About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Esam's side profile

Esam Alesaei

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United Kingdom



Omama Zankawan

“My dream was to have a country where I can live safely,” says Esam Alesaei (33), from Yemen. A human rights activist working with HIV-positive refugees in his home country, he describes himself as “a person who was about to be persecuted or maybe killed, detained, put behind the bars, jail.” He left his family and friends to seek asylum in the UK. “Being away from my family is extremely difficult,” he says. “Some nights I cry and I cry a lot.” The past also continues to haunt him: “I have nightmares that they caught me and they put me in jail and it’s very difficult for me, it’s affecting my mental health.” In his new home, where he feels safe, Esam explains how he “coped by keeping busy” and draws strength from meeting new people: “I know that I’m strong […] I’m capable of handling anything.” Now, his dream “has been changed from the dream of just living to be a positive addition to the UK.” His biggest hope is to “have a good job, start a family here who don’t have to be scared.”

Trigger Warning: Health Discrimination; terrorism

full interview

Hi Esam, my name is Omama and this is a Witness Change project called 1000 Dreams to collect the experience of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe. So I’m going to ask you some questions. And if you don’t feel comfortable answering any of them, you can just tell, you don’t have to answer, okay? So, can you tell me what kind of housing are you living in? With who?
Yeah, I live in a, in a flat that’s rented privately from my company and, and I live with my wife. I’ve been, I’ve been living in this flat for – since October – so, so far, let’s say maybe five months so far. Yeah. That’s, it’s a nice flat, two-bedroom flat with the living room.

OK, so, how is, how is, like, how do you spend your life here in general and in the UK? Do you work? What do you usually do?
Well, living in the UK as a refugee, especially someone who came from the UK – sorry – from Yemen, is a bit difficult. And now with Covid, it’s, it’s even more difficult. I spend my time, all of it, inside the flats. So my flat is my world. And then, and, with my wife, don’t go out because of the restrictions and before Covid and I, I only know a few people in the UK, so I don’t have any gatherings except for rare occasions, that’s all.

OK, can you tell me what are some of the things that brings you joy or makes you happy?
Yeah, so, many things.

OK, and start with some of the things that bring me joy for full answer.
OK, some of the things that bring me joy include going out for a walk in, in the nice weather in the summer, traveling, uh, whether inside or outside the UK. I’ve been to different places in the UK. We, um, Cardiff, [not audible] I enjoyed these travels. I enjoy the day when I receive my pay. Yeah, everyone does, not only myself, I enjoy purchasing things from Amazon. You only wait for a few hours next day. It’s in front of your door. I enjoy the most token to my family. And yeah, these are the main things that I enjoy.

OK, so how was, how has your life been since you arrived to the UK? How was it?
Uh, it was, it was a relief to know that you no more under threat, your life is not on, on the line anymore. You are in a place where you are protected, at the same time, you feel homesick. You miss your family, those who you left back home.

Yeah. OK, so, I know you’ve answered this maybe, but just to clarify, what’s been good about being here and what’s been difficult about being here? And you can do a full answer.

Like you can say, “Since I came here to the UK, some of the good things…”
Yeah. Since I came to the UK, some of the good things include safety, equality, humanity. You feel you’re a human being. Um, opportunities, diversity. English language. So many things are very good about this country, uh and the country. Loneliness. Expensive life and cold weather. Yeah, feeling homesick. These are the ones that have been difficult for me.

Okay, can you describe how living here has made you feel? Like, talk about your feelings about living here in the UK.
Living in the UK, not only for me, for I, I, I believe that’s for everyone, is…

Talk about you, your feelings.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. But anyone in my place and myself, I’m talking about myself and stuff in the beginning. So living in, wait, what’s the question again?

How is living in the UK makes you feel. How does it make you feel?
Yeah, living in the UK makes, makes me feel, as I said, safe. That’s in, in my case, that’s the most important thing. I was a person who was about to be persecuted or maybe killed, detained, put behind the bars, jail. But here, I feel safe. And also happy. That I’m not in danger anymore, and, and belong. This country makes you feel that you belong to it, from the equality, from the respect, from the equal opportunities, from the diversity. These things makes you feel that you belong and you’re willing to give back to this country.

