Our guest the asylum seeker

Raza was left destitute after he was refused asylum. But then Hannah Atkins came to his rescue – by offering him her spare room

The journey to the warmth and safety of this end-of-terrace house in Manchester has been a very difficult one for Raza, a Kurd from a small village in Iran. He fled in 2007, arriving in northern England with no money and speaking no English. After his case for asylum was refused, he lost entitlement to any support and then spent a bitter winter sleeping in a park and seeking shelter in a church.
Last week, we wrote about four asylum seekers who were living in barely imaginable destitution after their cases were refused. Many readers expressed their horror and wondered how to help. There are charities that work with destitute asylum seekers, though, of course, their funds are minimal, and there are not enough to help all the people who are rejected by Britain’s asylum system.
The Boaz Trust is a Christian charity that works in and around Manchester. It places failed asylum seekers with people who have offered their spare rooms – for anything from an emergency overnight stay to several months at a time – as Hannah Atkins, a 28-year-old singer-songwriter, did. She sits on the sofa next to Raza, 23, who is in the process of appealing against the decision against him, and helps him with his English as he explains what brought him here.

He had worked as a shepherd in the fields around his village since he was 10. One day, when he was about 19, some Kurdish political activists approached him and asked him to take their Kurdish-language newspapers back to his village. He did this a few times, but then someone tipped off the police – there have been many crackdowns on dissent in the Kurdish regions of Iran, where human rights abuses are numerous, and being a member of Kurdish opposition parties is punishable by death – and they went to his house to arrest him.
“I wasn’t there,” he says with help from Atkins, “but they took my father, brother and sister. I haven’t seen or heard from them again, and I don’t know what has happened to them.”

Somebody managed to get a message to Raza, who was in the fields working, that it wasn’t safe for him to come home, or even stay in the country.

In 2007, he came to the UK in the back of a lorry, ended up in northern England and claimed asylum. For a while, he stayed with friends he had made, but had to leave after his case was rejected on the basis that there was not enough evidence that his life was in danger; staying with his friends, also asylum seekers, would have put their cases at risk too. After this, all his support was stopped and he was left destitute. Sleeping in the park in Bury, he ended up with hypothermia and was hospitalised for two weeks; it has left him with long-term health problems, such as a constant ache in his side, and his shoulder often seizes up.

It is thought there are around 300,000 asylum seekers in the UK whose claims have been refused, and a large proportion of those are destitute. “They are faced with the choice of staying in the UK and being destitute, or returning to their country,” says Jan Swift, refugee programme director for Amnesty International. “Many are in fear for their lives if they go back. It is a horrific situation to be in. They are not allowed to work, which is why many will resort to illegal work.”

Raza isn’t the first asylum seeker Atkins and her husband, a music producer, have hosted. An Eritrean woman, Elisabeth, came to stay with them for four months last year until her case was approved, and a week after she moved out, the charity arranged for Atkins to meet Raza, who has lived with them for seven months. They had a spare room, but weren’t in a financial position to give it out for free, so their friends clubbed together to cover the rent they would be losing. “I think it’s a great way to work it, because you might be somebody who wants to help, but you don’t have a spare room,” Atkins says.

“We got on with him really well, he has a great sense of humour,” she says. “People say, ‘Aren’t you worried about giving a stranger the keys to your house?’ But you have to decide to trust someone from the start, and we just really liked Raza.” None of them knows how long he might stay – he is trying to get fresh evidence and a lawyer to help him with his appeal, but this will cost upwards of £500 and Raza, of course, has no money.

“Although he is legally allowed to stay while he appeals the decision, he can still be deported at any time,” says Atkins. “Sometimes he goes to stay with friends for a couple of days and I worry if I haven’t heard from him.”
For Atkins, it’s an insight into the way things are stacked against someone trying to prove they have a legitimate right to claim asylum in the UK. “His case is so hard to prove and the government requires so much evidence,” she says. “You’re guilty until you can prove you are innocent. But when you’re fleeing for your life, you’re not going to stop and collect evidence – documents, photographs – to prove your case.”

An arrest warrant for Raza was smuggled across the Iranian border by a friend of a friend, who risked his own life, but British officials said it could have been forged. One day, Atkins herself received a phone call from the police. “They basically frightened me,” she says. “They said, ‘How well do you know the man staying in your house?’ Pretty well, I said. They said they wanted to speak to him, but wouldn’t tell me what it was about.” When she called back, she was put through to a department investigating sexual offences.

“It turned out they had completely the wrong man – the man they wanted had a different name and date of birth. It was as if they hadn’t even checked they had the right person, they just went for someone with a similar name, and I’m sure some of that was racism on their part. It makes me so upset when I hear people saying awful things about asylum seekers.

“They don’t understand that they wouldn’t be here if they could go back to their home country. He had a house, a job, family, friends. Here, he has nothing. It’s like he is imprisoned here.”

Raza echoes this. “[In Iran] I worked for myself. I had a house, my own money. Here, I’m not allowed to work,” he says. “You can imagine why people are forced to work illegally,” says Atkins, although Raza hasn’t taken that route. If he needs clothes, his and Atkins’s friends buy them for him, and he eats at home with Atkins. When he first arrived in the UK, he spoke no English and enrolled on a college course but as soon as the government stopped his support he had to leave. Now he can’t afford to take another class, and his literacy is very low – he didn’t go to school – so he can’t teach himself from books. “It is very hard,” he says. The days are difficult if the others are working and he doesn’t have anything to do. “Sometimes I’ll just go to bed in the day, or I’ll watch TV.” He smiles and looks nervously at Atkins. “I am very, very happy to be here. I love it here, but it is very hard. What can I do? I can’t do anything.”

Atkins helps him with his English, but the benefits of their living arrangements are definitely not all one way, she says. “Obviously, we have days when we’re down but it puts our lives in perspective – we have our friends and family around, we have everything, materially, we could want. Raza’s circumstances are awful, and yet he’s so chirpy, he gets on with it. We just really admire him.”

A short while later, I hear from Atkins that Raza has been offered a place in a house with other Iranian asylum seekers by the council. He didn’t particularly want to leave Atkins and her husband, but if he didn’t take the place and the meagre support that was on offer – around £30 a week in food vouchers – he would have slipped through the system again. Even now, he is still under threat of deportation. “We were gutted that he couldn’t stay with us,” says Atkins. “We had a little goodbye dinner and he gave a really moving speech about how leaving us was like leaving another family, and that he would never forget what we’ve done. We’re really sad he has gone, but it’s a step towards Raza getting a bit of independence back.”

Emine Saner
The Guardian, Friday 25 June 2010