Belfast Telegraph

Refugees from Zimbabwe, Iran and Sudan find new sanctuary in Belfast

What are the stories behind those who have fled conflict in their own countries for a fresh start in Northern Ireland? As Refugee Week continues, Laurence White talks to three people who have been helped by the Red Cross

They are people who have fled persecution in their homeland and sought a new life here. It is difficult to know how many refugees are living in the province - Home Office figures combine Northern Ireland with Scotland - but three years ago it was reported that a record 500 people had applied for refugee status here.

A number of events are being held this week to mark Refugee Week and one of the organisations playing a major role is the Red Cross, which claims to be the only body supporting refugees at every stage of their journey - in their homeland, in transit and at their final destination.

Ann Marie White, refugee support operations manager in Northern Ireland, says: "We see refugees from many countries here in Northern Ireland. Every single person has a different story in terms of what they have been through, how they are coping with enormous challenges in their lives and what they hope for the future.

"The very fact that a refugee has made the huge step to leave their home country in search of a better future and has had the fortitude to endure a lengthy and complex asylum system marks them out as resilient and optimistic human beings.

"With the right support, each of them has a contribution to make to the community in Northern Ireland."

Last year the Red Cross supported around 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Northern Ireland with a range of problems. Here they tell us their stories.

Ronald Vellem (53) is married to Lilian (48) and they have two grown-up children. They live in Belfast. He says:

I left my native Zimbabwe because of the political situation there. My life had been threatened and it was not safe for me to stay there anymore. I was threatened because of my political activities.

I was a primary school teacher in Zimbabwe and when I decided it was time to leave I decided to come to Northern Ireland. A younger brother who had also fled in fear was already living there. Certainly when I arrived in Northern Ireland in October 2002 I found a country very different from my native land. It was cold and wet and the streets seem deserted to me. In Zimbabwe the streets were always teeming with people.

I was seeking political asylum in Northern Ireland and in February 2003 I was granted refugee status. I had to prove to the Home Office that I was fleeing persecution in my home country.

I was not allowed to work until I was given refugee status, and that can make life very difficult.

It also means that when you want to bring your family over you don't have any money to pay for their fares. You will have used up your savings awaiting refugee status.

That is why I am a big supporter of the Red Cross. They were very helpful in making the family reunion scheme work. They helped bring my family over from Zimbabwe, allowing us to be reunited.

I had worked all my life and not being able to apply for a job in Northern Ireland until I got refugee status was difficult.

I volunteered with the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, who were auditing the skills of minority populations in the province.

I then began volunteering with the Law Centre's immigration law support service, and then became a training development worker with NICEM.

I found I was dealing with a lot of equality and legal issues so I decided to do a law degree through the Open University. That took me four years and it was difficult combining studies with my day-to-day work.

My degree and experience led to me getting a full-time paid job with the Law Centre and now I am one of the voices people hear when they ring up for advice on welfare or benefits issues. I also represent clients at tribunals (a co-worker says the Law Centre often deals with complex cases which other free advice organisations cannot handle).

I have really enjoyed my time in Northern Ireland and the people have been friendly and welcoming.

One day I would like to go back to my home country if the situation allows it as my mother, sister and extended family still live there, but I have no plans to leave Northern Ireland in the foreseeable future.

I love my job and find it very fulfilling working for a social justice organisation and being able to help people who may be experiencing difficulties."

Hasna Elsiyofi is married to Mohamed and they live in Belfast. They have no children. She says:

"My husband arrived in Northern Ireland. We lived in Sudan but he was forced to leave. Once he obtained refugee status, under international law he was entitled to bring his immediate family to his new country.

I had worked for a major charity in Sudan, Plan International, and had worked in community development for around 15 years.

My biggest problem in coming to Northern Ireland was learning the language. The local accent and the fact that people here speak very quickly made it difficult to pick up the language. When I was working with Plan International we spoke and wrote in Arabic in Sudan.

I have been here two years and am beginning to learn English. I volunteer with the Red Cross and also All Nations Ministries.

There are many Sudanese people in Northern Ireland. I have been told that maybe 15 years ago there were very few black people in Northern Ireland but many Sudanese have come here because of the worsening political situation back home.

I was elected onto a committee for Sudanese people when I came here and last weekend when we held a celebration to mark the end of Ramadan more than 200 people spent time together. They ate together to celebrate the end of fasting.

I have noticed a huge differences between Northern Ireland and Sudan. Everything seems different - the way of living, the buildings, the relations between people and the way things work.In Sudan I lived with my mother and father when I was younger. There were other close relations there too. If I wanted to go to another person's home I never called them up first, I just went along and entered their home.

Also, people don't live alone in Sudan. If they have no relatives then the community will rally around them and help them. I could not believe it when I came here and found that people were living on their own in flats.

Life was much livelier in Sudan. There was a lot of noise and children played in the street and there seemed to be marriages every day. In Northern Ireland after 7pm the city seems to be dead, especially in winter.

I still have family in Sudan. If I had come here as a young person I might have thought that I would stay here for ever. I am still trying to find my way here but my emotions are still in Sudan. Sometimes I see things happening here and I have a flashback to life in Sudan. Fortunately I can stay in contact with my family through social media. That is great.

I have never experienced racism in Northern Ireland but I have heard of other people who have been called names or told to go back to where they came from.

Often it is easy to ignore or dismiss those sort of insults but I always tell people if there is a serious incident they should report it immediately to the police in case it develops further.

People who are refugees here come from very tough situations and all they want is to be able to settle here with their families."

Avdolhamid Shalhavizadeh is married with one child but did not want to give the names of his family. They live in Belfast. He says:

I came to Northern Ireland in October 2016. I had not intended to come here as I had hoped to go to Germany. I lived in Iran but had a problem there and had to leave - I don't want to go into details - so I fled first to Turkey and then moved on.

I have been blind since I was aged nine. I could see a little before that. When I could see I played a lot of football for my city in Iran, but that ended when my sight went.

I used to think that maybe in the future I could see again and that I would be able to play again. Then one day a friend telephoned me and said that they had started up blind football in Iran and would I like to play it. At that time I was very excited.

I have always been very sporting. As well as playing football, I have a black belt in karate. I was the first blind person in Iran to be awarded a black belt.

I also played blind football in games in Turkey, Japan and Korea, and our team won gold and silver medals in those competitions. I came to London in 2012 to compete in the Paralympics but injured my leg and was unable to take part.

When I first came to Northern Ireland I thought of very little. I had just wanted to get out of Iran and to find somewhere safe for me. Later, however, I began to think again about starting a blind football team. I might have to start in England. Every day I go to the gym and train and hope that I will be able to play in one of the English teams.

However, Northern Ireland is now my country and it is very important to me that some organisation would support me in establishing a team here.

I have to praise the Red Cross. They helped me with everything and enable me to live here. When I came here I had problems about where to live, how to get a GP, where to go training and finding some sports organisation that could help me. The Red Cross have good people. They help others not just because that is their work but because they treat them like friends. They made me feel like a friend rather than a client.

I have also found the people of Northern Ireland very friendly. I find I have a connection with people when I go anywhere. In any country there are good people and bad people, but in Northern Ireland I have only found good people during all the time I have lived here"

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