What is it like to be forced to leave home because your house is being bombed, because there is a war in your country?
Roughly half of the 80 million refugees in the world right now are children. How does it feel to have your life, dreams and aspirations shattered from a young age?
I first came to the UK on my own when I was 17; I left my family, friends and home in Yemen, where one of the worst humanitarian crises is sadly taking place, in order to seek a better and safer life.
Imagine the moment when I realised I wouldn’t be able to see my family ever again. It took a while to sink in as I kept denying this ugly truth.
I was first living in London, but soon found out that being there on your own at 17 is not easy, so I found my way to Oxford hoping to find a better and cheaper place to live. I started my asylum process in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. The process took a year and a half – which is very fast when compared to the stories of many others, which can take 5, 10 or even 15 years to be resolved.
Amidst the peak of the pandemic, isolating in my small room, with only £40 pounds a week to pay for food and everything else, the existential question whispered in my ears “Why am I still alive?” “Is life really worth it?”
Due to the warm and welcoming environment here in Oxford, I was able to put together my life, my goals and my relationships.
I first sought the help of Asylum Welcome in late 2020. Out of the countless times I was aided and supported by this organisation, I will only highlight a few. As my tenancy in my previous accommodation was nearing expiry, and my financial situation didn’t allow me to renew it, homelessness was approaching me. I was referred to an organisation through which I was relocated to be hosted by people so lovely and charming that I still visit them occasionally to say hi. Asylum Welcome was the linking bridge and without them, things could have turned out badly. In addition, the pandemic outbreak caused many asylum cases to be delayed and lost in an endless stack of folders, as you can imagine. Jess, who is my colleague at Asylum Welcome now, managed to get in touch with my MP, who contacted the Home Office to highlight the urgency of the case and the need for an immediate response. This played a major role in the success of my case and the confirmation that I could stay in this country for 5 more years.
A few months later, and inspired by Asylum Welcome’s support and positive mentality, I chose to volunteer with them. As you cannot work or study whilst your asylum claim is being processed, I thought I would use this time to help support many others facing similar challenges to mine, to gain some volunteer experience and to be part of an organisation that is doing so much to support 1,500 refugees and asylum seekers every year.
I volunteered to help make clients coming to the office feel welcomed and supported, translating from English to Arabic and vice versa as many of our clients don’t speak English. I also helped the Youth Service support 150 young people on a range of issues, including their immigration status, their mental health, and English classes – and also with fun social and sporting activities. Without this support, many young kids between the ages of 14 and 24 who arrive here on their own, alone and without their parents, would be seriously struggling on many fronts.
This month, I can gladly share that I became a Programme Assistant at this wonderful organisation. It’s been quite an amazing journey for me, coming to Asylum Welcome first as a client, then joining the team as a volunteer, and now I am a member of staff! I hope to continue helping many others, while I gain some work experience and continue developing my goals and ambitions, particularly to continue my BA in Computer Science at Brookes.
However, despite the fact that I am now a paid worker, I still consider myself a client of Asylum Welcome. To this very day, I am seeking advice and help from “colleagues”.
Let me share with you one small but very meaningful anecdote for me. During one of my days as a volunteer last month, we received many Christmas presents from a school called St Edward’s for our most vulnerable clients. Seeing the colorful and beautifully-wrapped boxes, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what was written on the gift cards. To my surprise, one of the cards had my name on it! To the person who bought me the gift, thank you very much for your kindness. I know how much happiness these amazing Christmas gifts brought to so many families and children we work with.
As you all know, Asylum Welcome is also supporting many Afghans while they wait patiently in hotels to be resettled somewhere in the UK, including Oxford, and we will continue to support them until they are housed. It’s hard to call them lucky after the horrors that they’ve experienced in Afghanistan. But compared with the vast majority of refugees making their way to the UK by very dangerous routes, they are lucky. Most of the hundreds of asylum seekers whom Asylum Welcome assists every year have arrived here after risking their lives in dinghy boats or on lorries, as one of our clients did just last week, only to experience a less than warm welcome on arrival.
But Asylum Welcome helps them with everything from legal advice, shelter, food, laptops, bicycles, and weekly hardship payments, to education and employment – all provided by a small staff team and hundreds of amazing volunteers.
You have already helped us in so many creative ways, by providing us with much-needed laptops, organising concerts and sporting events in aid of Asylum Welcome, collecting food donations for our food bank, welcoming and hosting the Afghans in your facilities, and helping us spread the word. There are many ways you can continue to help us, and so many amazing things that we can do together. We look forward to collaborating with you all over the coming year, in our shared efforts to make Oxford a better and warmer place for everyone.
PS: If you are interested in finding out a bit more about the situation in Yemen, I wrote a blog about it last year, which you can read here: Yemen: between longing and despair. I was also recently interviewed by Kat Orman, from BBC Radio Oxford. Here you can hear more about the context and circumstances that led me and my family to leave Yemen when I was 10 years old, about my experience of being an asylum seeker arriving to the UK when I was 17 and living in Oxford by clicking here to listen.