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Sanctuary Ambassador op-ed: life as a refugee in the UK

This article has been written by Sema*, one of our Sanctuary Ambassadors.

My name is Sema, I live two lives. In one I am a high-profile human rights defender and political activist. In the other, I am a refugee.

I’m a human rights activist from Syria. I ran for my life and sought sanctuary in the UK.
Since being in the UK I have spoken at meetings at the Foreign Office and at events at Chatham House. I have worked with Amnesty International and have supported research led by the London School of Economics.

I haven’t told anyone about my journey to the UK, the hell I experienced as I waited for a decision on my application, or how I now struggle day by day just to make ends meet

Since 2011, I have worked on documenting violations against detainees and forcibly disappeared persons in Syria, paying special attention to women and children and the unfair impact of arrest on them. I have been documenting, recording and reporting acts of sexual violence against women and people in detention centres, as well as courts, especially the Military Court. I made sure to document the violence from all sides and groups in Syria, the main culprit being the Syrian government. Talking against them was very dangerous, but a must

The world wanted to hear about my results. I spoke about the violations that I documented in many conferences and occasions, most notably in 2014 at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict at the invitation of the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom, in 2016 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York about war crimes and the pursuit of justice in Syria, at the Human Rights Council :The Human Being in Geneva, the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Berlin, in Paris, in Edinburgh and many others.

After a particularly star-studded event, I missed the return flight and while I waited for the next flight, the officer at the airport said to me, “You’re Syrian, why are you coming back?” At that time in 2014, there was no doubt to me that all the places I lived in were temporary and would not be a substitute for my beautiful home.

I fought for Syria, and I did not want to become a refugee.

Soon after that, my sister and her son were arrested and disappeared for two months, they were detained, tortured and asked about my work. I tried desperately to find them, but the intelligence agents mocked me and only released them after paying a big ransom.

In late 2017, I received several threats to my life. So with only 12 days left on my visa, I fled to the UK and applied for asylum. I closed my Facebook account and didn’t tell anyone about my trip, the anger, or the hell I went through while waiting for an asylum decision.

I thought that arriving in the UK would be an end to my constant stress and anxiety and an opportunity to continue my work in a safe environment. I was so wrong. The confusing and heartless asylum system prolonged my suffering. I thought I would be welcomed, I was even worried about feeling pity but at every turn I was made to feel like a liar, undeserving of help.

I initially spent two days in a dirty hostel before being moved to another hostel in Birmingham. We were given tickets for food, which was horrible – had to wait in a long line for a bad meal and it was dehumanizing and I couldn’t help but think of the Syrians in Rural Damascus, Homs and elsewhere who were trapped and starved in their hometowns before fleeing, only to be offered this if they managed to reach safety in the UK.

We were not told anything about where we could wash our clothes or who to talk to if we had a problem.Weeks passed with me slowly learning how to manage life in the hostel. I was interested in helping the new arrivals and introducing them to the place to shorten some of the suffering. I remember a woman who just gave birth. She was alone and had to do everything for herself, slowing the healing process. I brought her meals. She was very grateful for that.

I felt like a trapped animal, and helping others was the only way I could find a purpose and move through the days.

We did not know who to talk to if we had a problem or were harassed. There was a guy who would hang out outside the hostel trying to get the girls to go with him on certain nights to work at a club and earn money. We all knew what that meant, but some decided it was OK to have a better meal than the one we were forced to eat at the hostel, and they went with him.

I remember a week when we had no hot water for six days. It was early January, it was cold.

My experience of the suffering of detainees in Syria in inhumane conditions made it easier for me. But I kept thinking, what if a survivor of detention was here, how would this affect their mental health?

When I left the hostel in Birmingham, I was sure that one day I would return to volunteer there and help the officials to understand these problems.

But could I? I’m so busy just staying alive now.

Finally I was moved to the Northeast, where I lived in a house that was closer to a hostel than a house. Once again, the accommodations were crowded, filthy, and lacked privacy, with lodging officials entering the house whenever they wanted and without warning.

Of course, you do not have the right to complain, you are Syrian, and the officials would not let us forget this when or if we ever complained about anything, no matter how small, and told us that we have to thank God because there is a roof over our heads while other Syrians are in camps.

My day ends very early. As soon as the time for the mail arrives – about ten in the morning – hope ends when prayers of receiving a letter from the Home Office are not answered.

We were ten women, at least three with serious psychological problems, two of them were victims of human trafficking, and one of them tried to commit suicide. I found her behind the room door and took her to the hospital

I did not feel for a moment that I could relax despite the remoteness and isolation of the place. One morning I opened the door to my room to find that the Immigration Department had raided the house to take a girl in the next room for deportation.

I can’t forget the look in her eyes when she was put in the back seat and the car moved away.
Eight months later, I finally got my refugee status. Three months later, my request for family reunification was approved.

Despite all this, I am fully aware of the privileges I have. As a Syrian, I got asylum much sooner than many. I met and even lived with people of other nationalities who have been waiting for years, and I was able to reunite with my family, which I am very grateful for.

No one should go through what I have gone through, work must be done to reform the system, not to legislate unjust laws.

The Nationality and Borders Bill, the UK’s new plan for immigration, will make things even worse for people just like me. Rather than judging a person’s need for safety, decisions will be based on how the person arrived into the UK. I know all too well that when you are fleeing for your life, there is no time to spare and you need to use every means to reach the end.

Instead of seeing people like me as a threat, the Government needs to lead with compassion.

Please join me and take a stand against the cruel Nationality and Borders bill.

*Sema is a pseudonym

Learn more about Sanctuary Ambassadors here.