Meet the new neighbours forced to live in exile

December 05 2016

“I am an eternal other. As a woman, as a Kurd and as a stateless person.” This was what Dr Nazand Begikhani told a packed Kingfisher cafe in Fishponds at an event where locals had gathered to meet their new neighbours - refugees from countries in conflict.

“I am an eternal other. As a woman, as a Kurd and as a stateless person.”  This was what Dr Nazand Begikhani told a packed Kingfisher cafe  in Fishponds at an event where locals had gathered to meet their new neighbours - refugees from countries in conflict.

Stranger Stories was an evening filled with tales of horror and excerpts of hope. Part of a series organised by The People’s University of Fishponds, it provided a glimpse of the world through the eyes of those who fled their homes just to survive.

Anti-honour killings campaigner Dr. Beghikani left Iraqi Kurdistan in 1987 to escape Saddam Hussein’s assault on the Kurds.  But her three brothers perished.  “I carry inside of me a lot of wounds of survival,” she said. Deported from Budapest to Yugoslavia, she finally reached Paris, via Denmark, where she studied at the Sorbonne.

Now a research fellow at Bristol University, she told of falling into a deep depression on the birth of her son, whom she named after one of her deceased brothers. She was finally mourning the loss she had endured for so many years. Poetry became her saving grace. “I had to move on. I had to become the voice of my people and those who died. Poetry became my homeland. Through poetry, I am settled. I am myself,” she said. 

Another Kurdish poet, local photographer Houri Ghamian broke down as she recalled her latest humiliation as an exile. After the Brexit vote, the English grandparents of her son asked her when she would be leaving the UK. “Something has gone wrong with this country,” she sobbed. 

Fishponds newcomer Mahsa Aseman, 25, who dare not return to Iran having converted to Christianity, spoke of the eight years it took her and mother to obtain refugee status. Her brother Hassan, who was only 14 when they came to the UK, is still waiting. She said she had been turned away from her studies in Bristol midway through a course because her status forbade free tuition. 

Derrick Purdue recalled obtaining ‘leave to remain’ in the UK after refusing to serve in the South African army during the apartheid regime, way back in 1978. He has since made his life in Bristol. 

Norbert Mbu-Mputu, an exiled Congolese journalist who had worked in UN refugee camps after the Rwandan genocide, opened the evening with a story about the seven years he spent as an asylum-seeker in the UK, including a year living rough on the streets of London. “I got to know all the night bus routes when there was no room in the night shelter,” he said. 

He told of a doomed attempt to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo to see his mother, who had begged him not to risk it. He was quickly picked up by the security forces. “You are stupid to have come back,” said a friend. “We have Google. They know what you are writing on the outside.”

“My mother died three months after I returned to the UK. I haven’t been to her grave,” Norbert explained tearfully.

Over a bowl of chilli, and to music from the Sweet Spokes, the 60 people present discussed what they had heard. A single asylum seeker gets just over £5 a day (£36.96 a week) to pay for food, travel, clothing, toiletries and other expenses excluding housing and fuel bills. That is 50 per cent of the income support British citizens are entitled to.

One man asked: “Can’t we write to our local MPs about the mistreatment of refugees and asylum seekers?” “They know about it. They don’t give a damn!” came the reply.

They were encouraged to support schemes like Bristol Hospitality Network, Borderlands, and the Bristol Bike Project. 

The UK asylum system has become controversial and complex. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 59 per cent of initial decisions in 2014 were refusals. Some 75 per cent of these decisions were appealed with a 28 per cent success rate.  Those for whom it is too unsafe to return home may be granted exceptional leave to remain, which can be temporary. 

Event organiser Kate Brooks said: “It was a privilege to listen to stories, songs, and poetry about the refugee experience. Feedback has been great: people said it was ‘powerful’, moving’, ‘an eye opener'. 

“We hope we can build on this and encourage more communities to be welcoming and inclusive, to listen and learn and benefit from those who come bringing new skills, perspectives and experiences.”

Proceeds from the evening are going to Bristol Refugee Rights and Fishponds Foodbank, and a follow-up event is planned in the new year with a short film.