What's London Like For A Refugee?

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 63 months ago
What's London Like For A Refugee?

'When I was a child, my dream was — before the war — I will grow up, I will complete my studies at a university in the UK. Come here legally to study and live here.' Amir is a 17 year old Syrian refugee who is living in London. In some regards he's living his dream, but it didn't come about the way he expected.

Amir is a confident teenager, recounting his story optimistically. At times he seems almost jovial when discussing incredibly weighty situations but in a way that doesn't minimise their importance.

Fiixaa had a different dream. The 19 year old arrived 18 months ago with a different story. Despite growing up in Ethiopia he doesn't consider himself Ethiopian, instead his tribe is at odds with the country's mainstream culture and regime.

Photo: R4vi

There are so many contrasts in the lives of these two young men. Even the settings for our conversations are different. Amir chats comfortably at the home of the British family he lives with, in their bright welcoming kitchen in suburban north London. There's a spread of white chocolate and cookies laid on by the mother of the family. In Fiixaa's case, we're in a small, minimalist meeting room at a top London law firm, sipping on coffees brought by a receptionist.

Both interviews are overseen. In Amir's case it's by the family's mother — Rachel — who sits on the other side of the room on a computer doing her own work, but still keeping an attentive ear. Accompanying Fiixaa is his befriender — Robert — a volunteer through the charity JCORE that provides one-to-one mentorship for asylum seekers.

'Before the war I lived a normal life, it was beautiful in the centre of Aleppo. I miss my city of course, everyone misses their city when they grow up [and leave].' Amir left in 2015, the entire city was a key battleground for government forces, rebels and jihadists. The war was unavoidable, even as an innocent bystander. Men under 18 are pressure into fighting in the war, with the all sides looking for soldiers (no matter if they're unwilling). So Amir fled and began his journey to London.

'It was a big adventure.' Amir's upbeat attitude even shades his views of his journey from Syria to Calais, one that so many describe as perilous and costs lives. 'Sometimes it's dangerous, sometimes it's scary, sometimes it's good, so I had all those feelings in this adventure.' He says all this with a smile etched upon his face. He's less upbeat when talking about his time in Calais where he had to wait a year, before making it into the UK through the Dubs scheme.

He grew up in a normal family, parents and two sisters. His father was a tribe leader and worked in a political opposition party. He's in contact with his family who are still in Syria. Fiixaa uses the same simple two words on whether he misses home: 'of course'. He speaks briefly but the emotion etched on his face betrays the complex feelings he feels about his homeland that we can only glimpse at.

Before speaking to Fiixaa we've been warned not to ask questions about his journey to the UK or his home life in Ethiopia, for fear it could stir up unwanted memories. He does tell us that he left Ethiopia because of 'political issues', but we don't want to upset him by doing much digging. Whenever we approach emotionally shaky ground it becomes obvious, his answers get briefer and he grows quieter.

The topic of refugees seeking shelter in England — and the entire western world — is one that splits passionate opinion. Some sections of the media take a decidedly aggressive standpoint when it comes to welcoming those forced to leave an unsafe homeland. Others are far more positive with their coverage.

This experience of chasing London contrasts strongly with Fiixaa's. 'I didn't know about London before. I just came with someone else.' In essence it was dumb luck, but once he got here, he was determined to succeed. That was tough considering he couldn't speak English back then: 'I knew hello, that was it.' His English is by no means perfect — often we have to repeat ourselves or Robert repeats what I say back slower — but he's still taking classes today to improve.


They both worked incredibly hard to improve their English, Fiixaa says he read newspapers and menus every day to aid his learning. It's clear he's proud of how far he's come and his conversation is pretty fluid. 'If I'm living here, I have to learn', he intones. 'Nobody can help me here, I have to help myself and then when I help myself, other people will help me. I have to learn this language' he told himself. He says it with unwavering confidence and belief. Amir had some English when he arrived, but still found it difficult when people spoke quickly, but now understands very well.

How different is London compared to the places they'd travelled from? Amir dismisses the notion that they were so alien from each other. 'For me it's not a big difference. Obviously the culture's different, but [it's more important] that I can live here and I can live there.' Fiixaa took a lighter different approach joking about much. He doesn't fixate on it for too long though, 'it's not so bad. I saw Sweden, Scandinavia, now that's really bad. I'm thankful to be here.'

