One Community: life as a refugee in Leeds

There are around 15.2 million refugees around the world and an estimated 195, 000 in the UK. Alarmingly, 80 per cent of refugees are hosted by developing countries. In the UK, an adult refugee receives just £36.62 a week. An unemployed UK citizen of the same age would receive £67.70 a week. Figures like this dispel the negative stereotype of asylum seekers and refugees ‘coming in and living off the government’.

It can be difficult to hear the word ‘refugee’ and see the individual behind this broad term. According to the charity STAR (Student Action for Refugees) a refugee is “someone who is in need of protection and would be at risk if they returned home”. This is often associated with having fled danger; but, of course, each individual refugee has their own story.

STAR began in 1994 and is a national network run by student groups working to improve the lives of refugees. The charity is mainly exclusive to students. This works well due to the time, energy and enthusiasm many students have to offer, meaning the refugees gain full support and attention.

The Leeds branch of STAR hold classes on a Wednesday and Saturday for refugees. The One Community Centre houses the Wednesday class and has around 40 volunteers in total. Development co-ordinator of the centre, Rachel Pilling said that there are an estimated 10 to 15,000 refugees in Leeds. However, this is a rough estimation, due to the fact that refugees have mobility once they have moved to the UK. When visiting during a Wednesday class, I spoke to Pilling about the aims of the centre and STAR. The major focus of what they do is to offer the refugees support in their new country and environment. This means helping them settle in and find out about life in Leeds. It is also important for a refugee to maintain their cultural identity because although they may have left distressing situations, their culture is still integral to who they are. Inevitably, an identity crisis and conflict of cultures may occur, yet with the help of organizations such as this, they can maintain their original culture whilst assimilating with their new culture. The centre has large refugee communities with individuals from places such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Iran and Iraq.

Francesca Heatherson, a co-ordinator for the Wednesday class and a student at the University of Leeds, told me a little about what the volunteers and refugees do during the two-hour sessions. The students and the refugees introduce themselves and begin with an informal chat. The reins are in the hands of the refugees and they are given the opportunity to do what they want to do. This may include practising their reading and speaking but many of the refugees also go to college and so bring along any work they have from that. Interestingly, Heatherson said that one woman told her she prefers the STAR classes to college. This is due to the sense of community and one-on-one time that is offered at the centre.

It is crucial that although the students need a rapport with the refugees, they still maintain a professional relationship. STAR has relevant protocol sheets and rule guidelines in place to prevent any issues that could easily arise. Whilst the relationship between refugee and student should not be a friendship, it should not be formal either. The most important thing to avoid is asking inappropriate questions, considering the refugees have left distressful situations and so prying too much would be insensitive and could cause upset.

The Saturday class takes place at the Little London Community Centre. The meeting is a lot more structured, with worksheets prepared each week for the students and refugees to work through together.  The two hour session ends with a meal cooked by volunteers for both students and refugees. There is a strong community atmosphere at the Centre.

A young male refugee from Sudan told me about his time in Leeds since moving here two years ago. When he was first here, he understandably missed his friends and family and found it extremely difficult to adjust to a culture so different from his own. However, he came to enjoy living in the UK with the help of organisations such as STAR. He has been going to the Little London centre every Saturday for a year and a half and believes it to be a “good class with nice people”.

There is a widely held but misguided assumption that refugees and asylum seekers leech off the government; but on the contrary, many go to great lengths to improve their English and gain employment. The aforementioned Sudanese man has successfully done so and has happily worked at a bakery for a year. This is something which can be commended, given the difficulty of finding a job even for native English speakers who have lived in Britain for years.

An older North African man told me of his move to Leeds two years ago. He had no choice but to move here as he was under threat, due to a civil war in his home country. He assured me that he did not come here for financial reasons but because he “needs peace”. Thankfully, he finds Leeds a friendly city and enjoys living here. Having lived in six cities before, he hated London because of the chaos. When asked about his employment status, he told me that he used to work in a French restaurant in Sheffield but is now unfortunately too ill to work. He appeared disillusioned by those who claim that employment is impossible to find, claiming that if a person wants to find a job they eventually will.

Although he could not speak English when he first arrived in the UK, he has been attending the weekly Saturday class for a year now, and in that time has learned a great deal. He is still enthusiastic to improve even more and believes that he will be able to do so with the help of the classes. He also attends English classes at Park Lane College. Although he is settling in Leeds comfortably, he told me of his desire to visit home again: “I don’t like the government there but I want to go back to see my mother. I have family in France who I would like to see them again also.”

As a student, it can be easy to ignore the unseen people in Leeds and become consumed by the student lifestyle. However, there is a lot more to Leeds than club nights and takeaway deals. Interacting with refugees enables a more subjective and personal perspective of the reality of what it is to be labelled a refugee. Although the 15.2 million figure is staggering, it is crucial to understand the individuals behind the statistic. Organisations such as STAR raise awareness and make the issue accessible for students. The question is not ‘what is a refugee?’ but ‘who is a refugee?’.

words: Steph Muldoon. Photo: russelljsmith on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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