Refugee Voices in RACE Centre Archives

blue background, pattern of white line drawings of people, plants and animals and the word healing

[Healing – Nima Javan illustration for Refugee Week 2022]

Part Two: Refugee Experiences

Written by Annie Dickinson and Maya Sharma

This is the second part of a two part blog that marks Refugee Week 2022 by exploring refugee voices in archive collections held at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre. The first part introduces six oral history collections that put refugee voices front and centre. This blog looks in more detail at some of the personal stories recounted in those collections, sharing excerpts in which refugees talk about the situations and experiences that forced them to flee their countries, the difficulty of arriving in a new and unfamiliar country, and the new lives and communities that they have built.

Leaving Home and Becoming a Refugee

‘People who came to this country they didn’t come to this country just easily. It wasn’t to get money. The problem was war and it was misfortune, that is why every body is looking to surviving, every body demanding safe place to survive.’ (Anonymous Somali refugee, GB3228.41, The Distance We Have Travelled)

For those of us lucky enough to have grown up in politically stable countries, it is hard to imagine what many refugees experienced, in order to make them flee their homes. The refugees whose stories are documented in RACE Centre oral history collections come from many different countries and backgrounds, and all of them have different reasons for coming to the UK. One point that is repeated by many different individuals, however, is that the decision to leave home, family and friends behind to seek safety somewhere new is never easy, and in many cases is not a choice at all but the only option left to protect oneself and one’s family from violence or persecution. This powerfully counters the sadly common narrative that people choose to come to the UK for its supposedly generous benefits system and NHS.

In the excerpts below, refugees describe how and why they were forced to leave home and start a new life in a foreign country.

Bledar Bujupi came to Manchester from Kosovo aged 13. Here he describes living under siege and how he and his family were forced at gunpoint to leave Kosovo. They escaped to Macedonia before being sent to the UK.

‘So you look out of the window and you see houses on fire in the distance, for example. The food: food was quite a tough one because if you are in a sieged city, the first thing that would happen is that the food would run out. Because the adults were not allowed to go out – we as kids, me and my brother, would have to go, I think I went with my gran once […] if a soldier saw an old woman and a kid they probably wouldn’t shoot.

[…] we had 24 hours to leave. They would load us on trains to take us out of the country. We were took to Macedonia, which is a neighbouring country: a train full of people. […] So we went to Macedonia, to refugee camps. And then each country had to take x amount of people. So we were picked randomly from the British government to fly us to the UK. And that’s what happened. We got a letter saying that you’re going to get picked up on Monday to go to the UK.’ (GB3228.53 Voices of Kosovo)

In the Memories of Partition collection, Amarjit Singh Ghura describes the traumatic experience of having to flee the part of India that became Pakistan, aged only nine:

‘We had to leave our house and I came with my dad, holding his hand. And I was really very scared because Muslims were killing Sikhs and I could see their swords with which they were killing them and I was very very scared. My dad thought they was only going overnight so they just took the clothes that they were wearing. They left everything, all of their jewellery. Money, house, land, everything there. […] When we came to India everything was lost.’ (GB3228.77 Memories of Partition)

Coming to Manchester and Seeking Asylum

After travelling hundreds or even thousands of miles, many of the refugees whose stories are recorded in our oral history collections arrived in the UK, an unfamiliar country, feeling exhausted, scared and unsure about where and how they would find a home. For those of who have not had these experiences, the excerpts below show some of the emotions involved and also tell us about what people need to feel settled and at home in a new place.

An anonymous refugee who came to the UK from Somalia describes how difficult she found her first few days in the UK, and the importance of food in adjusting to life in Manchester.

