By Reem Salih
25 October 2017
I’m a refugee from Mosul, Iraq. I came to the UK five years ago with my husband and three children, to escape the conflict that was tearing our country apart. Today, we have settled into our new lives, but our first days, weeks and months here were difficult. We knew adjusting to life in a new country would be hard, but we never imagined the endless challenges that we would face, for the most part, on our own.
We spent our first night in the UK at Heathrow airport. We explained we were asylum seekers from Iraq and that we were here because we had no other choice. After taking some basic details, the immigration staff who were dealing with us told us their shifts were finishing. We were told that we should come back in the morning to process our application for asylum. We explained that we had no money for food or a hotel, but they said that was not their problem.
At the time, I could not speak a word of English. My oldest child was 10 and my youngest was one-and-a-half, and had recently had a major operation. They were exhausted and crying. My husband asked if we were allowed to stay at the airport overnight and we were told it was up to us. So we took the children to a waiting area which had some chairs. Luckily, I had a few blankets. We slept on the floor, my husband and I taking it in turns to keep watch over our children. As a mother, I tried to be as strong as I could. We could not believe that such a thing could happen in the UK.
We spent our second day in more security screenings and a primary interview. Finally, we were taken to a hostel in Birmingham, where we arrived around 10pm and were given a small room to share. There were no other families around. The hostel ended up being our home for the next month.
I had to be strong and every day, put a smile on my face to support my family. But it wasn’t easy. We couldn’t leave the hostel without permission and had to be back before 10pm each evening. Food was only available at strict mealtimes and we weren’t allowed to take food outside of the dining area, which was difficult with children who can get hungry at any time. My youngest son became very ill. Although there was a nurse at the hostel, she wouldn’t see him because we had been given a generic health appointment by the Home Office. I felt helpless not being able to find medical help for my son.
Eventually, we were taken to Derby, where we gradually began to build a new life. While we waited for a decision on our asylum claim, the Home Office provided us with a house and £230 a week to cover our basic living costs, as asylum seekers are not allowed to work. Our house manager was very helpful, and gave us advice on how to register for a GP and where shops were. We were relatively lucky because my husband’s English was good. We were also helped a lot by a charity in the area called Upbeat Communities, who took us on trips, invited us into their homes, and gave me free English lessons.
Life as an asylum seeker is basic. I don’t like to complain about this, because the most important thing was that my family was safe, but the £230 we received in asylum support each week was only enough for us to survive. I had to find cheap shops and if my children asked for sweets, I had to tell them they would have to wait. Public transport was too expensive to use, so we had to walk everywhere. As a mum, I had to pretend to be strong and happy, but inside it wasn’t true: I felt sad and as if I was not being treated like a human being. My husband, who has worked all his life as a cardiologist, struggled with not being allowed to work. Combined with the stress of not knowing what was happening to his family in Iraq, this took a toll on his health, and he developed a heart disease that needed an operation.
After two years in Derby, we were granted refugee status. Knowing that we now have the right to live in the UK has helped us to feel much more settled. It hasn’t been without challenges – once he was finally allowed to work, my husband was told at the job centre that, despite being a trained doctor, he had to accept any work he could find, as a cleaner, porter, cashier or anything. We took the difficult decision for him to move to London to be able to retrain and practise as a cardiologist in the UK. The children and I stayed in Derby because I felt it was impossible for us to move again.
Today, I am happy. My husband is back at work, and my children have integrated into their schools well, with high marks. We also now have two more children, born in the UK. I am studying at Derby College and hoping to go to university. In my spare time, I volunteer with the British Red Cross, helping other refugees and asylum seekers who live in Derby to access education, healthcare and asylum support. Although our journey has at many points been lonely, we have tried our best to be socially active members of this society. I’m grateful to everyone who helped us to settle in this country, even if it was just through a simple smile. Meeting other families, whether they were British or also refugees, has helped us to form close friendships and has given us hope for the future.
• Reem Salih is a former refugee from Iraq, now living in Derby