Example10 Example11 MCH LSE Refuge City ATH Refugee Info 003
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People Example11

Get to know the newcomers, activists and volunteers we met in Athens, Berlin and London, as they share their personal experiences of refuge, welcome and the digital city.

Reza & Catherine

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Reza and Catherine
Brixton, London, February 2019

When you get asylum, the government gives you four weeks to leave their accommodation, and then all the support stops. So I had to find a house and job, but I didn’t speak English and I didn't know what to do. I didn’t want to stay in Liverpool, it was depressing. There are a lot of people that don't like immigrants there, and they would come and throw stuff on the door of our house.

Many people want to come to London but they don't know how to do it, where to start, and it’s more expensive so you need to have a job first. If Catherine wasn’t in London, maybe I wouldn’t have come here. I went to visit her a few times and she helped me look for a flat but everything in my budget was awful. In Iran, they build little rooms on the roof for pigeons, and that’s what these places reminded me of. But then she helped me to meet Refugees at Home and I got to live with Miki and his family in their home. That’s how I started living in London.


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Reza and I met in Greece at the end of 2016. I went to a birthday party with friends and he was there, just sitting quietly on his own. I remember I went over and said, ‘why are you so quiet?’ He was really upset at the time because his brother was in a detention centre just north of Athens. I’m half Iranian myself and I could speak some Farsi so I offered to help him and go visit his brother. So that’s how we met and we stayed friends, and then he made it to England. And I've been helping him quite a lot because of the language issues. It's really hard for refugees to find their way around here and the system doesn't make it easy. He needed help just applying for stuff and I took him to the Job Centre a few times because there were never any translators. The system makes it really hard.


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When I came to the UK from Greece, I was dying of stress. It was my first time ever on a plane. I had already tried several times but I kept getting caught. I claimed asylum right when I arrived at the airport.

I was only in Greece for six months but I had to try to come to the UK, to work. My brother is still there, he was in detention for a while, and since being here, I’ve been able to send money to help him get out, too. It’s a good country: the weather is better, there’s more energy and there are many people from everywhere, so it’s more interesting. There’s even quite a lot of Iranians there. Here in the UK, people are either at home or at work, and the weather’s bad and it gets dark early. If there was work in Greece, it might have been ok, it’s better than Iran. But England is 100% better. I think Iranians, in general, like to come to England, America or Canada — English-speaking countries.


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A few days after arriving they took of some of us in a minivan to a small suburb of Liverpool. I got lucky because they put me in a nice house, with four Iranians and we each had our own room. One man with a wife and children back home had his asylum interview but he got rejected. He appealed and again got rejected, so he was very upset and was thinking of going back home. But instead he tried to kill himself by overdosing on mediation; we called the ambulance and he was in the hospital for two days before he died. So after seeing all this, I was so nervous about the whole thing, about my interview. On the day, I felt really ready, and I got there and they said the interpreter hadn’t come in so they had to postpone it. I was so upset. That was the day of the terrorist attack in Manchester, so I thought they were lying and maybe they were going to cancel my claim.


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The woman who interviewed me was very smart, I could tell by the way she was talking and typing really fast. I had barely finished my answer and she was already coming up with another question. She asked me exactly 190 questions. I remember that she repeated the 6th question at around question 30, probably to see if I gave the same answer. I think I did really well because 40 days later I received my refugee status. I think it was also thanks to her because she was very kind during the interview. Another person may have been aggressive and accused me of lying. She was nice.


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When Reza first got to London, no council would help him. You have to have that local connection to a borough and lived in the area for six months first, otherwise, they don't help you find housing. And as a single guy, he would have been very low on the list of priorities — families, vulnerable people, elderly, disabled, women. To get a private flat, you need to pay the deposit and rent upfront, then you apply for housing benefits. So it’s very, very difficult. Through my voluntary work at the Refugee Council I know that a lot of refugees become homeless. I had come across Refugees at Home through my work before, where they encourage people with spare rooms to host refugees, and I put Reza in touch. It's a fantastic organisation, I speak really highly of them. Reza got very lucky because Miki and Miriam’s family was really, really lovely and they’ve been so good to him.

(austerity, London)

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I was so surprised that anybody would just give a stranger a room in their house. I’m glad the children were small otherwise it may have been tricky for them. It’s not easy to have a stranger around. And it was tricky for me because they were letting me stay for free, so I felt uncomfortable*. They are Jewish actually, but Iranians don’t have any problems with Jewish people — that’s only the talk of the government. I stayed there for over one year until I could afford to get my own place. I got very lucky with Miki’s family. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn’t have been able to save any money or send money to my family, or to my brother in Athens. And I wouldn’t have been able to do the security guard training. But it was time to free up the room for somebody else, and also to move forward with my life, to be independent.

* ‘The word he uses is very Iranian — it's somewhere between shyness and being embarrassed’, explains Catherine


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My mother calls me every day — on WhatsApp or Imo — just to see I’m healthy and still alive. And I visit Catherine about once a week. I really like shisha so I bought one and leave it at her place — I just bring the tobacco. We first came to this pizza place when she was helping me register for ESOL classes in Brixton. I love the pizza here. Sometimes we go out to an Iranian restaurant and have this dish that I also love, Ghormeh Sabzi — vegetables with kidney beans. It’s really hard to make at home. We actually went to this place in Hammersmith on Friday and it was one of the best I've had in London.


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It’s his sister calling, it’s her birthday. I met Reza's family two years ago when I was in Iran — his sister, brother and parents. They all came over to my flat. His mother is adorable, she’s always thanking me and I’m not even doing anything. It was really nice to meet them.


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I have a corporate background, but my time volunteering in Greece completely changed me, and there’s no going back. I went there in 2016 to volunteer and I quickly realised that there were more than just Syrians — there were people from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo... Languages were really useful, so my Farsi, even if it wasn’t perfect, could be very helpful. I ended up moving to Athens that summer, and by the time I left, in late 2017, I was working for MSF Doctors Without Borders, running a team of 12 interpreters. I decided for my own sanity that it was time for me to come back to the UK but I wanted to continue working in this sector. I had no connection to humanitarian work in the UK, so I volunteered for a lot of refugee organisations, doing casework for a while. I still do so even though I'm now working at a job in a small family foundation that I absolutely love, giving scholarships to bright students from the Levant region, and helping Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.


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I have been working ever since I got my refugee status. In Liverpool, I just went around asking for a job and got one at a pizzeria. We were all foreigners working there, I don’t think an English person would do such a job. I worked a lot and they paid me very little, about 150 pounds per week, but it was better than staying at home doing nothing. And I learned how to make pizza! I’m still working as a kitchen porter now but only while I wait for my security guard license. I completed this security guard course three months ago in October; it was £400 but I feel it's an investment. It’s taking a long time to get the license because I had to show I had no criminal record for five years, but since I’ve only been here for two years, we had to go to a lawyer and do all this paperwork. It’s a nice job because you get to dress smart and wear a tie, and you have to keep in shape and stay healthy.


Update June 2020 — Reza finally got his SIA security accreditation in May this year — almost one and a half years later... It usually only takes one month, and I see it as a case of the so-called 'hostile environment.' I'm still at the foundation, loving my job, and I also still volunteer as a caseworker for refugee services at the British Red Cross.

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