Report by Patricia Earle
My dear friend, Luljeta, founder of the Shpresa Programme, suggested that I organise this evening event in June, to connect with the United Nations ‘Refugee Week 2021’. It seemed like a good idea, and in the end around 130 people joined the online Zoom Meeting, and were able to hear the very moving, real-life stories of 6 people who came to the United Kingdom as refugees.
Each person could only give us a brief glimpse into the difficulties they faced, in their home country, on their journey to these shores, and after arrival here. But it was enough to deeply move our hearts, and to realise the greatness of these, and countless other people, who have had this kind of experience. Each of our six speakers arrived in the UK with next to nothing, overcame many challenges and difficulties – cultural, language, legal and financial, and gradually rebuilt their lives to the point where they have been able to help others, with both practical and moral support.
Eugene described the fear and terror of the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990’s, fleeing with his family, then finding himself alone. Managing to re-unite with his family, having to relocate to several African countries, and finally arriving in the UK in 2005. Having established himself here, he has been able to help and encourage others, particularly young people from the Rwandan community, to find a sense of value and purpose in their lives.
Reza left war-torn Afghanistan, like many other young men, and made a long journey to the UK, via numerous countries and surviving several dangerous border crossings. In this country he married Velimira, originally from Bulgaria, one of the countries he passed through on his journey, and they have 3 lovely children. He is self-employed, has established several businesses, and has been able to help a number of people in this way, from both within and outside the Afghan community, as well as being a source of much wisdom and practical advice.
Liri described the difficulties in coming from a very chaotic situation in Albania, and then the personal and legal difficulties she faced in Britain.
She had to attend countless hearings in order to be able to finally stay and have stability in her life. She has done a tremendous amount of good work, particularly in fostering children, and on a return trip to Albania with WFWP was able to talk with Members of Parliament there who expressed an interest in introducing foster care into their country!
Next, Shenaz described in some detail the incredible pain and trauma of being forced to leave Uganda by former President, Idi Amin. Her family had set up a very successful business, and were making a valuable contribution to the country’s economy, together with around 50,000 other people of Asian origin. Suddenly, all those Asians without Ugandan passports were being told to leave within 90 days, take one suitcase of clothes with them, and just £50 per family! Hard to imagine. Arriving here all those years ago in 1972 as a refugee, via Ireland, Shenaz is now Chair of Interfaith at the Clifton Road Mosque in Birmingham and, as Vice Chair of the Birmingham Council of Faiths, she will soon become the next Chair of the Council of Faiths. How wonderful!
Margaret, having fled from a terrible civil war in what is now South Sudan, shared that one of the biggest challenges in the UK has been raising her 5 children in such an unfamiliar culture, allied to the fact that she herself was not so familiar with the English language. She has managed to do that, have them receive a good education, and is so proud of them! She also expressed her appreciation for being able to attend the Women’s Peace Meeting, where she was made to feel very much at home, and could make friends with a wide variety of other women, including several from Africa.
Finally, Mohsen described the trauma of being a teenage child-soldier, on the front line with his schoolmates in the Iran/Iraq War, having to leave Iran in search of true freedom and a new life, and arriving in Birmingham with nothing other than his dreams and aspirations. Gradually bringing his family to the UK, he rebuilt his career in art, has taught and inspired numerous children over the years, and been able to showcase his beautiful paintings at more than 70 national and international exhibitions.
In the second part of the evening, Luljeta gave a graphic description of the exodus of so many thousands of Albanian people into the diaspora.
Following the collapse of the former Hoxha regime, with dramatic images of people desperate to board ships which would take them into the unknown, in search of a new life. She spoke movingly of her work with such people, and the help and support which has been provided by such initiatives as the Shpresa programme. The true heart and spirit of the Albanian people shone through both her and Liri’s presentations.
After some lovely comments from Nazia Hussain, a British-born Pakistani who has also done so much good work with refugees here in Birmingham, we concluded a remarkable evening by hearing a few words from Ruth, an elderly Jewish lady and dear friend who arrived in Britain, after escaping Nazi persecution at the beginning of World War II. She reached the remarkable milestone of 100 years old in May, and we were able to finish on a high note by everyone offering her their most heartfelt congratulations!