UK refugees tell of first moment they felt free after fleeing abuse at home for art show

Hodan Omar. Picture: Caroline Irby

Hodan Omar. Picture: Caroline Irby - Credit: Archant

Imogen Blake hears from UK refugees, who share their traumatic experiences for Islington art show.

Vejdan Efravi. Picture: Caroline Irby

Vejdan Efravi. Picture: Caroline Irby - Credit: Archant

Their stories are like something out of a nightmare.

But for the refugees who have been photographed for an upcoming De Beauvoir exhibition, they are all too real.

Vejdan Efravi, 46, is among those who have been caught on camera to highlight the positive contributions that refugees make to British society for the From Fear to Freedom show at The Proud Archivist, which runs from July 11 until 18.

The Ahwazi human rights activist was arrested and tortured repeatedly along with six others for protesting against the Iranian government aged just 14.

He managed to flee Iran and find his way to the UK in the back of a lorry. Of the seven who protested, he was the only one to survive.

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Now, Efravi works as a mental health nurse, volunteers at a day centre, and acts as chairman of the Southwark Refugee Community Forum.

“From the first day I arrived in England in the lorry, dirty, exhausted and hungry, I felt like a newborn,” he says.

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“Imagine that you have been kept in a cage for years and years, then the door suddenly opens.

“I am safe here. I never felt at home in my own country.”

He and the other refugees were interviewed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Veronique Mistiaen for the show, while the exhibition’s images were all taken by documentary photographer Caroline Irby.

She captured the first moment that the refugees felt free.

For another refugee, who has asked to remain anonymous, that moment was when her one-year-old daughter was born after fleeing the war-stricken Democratic Republic of Congo, where women and girls were being forced into slavery and marriage.

Granted leave to remain in 2014, the 35-year-old is now desperately trying to find work.

“I have worked since I was a child, helping my parents in their business.

“I’ll work anywhere: GP and dentists surgeries, retail, logistics.

“I am grateful for the benefits, but I prefer to own my own money.

“It gives me a sense of dignity.”

The show has been organised by the south London charity, Breaking Barriers – an organisation which helps refugees in the UK gain work experience, find jobs and integrate into the community.

Its chief executive, Matthew Powell, states firmly that neither the charity nor the show has a political agenda, with no comment to offer on the number of refugees granted access to the UK.

Instead, he says the exhibition aims to give visitors an alternative perspective to the anti-migrant stance of the right-wing press.

It’s particularly topical, given that control of migrant numbers was one of the key issues of the EU referendum battle.

“Regardless of whether or not you agree with Brexit, we are telling people’s stories in a very apolitical way,” he says.

“Whatever your view on refugees entering the UK, there needs to be an immigration service that helps them and there is an economic and social case for doing so.”

Though the refugees’ stories are heart-wrenching, the show is also filled with hope and tales of triumph over adversity.

“There’s a huge lack of understanding about refugees in general,” says Powell.

“It’s come into the press with what’s happening in Syria but it means there is a homogenisation of refugees when there are different circumstances and they come from many different backgrounds.

“Refugees are not just from Syria.”

Prints from the exhibition will be taken to schools, universities and businesses across the UK to raise awareness of the issues that refugees living in the UK face today.

Hodan Omar, 27, faced those issues first hand.

She left Somaliland to escape a forced marriage.

But when she was granted leave to remain in the UK, she was rejected from jobs due to her lack of UK work experience. Through Breaking Barriers, she managed to secure a two-month work placement.

“As a refugee, all you receive, all you hear is negativity. Everything seems to conspire to put you down, so you think that maybe they are telling the truth, that you are never going to make it.”

She adds: “But now, I am hopeful I can find a good job.”

From Fear to Freedom runs from July 11 to 18 at The Proud Archivist in Hertford Road.

The interviews with refugees will be published in full in the July edition of the Positive News magazine and online.

This story was amended on September 26 to remove reference to a refugee’s name at the request of Breaking Barriers.



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