture, and meet so many people. I’ve grown a lot, developed my English, and I’ve been involved with peace work in Israel and Palestine.”
Oli first moved to Harehills, an ethnically diverse area of Leeds, and says he gradually became comfortable with his new life. He was then offered housing in a predominantly white, working class area of the city, something that his English friends were worried about.
Oli saw it as a challenge he wanted to take on. “I thought, ‘Let me go kick some butt’,” he laughed. “I moved there in February this year, and so far so good- I’ve never had big problems. It was scary at election time though because there were BNP leaflets coming through the letterbox and guys putting posters up in the streets. I was glad when that was over.”
According to Ed, if anyone can make it as an ambassador for multiculturalism it’s Oli. “He talks to his neighbours and says hello and smiles at people at the bus stop; he thinks Britain is the most welcoming place ever. He’s very open, funny, charming and gracious. He’s the kind of person someone in a challenging, white area in Leeds would get to know and think, ‘well I don’t like asylum seekers, but Oli’s alright’.
“I think people gravitate towards their own and don’t engage with anyone with different lifestyles. But it’s really stimulating meeting people who are very different. A lot of my refugee friends are really remarkable people who have been through a whole load of grief, so the perception that I want to question in the media is that they are spongers- that’s really not the case. For a lot of them the whole benefits culture is completely alien. And they really want to work, not because they want to take our jobs but because it seems like the normal thing to do. We have to not just tolerate refugees but gain something from them. We don’t have all the answers in this country.”
Oli agreed, saying when he arrived in the UK he was shocked to see a white man begging. “Every society has its forgotten people and its scapegoats to blame for all the bad things. I thought Britain was the perfect society. I thought all Brits were very wealthy because of the Westerners we see in Africa.”
Oli now works as an interpreter at the housing advice centre and also does voluntary work with Ed at Leeds For Peace, an organisation working with communities to resolve conflicts and engage in positive dialogue. In the future, he wants to go to University to study media or journalism.
“Africa is potentially rich but we lack education. Getting on with life and dealing with hardship is part of the deal of being African: we’re fatalists. I didn’t just flee the Congo, I fled the whole region. It’s not even safe for me to go and visit.
“Now, I feel like life’s just started again. Living here makes me wish my own country could be like that. Africa is in a dark tunnel and I hope that one day it can be like Britain.”
Sahande Jamal, 30, came to the UK from Iraq in 2001. He lives in Manchester with Sarah Peters, 53, who he refers to as his adoptive mother. They asked that we change their names to protect them.
Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, Kurds in Iraq were under threat and continue to be discriminated against. After the Iran-Iraq war of 1988, Saddam launched his Anfal campaign, destroying many Kurdish villages and murdering their inhabitants, most infamously in the gas attack on his own people in the Kurdish village of Halabja.
“Kurdistan used to be a big country but now it’s divided into four, and the part where I come from is now part of Iraq,” Sahande explained.
“Being a Kurd I was a second class citizen and the regime under Saddam was very harsh. During the Anfal campaign there was a lot of ethnic cleansing. People disappeared and were never seen again until the mass graves were discovered. People were killed and arrested all the time- a lot of my friends were, and I knew that I would be next to be put in prison or executed. It’s like your name is on a blacklist.”
As well as learning English in Iraq, Sahande studied politics and sociology, and says he was a target because of his involvement with student activism. “I was forced to leave the country because of my political views. I’ve always been very active; I still am. I encouraged people to oppose the regime and say we need democracy, human rights and education. I had to flee.”
Sahande raised some money and organised for human traffickers to help him leave Iraq. “We had to pay a lot of money to the agents. It’s difficult for women to leave the country, which is why most of the [UK-based] Kurdish community are young men. We crossed into Iran, but I was still very scared because in Iran and Turkey it’s the same- they don’t like Kurdish people.”
In Iran, Sahande was arrested. “They came for us in the night. It was really serious, because we didn’t have any documentation. I wasn’t expecting them to let us go. But the agents paid a lot of money so we could escape. They are very clever and have connections. So without us knowing, they paid the money to the commander who was in charge of the prison.
“One night, it was just getting dark, and they said to us, ‘we’ll let you go and transfer you to a different prison’. But we were put in cars and taken to the border between Iran and Turkey. In Iran if you have a lot of money you can do whatever you want to, because it’s very, very corrupt. We walked across the border and the agents paid for us to be released.
