About Refugees, By Refugees

Obaid Allah Alam

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United Kingdom



Osama Gaweesh

We had some big thing in our mind, which was negative things.” Obaid Allah Alam (56) says he was afraid when he and his family arrived as refugees in the UK from Afghanistan in 2001. He says “We were thinking that what will happen to our future, our children future?” but it was important “that we should raise our children for the good future.” He uses the analogy of being in a tunnel to describe the challenge of re-starting life in a new country “If I sit in a tunnel, I will be die in the black tunnel… If I go forward, I will come out… I will see the light,” he says. “I have to work. I have to struggle. I have to do.” He got a job and earned a degree and now his children are also becoming educated. “Slowly, slowly, we built up our life.” Despite his achievements, he says he “still belong(s) to Afghanistan.” He dreams of returning one day, when the fighting has stopped. “My dream is when my country become, when my country become free… and to build my country, to help my people.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

So I’m here in London with Mr. Alam. He’s a refugee from Afghanistan. He based in the UK in London. Mr. Alam, thank you for joining me today.
You’re welcome, most welcome to be in my area in my house. Thank you for coming.

OK, let’s start with the project. It’s called 1000 Dreams. We try to document stories of 1000 refugees among Europe. So if you don’t like the questions, don’t want to answer the question, just let me know, if you want to break or in the interview feel free to let me know. So are you happy to proceed?
Yes, please.

OK, let me start from the current situation. What kind of housing now do you live and your circumstances in London?
OK, I’m self-employed and I’m working and I live with my family here. My childrens, they are some of them in uni, some of them in high school, and some of them graduated from different university. One of them graduated from State College, just one of the best universities in London. And my son he graduated from also this university, I forgot the name now. And he is a civil engineer now. He working in a big project now nearly three years he’s working this and now our lifestyle is good.

Can you describe your life with your family, with your children here in the UK? They are graduated from the university. How do you describe this life?
To be honest, I’m from different backgrounds. When you came here as us all, like other refugees, we had some big thing in our mind, which was negative things. But thanks Allah, It become positive. First of all, when they came here, we were thinking about our children, how were raised here in this communities. But thanks God, as soon we came here because of England is very mixed religions and communities, and we are allowed to to do our religious activity and we pray. Thanks God my son, he is now have his own Quran. He is, and also my daughters, my children now that big thinking was our mind. Where he was was in our mind. Thanks that that’s completed now ok and now we are living very good, to be honest. And in my religion and my culture wise, we are not too much different from Afghanistan. We are very like we and we living together, we eating together. Even though my children, they are have their own house, they’re coming and going and our neighbors, our communities, they are happy with us. We are good, we have good life

Was your life with this good happiness from the day one you arrived to Europe and to the UK?
Oh, no, no, it was too different. First of all, when we came and we were completely new and we face lots of difficulties in term of finding job, then we find job and housing problem. These things was difficult. But after that, slowly, slowly, we get the habit of living there as a normal UK citizen. Now childrens they were in school and we didn’t know the rules and regulation of the schools. But we slowly, slowly they help us, the UK government help us to join the courses. When I came here, I straightaway joined Barnard College. And after when I graduated from Barnard College, I did some course for, to become a professional and professional drive instructor which is called NTI. Then I joined a university, I graduated from Middlesex University in Business Management, and yeah, but slowly, slowly, we built up our life.

When you said that the life was difficult and you faced a lot of difficulties, how can you describe what the meaning of difficulties?
First of all, when we came here our language was now, English was too difficult for us too. When we were going to meet a doctor or we had an appointment somewhere, we had to have a translator. So that things was annoying and also the like, yeah, we were very careful that we were thinking that if we do something a little bit because we didn’t know the law here and anything we were supposed to do and we were thinking about if we were not breaking the law, we are not. This things was difficult. So as you know that when you come from one like third country to the country, which is very built up and everything is completely standard and it just a little bit difficult to face with it, but slowly slowly it is get better.

Regarding the feelings that first and the beginning, the first days, was it fear or is it sadness? Can you describe the feelings?
If it is not discrimination, first in our country, we don’t have a black community around us. And I remember my two children, one was five, one was seven or something like that, yeah, and they scared from the black communities, the black brothers sisters they face with us. Then slowly, slowly that we were asking them to listen. They are very nice people. They, we haven’t seen them. Then now they are the most of my children friends like from Somalia from these countries. Now they are OK. But everything was like fear was, as I mentioned before, that everything was new for us. And the fear was that sometime we were thinking that oh if well we was rejected we will force to go back and this kind of fear was in the behind of our mind. That was completely a point of,  there was a big point, which we were scared from it. And sometimes we were thinking that what will happen to our future, our children future? This is, uh, was a bit annoying.

