What refugees would say to their younger selves

Parisa Hashempour 5 October 2021

Three refugees who've battled unimaginable adversity reflect on the lessons they'd give to their younger selves

What would you say to a younger, less world-weary version of you? For some, it’s an easy decision to warn off bad choices in love, life and labour. When the question was posed to 21-year-old refugee Grmalem, he answered without thinking.

“Just to be in the moment,” he smiled down a crackly Zoom call. His phone vibrated in his pocket and college classmates called out as he searched for a quiet corner to chat, “if you don’t live in the moment, you’re going to miss it all.”

Like all of us, migrants deserve security, comfort and the freedom to simply exist. Yet 70 years on from the UN Refugee Convention, migration is still fraught with misconception. We spoke with three refugees, who share their stories with warmth, candour and heartache. They reflect on their journeys to the UK, and the message they’d send back in time.

What Grmalem would say to his younger self: ‘Live life in the present’ - 

Age: 21

Homeland: Eritrea

An illustration of Grmalem

“I was always happy in Eritrea, but the government own you,” he explains. “Even though I was 14, the army kept coming to try and take me away.” Avoiding conscription thanks to his student card, Grmalem knew that when school ended, so would his freedom.

“My sister was in the army, my friends were,” he explains, “my sister lost four ribs while serving, now she is always in pain.” With only forced military service ahead, Grmalem made the perilous border crossing on an impulse. “All children leave, you just don’t know when. One day you meet your friend in town, the next day they are gone.”

Carrying just a biscuit and a small can of Coke, Grmalem crossed into Ethiopia undetected.“I travelled to Europe with one hundred other people,” he said. “Saw men carry women and children who struggled, and thought, who’s going to carry me? I saw people who were dead, saw bones of people who died a long time ago.”

The most gruelling part of this journey, though, was crossing the Mediterranean Sea, which Grmalem explains he does not yet have the words to process, “I just don’t have English for that.”

"I would tell myself to be in the present, to keep faith, even if it seems like you have no future; you have to work today to make it tomorrow"

After months of arduous travel, Grmalem eventually arrived in the UK and claimed asylum. As a child, he underwent testing to determine his age: “They test you on cooking and ask lots of different questions, then they decide how old you are. I told them I was born in 2000, but they gave me a new birthday in 1999. It’s okay, you just have to accept it,” he shrugs. Now 21 and living in Kent, Grmalem remains firmly in the throes of youth. Bright-eyed and buzzing with ambition, he looks forward to soon starting university to study art.

The message young Grmalem sends back to his teenage self is steeped in the kind of thoughtfulness that so often escapes many of us until later life, “I would tell myself to be in the present, to keep faith, even if it seems like you have no future; you have to work today to make it tomorrow.”

What Kholoud would say to her younger self: ‘Stand by your beliefs’

Age: 36

Homeland: Syria

Illustration of Kholoud

In 2011, Kholoud started Enab Baladi, a Syrian newspaper reporting on the Arab Spring as it unfolded in her homeland. State-owned media meant citizens had little idea of what was happening in neighbouring cities, making her work a crucial asset to the pro-democracy movement.

“I was a member of a peaceful activist group,” she says. “We would walk the streets holding roses and bottled water, calling for democracy, freedom of expression, human rights. But the regime responded with force, starting with electric sticks, then rubber bullets. It only took two weeks for the real bullets to come.”

Soon the arrests began. Kholoud’s brother was taken at 12.30 pm one evening when the family were all home. “The soldiers threatened to kill us all, threatened my mum they would chop her son into pieces.” She has not seen him since.

It wasn’t until 2013 that Kholoud would be forced to leave herself. “We were supposed to meet friends, but two of them arrived early. We phoned to say we were coming, but they told us the secret word—they had been arrested, the meeting was a trap, and we had to flee the country in less than two weeks.”

First moving to Turkey, Kholoud gained a scholarship to study at SOAS University of London in 2017. But when her Syrian passport expired while studying, she was forced to claim asylum. “Surrendering my papers was the most difficult thing I’ve done. I could not leave the country or even work, I felt deprived of my humanity, and at that moment realised there’s no hope for going back to Syria. I lost that sense of being a full human being and I became a refugee.”

"We were fighting for a better Syria, and I only left when the security forces were chasing me. My brother, my friends, they didn’t have that chance"

For her, this hurt most when she heard her father was admitted to intensive care in Turkey. “He had three strokes while I was waiting for my asylum proposal to be accepted, I couldn’t go. Whenever I think of that moment,” she struggles to find words.

“I feel guilty,” she finishes, “I feel my parents have suffered for my activism.” Kholoud counters that regardless of her work, her home was bombed, her city destroyed, and many were forced to flee. “I didn’t ever think I would even leave my hometown, let alone Syria. I thought I wouldn’t mind being killed at home beside my parents.

But in the end, it wasn’t bombs we were fleeing but political oppression. We were fighting for a better Syria, and I only left when the security forces were chasing me. My brother, my friends, they didn’t have that chance,” she says.  

“Despite the hardships, I have no regrets. I would tell my younger self to keep fighting. I keep a motto close to me, written in the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, which says ‘For you, a thousand times over.’ For this cause and the freedoms of millions of other Syrians? Yeah, a thousand times over.” 

What Tina* would say to her younger self: ‘Education is everything’

Age: 43

Homeland: Nigeria

An illustration of Tina*

Tina has fond memories of her youth in Nigeria, of learning to peel yam and plantain when she was five years old, grinding tomato with stone to maintain its sweetness when she was 10 years old, and dancing at the Yam Festival with the other local girls at 15 years old. “My father planted yam, and we grew cassava, pineapples and mango. When a woman knew how to cook, she didn’t have to go to school,”— and so, Tina didn’t.

Aged 27, in search of opportunity but with no education, Tina left her homeland. Promised domestic or childcare work abroad, she was trafficked out of Nigeria to the UK, and the reality of what she faced was much darker. “It is difficult to describe, and I won’t give detail, but it was a very hard, traumatic time. I had to run away from the person that brought me, and sometimes I’m still afraid because I don’t know where he is.”

"Go to school, don’t depend too much on a man and focus on yourself"

It was her time spent in a UK detention centre, though, that haunts Tina the most. “I was there for four months and two weeks. It’s a place I wouldn’t pray for my worst enemies to go, they treat you like an animal.”

Tina recounted a moment in which she was kept in a room for hours with no explanation, when she began to cry she was told by detention centre staff that she was faking her tears. “I saw security men holding guns. Why did they have a gun?” she asks. “I’m not a criminal.” Deportations of newly made friends came often. “They took them in the night and packed them like tuna in cans into planes, mixing Nigerians and Ghanians together. I was so scared I couldn’t sleep.”

Though her childhood love of cooking instilled in Tina the ambition to one day become a chef, she wishes she could tell her younger self the importance of learning. “Focus on your studies,” she says to a younger her. “Go to school, don’t depend too much on a man and focus on yourself.”

A special thank you to iMix, Kent Refugee Action, Migrateful and the Refugee Council for helping to bring this article together.

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