“In Turkey, we were tired and dirty so they knew we were foreign. They stopped us and asked for documentation but we didn’t have any. That night in the prison, the commander came. He knew we were Kurdish, and he started torturing us- me and two other men I was travelling with. After that, I pretended I was a gypsy, because in Iran and Turkey gypsies don’t have any documents either. They believed me because I have marks on my body like gypsies do in that part of the world, so they let me go. I was lucky because otherwise I could have been locked up for life.”
Sahande’s agents helped him to escape in a lorry going to Dover, where he spent a few weeks in a refugee camp. “When I arrived, the people were very friendly. Even the police officers- we’re not used to that. We got help to find a solicitor and to arrange various appointments.
“After induction they dispersed us, and I was sent to Salford in the middle of the night. The immigration service let me in the house and left me there. At the beginning it was very difficult; I did not know anyone and I felt very isolated. I didn’t know where I was. Being an asylum seeker is like you are born again. You are a man, but you feel like a child who does not know anything. I thought the accommodation provider would come back, but he didn’t, and I was very lonely. I didn’t go out for days in case it was illegal for me to step outside. But bit by bit, I learned that it doesn’t work like that; Britain is a democracy, you have freedom. To me, there is no discrimination here.
After settling in, Sahande began to make new friends. “My health visitor was wonderful. I got to know her and she took me to college, even though it was not her job to help me so much. I trusted her a lot and she introduced me to Sarah, who volunteered to do an hour a week’s English conversation and learning with me. We talked about politics, culture, our families, and about how British systems work, and soon it was three times a week that we met, not one.
Sahande and Sarah grew close, and he moved in with her in 2003 after he was granted refugee status and subsequently evicted from his Home Office flat.
“He was a bit jittery when I met him,” Sarah said. “I didn’t know much about refugees apart from what you read in the papers; I knew nothing about Kurdish people at all and nothing about the asylum system. I was appalled at how people are left in a strange place to fend for themselves, and how difficult the system was to understand.
“We really got to know each other in the sessions. When someone is waiting for the outcome of an asylum claim and is going through such difficulties, an English conversation lesson can’t end when you shut the door.”
Sahande has now completed a degree in English-Arabic interpretation studies at university in Manchester and is now working as a translator. He hopes to start a master’s degree in September.
“Now, I’m so proud of him and how he’s grown as a person,” Sarah said. “Five years ago he didn’t know anything. Now he has a degree, he works in a job helping asylum seekers and runs a community group. I have learned so much about Kurdistan and have enjoyed the food, the dancing and the culture he has introduced to my life. He calls me mum and I call him my son, its easier that way to explain our relationship.”
Sahande is now in contact with his biological mother. “I visited her in Kurdistan after six years apart. There are still many problems there, which was sad for me. I told her a little bit of my story and she started crying, so I had to stop. It’s really difficult to talk about.
“She is very happy that I have found someone who cares for me, and when I talk to her on the telephone she asks: ‘How is your mum’, and is grateful for Sarah’s role in my life. They are very similar. When I go back to Kurdistan next time, they have insisted Sarah comes with me.
“I work voluntarily and I also pay my taxes. People are people, there’s good and bad in all. Some refugees might take more than they give, but most I know are working legally and making a contribution to British society.
“I didn’t have much background knowledge of Britain or British culture before I came here, but gradually I became integrated. I am really grateful for all the services I’ve received and all the new friends I have made. You have to be sociable and outgoing when you’re in a country with no family. Britain is a good country with good people.”
Mispaline (Mimi), 34, who asked to be referred to by her first name only, came to the UK in 2005 from Togo. She lives in Leeds.
In 2005, Togo’s President, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had ruled Togo as a one-party state for most of his 37 years in power, died from a heart attack. Under Togolese constitution, the speaker of parliament, Fambare Ouattara Natchaba, should have become his successor. Natchaba was out of the country and the Togolese army took the opportunity to close the borders and stage a Coup D’Etat, placing the former President’s son in power. Mass opposition to this takeover led to civilian riots and a massacre by Government troops.
“Everybody protested, everybody,” said Mimi. “We couldn’t believe that the President was in power for such a long time and then when he died, his son took over. We couldn’t understand why, and that’s when the problems began.