Okay, so how does being alone, away from your family, makes you feel?
Being away from my family is extremely difficult. Some nights I cry and I cry a lot, especially when I talk to my parents who are old, elderly, with no health care and in Yemen no one to take care of them, because I was the only one who used to take care of them. And then, uh, and, uh. And a little girl, sister, who’s now in her teens age, so I miss them and I cry. What was the question?

How does being away from your family makes you feel?
Okay, away from your family? Alright okay, yeah… Um, so being away from my family makes me feel… sometimes it’s very difficult, sometimes makes you feel sad, depressed and not stable emotionally. I miss my parents. I cry some nights. Well, ideally, I need my, and I need my care – I used to take care of them. I have a young sister whom I used to take care of. So I feel lonely, feel homesick and miss them very much. And that’s how I feel. Being away from, from the, from those whom I love.

Okay. Could you ever have imagined that you would be in this situation, like being away from your family? Umm…
I have never, ever imagined that I would grow up away from my family.

Okay, could you, could you ever have imagined that you, you would have to be able to handle the situation? And how, how did you overcome this? Like the feeling, the loneliness, the homesick. How did you overcome this?
Uhh, well, I know that I’m strong, I know I can, I’m capable of handling anything. But regardless of that, it’s very difficult to be a refugee. It’s very difficult to have to cope and live, continue living in another country that you did not grow up in and, and, and to be away from those, you know, from those you love.

How did you overcome this? Like to cope, to being lonely?
It was difficult. And I tried… how I coped to deal with these obstacles was was very difficult. I tried in the beginning to make a network of those who are familiar, who, who share with me the same culture, same background. So I try to connect with friends from, from Syria, from Somalia and also from Yemen. But still, they are busy in their life. And we don’t share, however we share sometimes. But everyone has their own, has their life and has their own trouble. So that’s one of the techniques I used, also contacting my family through WhatsApp calls or anything like online calls, video calls, spending time on the Internet, reading and studying hard, getting learning new things. Yeah, this is how I overcome that one.

Okay, do you think that you developed the ability to deal with these challenges or do you think that you already had those before you came here?
I, I developed these techniques and abilities to deal with the, with such challenges in there, here in the UK. I never encountered such a thing. I never imagined that would be in such a situation. So I just learned these techniques with difficulty, here in the UK.

Okay, and how has Covid-19 affected you in terms of daily life and your feelings, emotion and well-being?
Covid-19 has impacted my life negatively, so it went from bad to worse, the symptoms of loneliness comes off of human interaction in terms of the freedom of, of networking with the others. It’s been very difficult coping with Covid.

Okay, do you want to take a break or are you fine?
Yes, take a break.

Yeah? Take a break? Okay, just a minute. Okay, let’s, let’s carry on, okay? So, can you tell me why did you leave your country and what happened in… yeah?
I, so why, why did I leave my country in the first place or when did I apply for asylum?

Whatever you want to say. Yeah. Maybe you can talk about that. Yes, if you want.
Yes, I’ll talk about these two things, because these are two separate things, yeah?