‘I was very, very, very scared the first day, very scared. Seeing people, you know the way they dress up differently, they talk differently, they eat differently, and I was different. […] So I had to be told you know that soap is here, there is a microwave where you can put your food in and have your dinner. It was all surprising thing for me to be honest. I got adjusted, because I couldn’t eat, you know, the English traditional meal, potatoes you know, lamb chops, baked potatoes and stuff, I couldn’t eat those at first when I came because I’ve used to rice and Ogali [maize milk], and those are things that you know fill our belly. But now I eat the English food and I enjoy it to be honest. You know, it’s not spicy, not hot, very healthy.’ (GB3228.41 The Distance We Have Travelled)

For many refugees, the difficulty of adjusting to life in the UK is compounded by the process for seeking asylum in the UK. The system is drawn out, with many people living in limbo for years on end awaiting a decision. Many asylum seekers report being questioned heavily about their reasons for leaving and challenged about their accounts, a process which can create fresh trauma.

This Congolese refugee, interviewed anonymously as part of the Lisapo project, explains how difficult it can be to understand the asylum process:

‘We arrived in this country in 2005 and it was difficult to understand the immigration process. At the time we were asylum seekers and there were no suitable services to help us understand what to do next. We used to go to Refugee Action for help but sometimes you would go there and they would have no interpreters so it was very difficult.’ (GB3228.24 Lisapo – The Congolese Tales)

If their application for asylum is refused, many asylum seekers find themselves destitute, with no right to work nor to claim welfare support, despite having a legal right to appeal the decision. The stereotype that seeking asylum is an easy process with doors opened readily is at odds with the reality of the system.

Pink badge with black text: Oppose Racist Laws fight the tory immigration proposals
GB3228.35 Badge Collection

One of the participants in The Distance We Have Travelled, who came to Manchester from Kurdistan, describes the painful experience of being held in limbo whilst appealing a denied asylum claim:

‘I’ve been trying everything, nothing working, they’re just telling me, “You are safe, you go back home.” I don’t know how those people, they are thinking, if my country, it was safe, I wish to go back home straight away now. […] You see, it looks like I’m in-between; I can’t go home, I can’t start my life here.

It’s very hard, you understand me, because I’ve been here five year. I can’t go back home, because it’s very dangerous, my life there, and even here I can’t start my life because there is not any option for me. No passport, no work permission. I can’t go to uni, I can’t study, I can’t get married, I can’t have child, I can’t nothing.’ (GB3228.41 The Distance We Have Travelled)

Finding a Community

As the excerpts above show, many of the refugee stories in RACE Centre oral histories include painful and traumatic memories of fleeing home and finding a less than hospitable welcome on arrival in the UK. Alongside these, we also find countless examples of refugees coming together to support each other and build a community.

For example, the anonymous Somali refugee, who previously described how hard it was to adjust to life in Manchester, talks about her work to help those in a similar position:

‘My aim and target in future and what I’m doing now is to try and help the community as much as possible. I do voluntary jobs, like you know teaching people who do not know English, who came to this country to claim asylum. So I do help people from different countries.’ (GB3228.41 The Distance We Have Travelled)

The oral histories contained in the Manchester Refugee Support Network collection demonstrate the dedicated work carried out by refugees in Manchester to provide a network of support, help and community for refugees and asylum seekers, by those who understand their specific needs.

Poster for Manchester Refugees Cultural Festival  at Manchester Town Hall 30 November 1996
GB3228.57/3/1/1 Manchester Refugee Support Network Collection

Tendayi Madzunzu was a founder member of MRSN. Here, she talks about the importance that community work and being able to help others has had in helping her to feel empowered and that she belongs here:

‘I have lived here for twelve years now. So yes I feel, I feel part and parcel of where I am because I want to make, to make a difference and to participate. And no one can stop me except myself. And that’s a choice which I, a conscience choice that I make, yeah’. (GB3228.57 Manchester Refugee Support Network)

While so much of a refugee’s journey, from the violence or persecution that forces somebody to flee their home, to the confusing and dehumanising asylum system in the UK, removes a person’s agency, for Tendayi, being able to help others restores some of that agency.

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Transcripts and recordings of many of the oral history interviews discussed in this article are available to access at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre on the lower ground floor of Central Library. For more details please visit our website or get in touch with us by email at [email protected].

You can find out more about the history of refugees in Manchester by reading this blog, published in Refugee Week 2021.