Author: Jamie Grierson
Sitting in a cafe in Ipswich, Osama Gaweesh recalls how he took part in the Arab spring that saw Hosni Mubarak deposed as president of Egypt.
“The revolution’s demands were for human dignity, social justice and a democratic state. We achieved that,” he says.
Protesting in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011 and later bearing witness to the Rabaa massacre in 2013, in which 817 civilians were killed as they protested against the military coup led by then-general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Gaweesh soon became a target of the current regime for his political activism.
He fled to Turkey in 2013, where he made his name as a broadcast journalist with a series of high-profile leaks of alleged secret recordings of Sisi, but was forced to leave once again and ended up applying for asylum in the UK in March last year.
A year on, unable to work, Gaweesh is exasperated at the time it is taking for the Home Office to process his claim, a process which the department says should take six months.
He has been separated from his wife and two sons, aged seven and nine, for that time and is desperate to be reunited with them.
To compound his frustrations, he is unable to work. Home Office policy only permits Gaweesh to start looking for work 12 months after he first submitted his application and is limited to the shortage occupation list, a limited directory which includes classical ballet dancer and geophysicist.
“I am living on £5 daily,” he said. “I have no choice. I can’t work now. That’s one of the hardest things. I am not a dirty person. I have been forced to come here. I had a prominent position in Egypt and Turkey. I do not deserve this deal from the Home Office.”
Born and raised in Damietta, on the Mediterranean coast north of Cairo, Gaweesh was raised in a politically-active family with his parents being members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
He graduated as a dentist, married an Egyptian woman and had two children, all while actively opposing the rule of Mubarak – who became president of Egypt in 1981.
Due to his high-profile campaigning against both Mubarak and the military coup, and due to his associations with the Muslim Brotherhood, a divisive, Islamist movement, Gaweesh and his family were targeted by Sisi supporters in the wake of the 2013 military coup.
“After the Rabaa massacre, my story takes a dramatic turn,” he said. “They called us terrorists, people who funded terrorists. People against the people. Then thugs started attacking our clinics, our houses, burning everything.
“Some thugs saw me and my father in a car and decided to destroy the car. We escaped.”
Gaweesh decided to flee to Turkey. “Our demands in Egypt are your daily rights. We don’t ask for something that happens on another planet. I want to speak without arrest. I want to write on my Facebook page without being executed. I have friends who were executed in Egypt last week.”
In Turkey, Gaweesh found himself unemployed. With support from friends and other critics of Sisi, Gaweesh set up a dissident satellite news channel called Mekameleen, which supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s civic political party, the Freedom and Justice party.
As a broadcaster, Gaweesh rose to fame as the journalist behind #SisiLeaks – leaked recordings allegedly implicating the president in judicial interference, secret bank transfers from other countries and a conspiracy against the former president Mohamed Morsi.
The leaks were covered worldwide – including in the Guardian – and Gaweesh was offered an Istanbul position with Al-Hiwar, an Arabic-language satellite TV channel broadcasting from London and regulated by UK watchdog Ofcom.
“I started receiving threats over Facebook – ‘we will find you, we will kill you’ – they found my house in Egypt, which I still owned, and destroyed my house,” he said.
“The regime sentenced me to five years in absentia. Accused of me of working with intelligence. They called me a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist broadcaster. From 2013, I was no longer a member or supporter of Muslim Brotherhood.”
In 2018, as he attempted to visit London for a week-long holiday with his wife – leaving his two sons behind in Istanbul with his parents – Gaweesh was stopped at Atatürk airport and told by border officers he was not allowed to return to Turkey.
He decided to claim asylum in the UK with his parents. His wife and children returned to Istanbul – and he has not seen them in person for a year.
“I speak to my children via FaceTime,” he said. “When you have two children, nine years old and seven years old, and they miss you, every day they are asking you ‘when will we be with you?’, it is very hard.”
Gaweesh promptly submitted a 22-page statement on his background and experience to the Home Office. He had a substantive interview in August. But a year after he first lodged his claim, he is yet to receive a decision from the department – more than double the Home Office’s stated aim of processing asylum applications.
After a few months in Birmingham, Gaweesh and his parents sought asylum support and were relocated to Ipswich.
“For the first two months, I was very frustrated. Without my wife, without my children. A friend encouraged me to get out of my home and integrate with the UK community. I took an English course.”
He then went to Suffolk Refugee Support for assistance. “They made my life better,” he says. “I sat with them and discussed with them about all my frustration. They helped me.”
Gaweesh has since completed volunteer work at BBC Suffolk Radio and ITV Anglia. He hopes that his application for asylum will be granted and he will be able to apply for his wife and children to join him and try to continue his career as a broadcaster.
Being unable to take part in paid employment, he says, has really hurt him. The Lift the Ban coalition, made up of 80 organisations including non-profit organisations, thinktanks, businesses and faith groups, is calling on the government to give asylum seekers and their adult dependants the right to work after waiting six months for a decision on their claim, unconstrained by the shortage occupation list.
MPs have been attempting to change the rules through private members’ bills, although this form of proposed legislation rarely turns into law.
Gaweesh does not know why the application has taken so long and has received limited communications from the Home Office.
Asked if he thought his past association to the Muslim Brotherhood could be behind the delay, Gaweesh said he was applying for asylum as a journalist and he had not shown active support for the Muslim Brotherhood for six years.
But even if he was still a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, it would not preclude him from being granted asylum in the UK, according to Home Office advice.
And the guidance issued to immigration officials who make asylum decisions states that persons who are not members of the Muslim Brotherhood but are high-profile supporters or those perceived to support the organisation, such as journalists, may be at risk of persecution or serious harm.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Asylum seekers can work in the UK if their claim has been outstanding for at least 12 months through no fault of their own. Those permitted to work are restricted to jobs on the shortage occupation list, which is published by the Home Office.
“However, we recognise the importance of work for wellbeing and community integration.
“The government is listening carefully to the complex arguments around permitting asylum seekers to work and the home secretary has committed to reviewing the current policy.”
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