So I left Yemen because I came to the UK to study Masters. I was selected in a scholarship called Chevening by the government of the UK. And I came to study Masters in Public Health. That’s why I came to the UK. By, but what made me apply for asylum is because before I was a student and before even the scholarship, I was a project manager working in a project funded by UNHCR to provide her services and protection for refugees, mainly women and children in Yemen. And in my job, there was a number of those refugees who had HIV and I was chased by the, by the security, but by the intelligence, the Yemeni intelligence to provide them with the names of those refugees so they can detain them or maybe kill them.
And I thought by living the UK to study here, by leaving Yemen to study here in the UK, that when I go back to Yemen, the case will be forgotten and I wouldn’t be noticed when I go back to Yemen. So it’s now no danger. But I, I spent some time here in the UK and in April I missed my beloved, um, friends say they wanted to get married to her. So in April in 2019, that’s about eight months after I came to the UK, I went back to Yemen to get married to my wife. But when I, when I arrived and after two days of being home, the security in Yemen, the intelligence – National, National Security, they are called, I mean the exact translation, which is the intelligence – came to my home one day, they, they were searching for me. And that’s because they wanted to put me in jail because I did not provide with them the lists of the names of those who had, who had HIV.
There was an increase in Yemen in the number of HIV-positive cases. And they blamed that to me, blamed that to the refugees, although it’s not from the refugees. And I, and I had and I still have, this belief. That those who have HIV have equal opportunity and have the right to live anywhere in the world, wherever they will live with equality with everyone else. It’s not their problem that they have HIV. I think it’s the world’s duty to find a cure for that disease.
Yeah, so, and this is why I decided. So I came back to the UK, I left. I did not, unfortunately, I did not have a chance to have a wedding party. And I left the country without having the party, they have waited for my whole life. And I dreamed of, for years, to have that wedding party with my beloved person. But, I, I left, I did not spend time in my country, did not have that wedding, came back to the UK. And when I came back to the UK, I was, I was still thinking maybe those Houthis, those insurgents who control Yemen now, they are rebels and they took power by, by force. I thought that they wouldn’t stay in power, but unfortunately, they are stay in power until now. So when my visa was about to expire, I applied for asylum.

Okay. And how did that make you feel at that, at that time?
Do you mean when I was in Yemen?

No, like, when you applied for asylum, and going through this.
As I told you, I was waiting for things to change in Yemen, that didn’t happen. And I had two options, either to go back to Yemen and be detained, persecuted, or stay here in the UK and be relieved and relieved and secure to be safe. So I decided to apply for asylum and I did. And when I did, I felt secure. I felt relieved. I felt that I was untouchable to those criminals, to the Houthis.

Okay, and do you think about these events often, like when you left Yemen and when you came here and then when you decided to apply for asylum, is there something in particular you think about often? Like some particular event that you keep remembering or thinking about?
Yes, I remember that I did not have that wedding party. I remember when I used to be surrounded by my family, having lunch on the same table with all my family members. I remember the times when I was chased by the intelligence. I remember when I was threatened by the intelligence. Sometimes I have nightmares that they caught me and they put me in jail and it’s very difficult for me, it’s affecting my mental health. But I’m overcoming that one and I remain strong. I keep myself busy, so I don’t always remember such things.

Okay, so yeah, that was my next question. What do you, what do you feel when you think about that?
Well, I feel that, I appreciate the, the UK, I appreciate that I have been lucky, that I had the country that has these rights, the right to apply for asylum and the right to be protected. So it’s a mixture of appreciation and, uh, safe. And… let me say it, somewhat… Tell me, what is the word. Tell me in Arabic, I can… I forgot, even in Arabic, [foreign language].

Ah, really appreciate?
Not appreciation, no, no, no, another one.

Grateful, yeah. I’m grateful.

Okay, so, yeah, you can say that.
Uh okay, I want the question again, please.

Yeah, you are saying, like, the question was, what do you feel when you think about that, about the situation that you faced?
Um, when I, when I remember what happened to me, and I feel grateful to the UK. I appreciate that I’ve been very lucky, that I had the chance to come to the UK and apply for asylum and also grateful that there are these rights in the UK and I feel safe. Sometimes I feel frightened, but more safe. Frightened when I think of what could have happened to me if I was forced to go back to Yemen. What if my case was not found to be legitimate and was not a good case to be eligible for asylum? Yeah, so this is my fear.

Okay, so could you have ever imagined that you would have been able to handle the situation, the whole situation, like when you were in Yemen, when you were chased by these people and then applying to asylum?
I, I never imagined that, I mean, seven years ago, five years ago, I would never have imagined that such a thing would happen to me. The country for several years has been ruled by, and the servants rebellion, vicious militias, which are the Houthis. It’s a, it’s a terrorist organization, it has been designated by the US as a terrorist and as a foreign terrorist organization, and yes, since they started rule in Yemen, I imagined this and I imagined the worst. I imagine that they would do kill people, any people, any men who just don’t agree with what they say, don’t obey what they say and any people that are different from them, just being different and being a target victim. So I imagine that, but I did not imagine that I would be very lucky to have a chance to go to the UK and be safe.