“Everybody in Togo was killing people, women were abused. It was a real mess, and people ran away everywhere. You don’t know where you’re going, people fled from Togo to Ghana, Burkina Faso or Benin. The new president was begging people to come back, but we couldn’t trust him because we knew he was just like his father. It was very difficult.”
Mimi’s boyfriend was working for the Government and this made her a target.
“We don’t have democracy in Africa because everybody’s corrupt. I don’t know about politics, but I was involved because my boyfriend was. Ten men came to my house to catch him, but he wasn’t there. It was about midnight and I was asleep. I didn’t know anything about the situation, where he was, or why they had come. I told them, ‘he’s not here,’ but they said I had to tell them. I kept saying I didn’t know, and that’s when I was arrested and treated very badly.
“It’s very stressful and painful to talk about. When I think or talk about it I can’t sleep for days. I went to prison and I was abused and raped by the chief. I spent a week lying on the floor and only had stale bread to eat; sometimes fish. It was the chief who raped me who helped me to leave Togo. I don’t know why. I was put in the back of a rubbish truck, it was very scary and I didn’t know where I was going.
“When we stopped, I was told we were in Ghana. I was dirty, I was bleeding, I was tired, hungry and poorly. I said to someone, ‘take me to a church’. And I was lucky because people were there. I was crying and asking to see the pastor. When the pastor came to see me he comforted me without a word and took me back to his house. He didn’t ask me anything because I was tired and scared and ill.
“His wife did everything for me; changed me and took me to bed, gave me medicine. The pastor only tried to speak to me after a few days. I told him my story and people from the church came every day to pray for me. While I was staying with him, I never opened the door to go out because I thought the police might catch me and take me back. But I was just lucky.
The pastor paid for Mimi to come to England after a month. “He helped me- I don’t know how, because he organised everything. I don’t know why; it must have been charity. He saved my life and I can’t repay him. How can I repay him? I just pray.
“In my country I was very happy, I worked as a masseuse and healer, making and selling Chinese medicine. I was looking after people. In Africa we have lots of troubles and people don’t have money, but my remedies were cheap and natural so they helped a lot of people. I was surprised when I came to Britain that when I feel pain now I have to go to a GP. I don’t want that- in Africa I never went to a GP; I know what I can do by myself. If someone had fever I’d collect plants and herbs and make medicines.
“When I came here and they asked me where I’d like to live I told them anywhere, as long as I have the churches. In Leeds there are many churches. I chose one and people are very kind and friendly there. They support me and look after me; they love me and I love them.
“Sometimes I cry at night wondering why they help me so much, what have I done to deserve their help? They pray for me, they give me support all the time. So I know English people are friendly. The only difference is In Africa we are open; we share everything. Neighbours talk to each other. Here, I was lonely at first. I didn’t see my neighbours for three months and it surprised me.
“I found all my friends at church. They tell me I can call them anytime, even one o’clock in the morning. So now I think: ok, I will have to be useful. That’s why I’m here, to help people.
“I am a business woman, and if I was in France where they speak my language, it would be so much easier and I could do many things. But in England there’s a language barrier. English people speak very fast. So I started using my TV to learn, reading a lot and going to college. It’s amazing to me that I can speak, read and write the language now. I never thought that I would travel in my life.”
Mimi cannot return to Togo and does not know where her boyfriend is. “He can’t be there because they would have killed him,” she said. “Today I don’t know how I feel. God saved me, he saved my life. So when I came here I wanted to learn new skills, improve my language and work with asylum seekers. I am able to do many things, I just need training. I would like to work; I applied for jobs but I don’t have the experience.”
The Jobcentre sent Mimi to volunteer at the Refugee Council in Leeds and she is now building a new life and feeling positive. “I am happy to be here. Really happy. This Government saved my life. And that’s why I want to be useful. And I know in England I have many opportunities and I pray for that every day: to find the right way and something I want to do. I want to help other people. My dream is to help children around the world, especially orphans. I want to do charity work, that’s my dream. I’m looking forward to my future; I think everything will be fine. I’m here to help.”
To find out more about National Refugee Week, and for events in your area, please visit http://www.refugeeweek.org.uk
Published in The Big Issue in the North, June 2007