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The diverse experiences of UK refugees

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Author: bbc.com

A portrait exhibition aims to visually reflect the diverse experiences of UK refugees, featuring established photographers and personal stories.

A New Beginning, at the Protein Studios in London, displays work by 10 artists commissioned for the UK refugee charity Breaking Barriers.

The striking portraits of refugees from different corners of the world have been paired with interviews by New Humanist journalist Samira Shackle.

Here are some of the portraits and stories from the exhibition.

Beilqes Alzawm, photographed by Leonie Hampton

Beilqes Alzawm says “all my life I have been a fighter”. Originally from Yemen, Beilqes was forced into a marriage at the age of 16.

She eventually escaped with her son and lived with her parents whilst she studied political science.

Facing sexism throughout her career in Yemen, Beilqes worked hard to secure a prestigious job in human rights, which gave her the opportunity to work in London in 2015.

Then a war started in Yemen and it became too dangerous to return. “I lost everything because of this stupid war,” she says “I had to start from scratch.”

Beilqes volunteered with the British Red Cross as an Arabic interpreter and case worker, but she has struggled to find work in her field of expertise in the UK because of her confidence in her standard of English.

Despite this, she is hopeful she will get back on her career path and promote human rights. She currently has an administrative job with Allen & Overy law firm.

“People always ask me if I find it difficult because this is a new country for me. What are you talking about? To lose your life is the big struggle, to wake up every day and open your eyes to bombing and shells, to be without food and sleep.

“I am living in the most beautiful, fashionable city in the world. Yes, I have struggled to find a job and to learn English, but I won’t die. My son is here with me. He is building a life and a future. Why should I worry?

Ahmed Osman, originally from Egypt, became a refugee in the UK after falling on extremely hard times with his international fruit-selling business.

Ahmed had a thriving business exporting fruit across Europe from Egypt, with more than 250 people working for him.

He says that problems arose when a UK-based client did not pay him for a shipment worth £250,000. He could not then pay an Egyptian supplier and received death threats and rumours were spread that he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organisation in Egypt, which he denies.

Ahmed travelled to the UK to try to get back the money owed to him through the court system, but he quickly ran out of money because of legal costs.

His first request for asylum was refused and Ahmed became homeless. His mental health deteriorated and he tried to take his own life in a park. Strangers saved him, he was then helped by the police and received psychiatric support from a hospital and was referred to a shelter.

Ahmed says: “Sometimes I can’t believe that life can change so quickly.

“I take photographs and videos on my phone, and I write things down, so that I don’t forget all the things that have happened to me.”

When Ahmed finally received his refugee status, he was then able to work and attend English courses. He has started to sell fruit and sugarcane, sent to him from Egypt, to UK wholesalers.

His legal case regarding money which he says he is owed is going to be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice.

During her childhood, Ozlem Erden experienced prejudice in Turkey after her family moved from south-eastern Turkey, the Kurdish region, to an area where most people were Turkish.

“I played with other kids, but their parents kept their distance, as if we had a contagious disease,” Ozlem says. “I remember being called names – ‘Kurdish with a tail’ – when I was out with my mother.

“I wanted to die with embarrassment.”

When she was a teenager, Ozlem started to take part in Kurdish political activities, such as distributing leaflets and joining the first Kurdish folkloric dance group. Police raided her house and she was imprisoned at the age of 14 for her activities.

She was released after nine months, pending the ongoing case and in 1994 was sentenced to prison for more than eight years.

Ozlem decided to flee her home city to escape jail, she assumed a different identity and cut herself off from her family. She worked for five years and then left Turkey permanently and arrived in the UK in 1999 with her sister, who was also fleeing the Turkish government.

Having reached safety, Ozlem started to process her traumatic early life and fell into a severe depression.

In 2000, she finally received her status and quickly got a job stacking shelves in a supermarket. Ozlem studied and got involved with Kurdish and Turkish human rights organisations and advocated for Kurdish women’s rights at the UN.

Ozlem got married and earned a law degree and a masters in international finance and economics. She aims to become a qualified solicitor in commercial law.

“Maybe one day I’ll get involved in Kurdish politics, if there is a need.”

Bada Yusuf left Egypt after realising “if I wanted to be who I am, my life in Egypt couldn’t continue”.

He says: “I visited the UK in November 2016, and planned to go back to Cairo afterwards. But in my first week I asked myself: why are you going back, unless you want to die? I took the decision suddenly and applied for asylum, without thinking twice.

“If you feel you are dying anyway, the consequences don’t matter.”

Bada says he came to the UK longing for human connection but quickly realised it was not going to be as easy as he hoped, finding English people much more reserved than Egyptian people, with a lot of guards and barriers.

“For the first six months or so, I was very depressed and cried all the time.

“My mum told me not to give up and reminded me how restricted I was in Cairo. She is always the one who keeps me going.”

Since then, Bada has studied for a masters in finance at Birkbeck University and has been helped to find an internship at a creative research agency.

When volunteering at Pride’s pop-up shop last year, Bada met a group of Arabs involved in the LGBT community and has made many new friends.

“The only thing I ever wanted from my life was to be in peace – not even to be happy, just to be content. Even now that I don’t have restrictions outside, I have restrictions inside myself.

“In Egypt, I had reached the point where it was hard for me to go to the supermarket. Now I can walk the streets.

“Even when circumstances in my life are hard, I keep thinking: you have to be thankful.”

As a young man, Mohsen Raiesi loved to play music, dance and sing in Iran. After problems with police and the government he decided to move to London when he was 25.

However, the Home Office did not believe he had endured difficulties in Iran and he waited six years to receive asylum status. He did not have a passport and could not open a bank account.

“There are lots of people like this in London,” he says “They have no papers, they have no support.”

Mohsen developed a sleep disorder during Iran’s war with Iraq, when he was three years old. He came from an island very close to Iraq, and his town was completely destroyed.

Since then, he has had nightmares every day and received medical support for the problem and also for depression.

While living alone in London, Mohsen discovered a love of cooking.

“It took time for me to learn how to do Persian dishes properly, especially the way my mum cooks it. You have to be so particular, so specific.

“I learned step-by-step, and now I can make so many special dishes. After such a long time struggling, I realised I could find happiness in making food.”

Mohsen married his Iranian wife in 2015 and she then was finally able to join him in the UK in 2018. He currently works as a manager in a coffee shop but wants to create a pop-up restaurant with his wife, selling Persian dishes.

“I always believe that the impossible is possible. People told me I wouldn’t get married, and then that I wouldn’t be able to bring my wife here. But I did it.

“You must never give up. Trust people, and be strong, and work hard.”

Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-45733831

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