Okay, thank you. Uh, how were you able to survive or to get through this situation? Do you have any kind of strategy, coping mechanism to get through difficult times or difficult memories? Where do you find strength and support? We can answer it one, like, question by question. So, how were you able to survive or to get through this? And what is your strategy or coping mechanism?
Yeah, so I coped by keeping busy.

Keeping in touch with the beloved persons. Building relationships and networking here in the UK, getting to know people with the same background like support group, refugees, talk to each other, support each other, these that help, and also talking to my family members back home, that helped me overcome this difficulty.

Okay, thank you. So, before the event that led you to flee your home, okay, what was your dream? And you can start your sentence by, “Before I left my country, my dream was…”
Before I left my country, my dream was to have a country where I can live safely. That was my dream, I did not have any more dreams. The only dream I have, I had then, is to be safe. And this dream is, is accomplished now.

Okay, so when you were leaving your home, what was your dream for the future? And also full answer.
When I was leaving my home, my, my dream for the future was to continue living. Living for me then was a dream, but living safely with dignity, having a dignified life. And that happened by arriving to the UK.

Okay, so, before leaving your home country, what would you describe as your strength and have you maintain those strengths? How? Yes, no?
The strength is to decide to apply for asylum. However, you know, you would, you would not be able to see your family again.

Yeah, but my question is, before leaving your home country, what would you describe as your strength?
Ah, before leaving my country, my strength was not to surrender, not to share these names with the criminals, with the Houthis. So that was my strength.

So can you say, like, your strength was, like, how would you describe it as a strength? What is the word for that, do you think?
My strength when I was in Yemen before leaving to the UK or fleeing Yemen to the UK is not to listen to the Houthis, not to listen to those criminals. Is to be determined to protect the refugees in Yemen, to those who had HIV.

Okay, so your strength is determination.


Okay, what else?
And courage. Courage to say no to those who are in the power.

Okay, do you think that you have maintained this strength?

Okay, and how?
When I was in Yemen or until now, you mean?

Until now, like you, you still have, you said you have determination and have courage.
Yeah, these are, these are qualities I have. I mean, these are things that I had in the past, and I will continue to happen until, until I die. So these are my qualities. These are part of my responsibility and my personality, sorry. Determination, courage, helping those who need help.

Okay, thank you. So what you’ve been through seems to be really difficult. Do you feel like you have grown in any way through this situation?
I feel I have grown in age, like one year here is like ten years when you’re away from your family. I, I, I, I developed abilities to cope with difficulties, difficulties being alone. It’s something I never encountered in the past, so I developed the ability to cope with being alone and also to remain strong without being supported but socially by the family members and friends.

Okay, so is there anything positive that come out of this experience? What are the positive things that you think come out of your experience?
The positive outcome is to have that trust in the, in the refugee policies in the UK when they gave me the asylum, right to stay this country. So that’s the positive outcome. The other positive outcome is to, to meet people from different walks of life and different backgrounds and ethnicities and getting to know new people and learn about the difficulties the others have faced. I mean, sometimes learning of the difficulties the other people encountered makes you feel strong.

Okay, and what are your hopes and dreams for the future now? And full answer.
My hopes and dreams now?

For the future.
For the future, are different from those I had before fleeing to the UK.

What are they?
My… So it has been changed from the dream of just living to be a positive addition to the UK, to contribute to the country that gave me asylum, to be a good citizen, to work in this country and to protect this country if needs my protection.

Okay, any other dreams and hopes for yourself?
Um, for myself, my, my, my dream is, to can, to have a good job, start a family here who don’t have to be scared of, of the government, of the authorities who should provide them with protection. This is my biggest dream.

Okay, thank you. Um, is there anything that you would like to add that might help people in Europe to understand the life of refugees here? Anything you want to add?
I want, I want those in Europe who would read my story to know that refugees are not people who came to this country for economic reasons. And refugees came here because they had no other option. They had the option either to live or die. And they need support. They have faced enough in the journey. No one would, could, no one would be able to take them. And yeah, that’s all.

OK, thank you. And the other thing, you want to add any comment, any anything.
Just thank you for having me.

Thank you.

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.