When asked what daily challenges Amir found in London he says: 'There is more opportunity than anywhere else in the world in this city. So if you want to improve yourself you have to work hard. You must fight for your goal.' This drive to succeed is also present in Fiixaa. 'I study to study.' All this studying goes towards his attempts to become a chemical engineer, a goal that predates his time in England.

Photo: Allan Denney

Their origins may be far apart, but the thing the two have in common is how universally positive they are on their meetings with locals. Fiixaa says: 'I saw so many countries [across Europe], and the people here are nice, they are helpful.' He says this wasn't always the case in other European countries such as France and Italy. Amir had a similar experience: 'I went to all the countries in Europe, I never felt they were my right place. When I arrived here, I felt this was the best place for me.'

These experiences clash with a poll from 2015 that claims Britain is one of the least welcoming countries to refugees in the world. That poll is distorted by accounting for the entirety of Britain instead of just London, which believes itself to be a far more tolerant and cosmopolitan city than the rest of the country. However, the hate attack on an asylum seeker in Croydon is a stark reminder that it's naive to assume the city is anywhere near perfect.

Amir speaks as one with wisdom beyond his years on the bad press directed at refugees. 'It's no problem because they didn't know refugees personally, they never met any refugee, they didn't know anything about the refugee, they just hear from the news.'

Fiixaa on the other hand is unaware of any negative press that refugees are receiving, living in a more insulated community. Fiixaa lives in shared accommodation provided by the council with other refugees, who account for most of his friend group. He doesn't admit any struggles in meeting non-refugees, it's just that these are the people around him, so it's natural he gravitates to them.

Amir's situation is different; living with a family and attending a local school, has given him many more opportunities to connect with locals. Despite being repeatedly positive about the city's people he eventually admits that making friends hasn't always been so simple for him, especially when it comes to those his own age. He still finds that people his own age struggle to comprehend what he's been through. That makes sense, a lot of London teenagers are more concerned with parties, alcohol and the opposite sex, rather than moving thousands of miles from a war-torn home.

Amir didn't talk about his difficulties with his peers willingly. Instead it was brought up by Rachel and only then did Amir — slightly apprehensively — confirm it. Fiixaa was similarly reticent. No doubt it takes people who've been through so many struggles time to trust and connect with other, more than one quick interview.

A sign welcoming refugees in Dalston. Photo: Matt Brown

During their time in the city they've had a chance to check out some of London's great sights. Amir's visited the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, while Fiixaa thoroughly enjoyed the British Museum and taking a traditionally touristy view of Buckingham Palace. Amir enjoys playing football and lives with a family of Arsenal fans and has gone to a few games at the Emirates.

Fiixaa then makes a bold claim, on his knowledge of the city: 'I know all of London. When I arrived I'd see it on the map, and I'd just walk there.' Fiixaa lists off a selection of central London locales that he's reached on foot, we feel that his version of 'all of London' is questionable outside of zone two. Nowadays he's given up on his urban trekking, becoming a true Londoner converting to buses and tubes.

We then turned to some more serious talk, the future. Fiixaa claims his is certain. He says he has to wait five years and he'll be granted full refugee status. However, to us this sounds worryingly like the policy where the Home Office considers sending asylum seekers home after five years. Still, he's confident that his life ahead lies in the UK.

Amir is still in the process of applying for asylum. As is true to his nature he's incredibly optimistic, especially considering the current state of Aleppo. However, nothing is guaranteed in this process. In 2016, only 32.1% of asylum applications made in the UK had positive outcomes. Ultimately, they both intend to stay in London and make the best of their lives here.

Fulfilling a dream isn't easy. Especially one which has a conclusion that rests outside what these two young men can control. However, these two young men are doing everything in their power to overcome difficult circumstances — through their drive and optimism — to achieve their dreams.

All names in this article have been changed to protect identities.

JCORE are looking for more 'befrienders' — one-to-one mentors — for asylum seekers. If you're interested, get in touch here.

Last Updated 21 April 2017