Did this worrying and constant fear affecting your personality, affecting your life? You came from Afghanistan, from a war zone to a new country and this fear is exist with you?
To be honest, when I came in Afghanistan, I had, as you mentioned, personality, people were coming to me I was like I had brothers. They were expecting me. When I came here, there was no one that the community that I was with, my, with my, in Afghanistan, with my background, with my father was a General. And we had a lot of guest coming to our house and a lot of other like other communities, they were there some problem and between the communities or the people, they were coming to our house. When we came here and we were alone and then and we thinking we were thinking that were we were expecting people to come and visit us and these things but we were thinking that now we are very low people in this country because no one will ask us, no one will respect us like like we were respected in our country. So but when after a few months, when we see, for example, when we are queuing on the bank for, for pay the bill or pay the gas, electricity, and there was a big queue, everybody was treated the same, then we would become happy. Oh, look, there is no problem. These all people they are treating like each other, like this country is a very good chance for the people to be at the same level.


You came to the UK in 2001. This is a war led conflict. You came a few months before September 2001 and the big conflict against Islam, against Muslims. Here in the UK, after these months, the few years in this country, do you feel this people is afraid from you, they are discriminate you or not?
Very good question. Yeah, and I have a very good experience of that. So when I came here, I was very new that 9/11 happened. So then, when I was in the mosque and everybody was talking that now this thing will be a very big issue for Muslims and to be honest, there was some attack attack on Muslims communities happen and people were very… So personally with me, there was no nothing happened to me or to my family. But after that, we will have a big fear of that kind of situation that not only us, all Muslim, they had, they were a very bad situation, but the police was very helpful every time they were calling us, especially on the mosque when we were praying. They send us police to guard to secure the prayer people they are praying. So, yeah, there was a bit difficulty that time, even though now that there are some things happen and they blame the Muslim and even do some after the 9/11 some any problem happened, they blame Muslims. They said, oh, this is because of Muslims happen like that but now after 2015, 16, that’s now people know that not all Muslims

Do feel that the UK, after these all years, is your new homeland?
Say it again, sorry.

Do you feel belongings to this country? Do you feel that the UK is your new homeland or you still belong to Afghanistan?
I still belong to Afghanistan yes. I will never… My my Afghanistan is my country. And I would never think that I’m not from Afghanistan. Yes, I’m in England, I, I live in England. And the UK government help us a lot in terms of education, term of our every help they did us, we grateful from them. And but the what the question is about the country. My homeland is Afghanistan. If Afghanistan becomes secure and Afghanistan, become out of the foreign troops and problems, then I will say it, I will go back to my country?

So you don’t believe that you are belonging to this country?
To be honest I’m now because I’m British citizen. Now, I belong to this country, but at that time of the question, if you say that if Afghanistan becomes secured and there is no problem, maybe a lot of Afghan people, they will go back. They will go to their homeland, but my children will stay there because they’re raised there they know that they are all of them, very busy. They in their education there. they are happy there. When we go some time to Afghanistan and for 20 days, then they think that, oh, they miss UK a lot. Yeah.

You mentioned a lot of difficulties in the first years after you seeking asylum and waiting for the refugee, how did you overcome these difficulties? Anything? Any strategies you did?
Yes. What our, first of all from the first day we start, we not sit and sleep. We start recall  For example I was thinking that if I’m in a tunnel, you know, tunnel, a tunnel,  and if if I sit in a tunnel, I will be die in the black tunnel. Otherwise, if I go, I will find that the light. I will come to the, if I go forward, I will come out from the tunnel and I will be there. I will see the the light otherwise  thought I could be in the dark. Some of my friends, they came the same, I know one or two people they came just two months, three months before me and they just said they not study.  They just said, “OK, I had some benefits and I’m not working”. But I, no, I said I have to work. I have to struggle. I have to do. Thanks God. now I have a degree. I have a professional professional driving school there and people working with me. And the the life is better. If I sit like some people they not struggle, I could be still in the tunnel and I will could be not had my degree or you could be not here to interview me because my because my English could be not this much that I could at least talk a little bit if my English is not so professional, but at least I can sort of.

So it was the struggling, that you will struggle, you will keep doing and keep going. You will never give up. That’s the only mechanism. Any other things you did?
Yeah. And another mechanism which we applied it to have a good future, our family tree, we keep it like like we focused on our children to not become a headache for the government. So that was, that difficulties or this I think, that we raised them on the good way. So that this is that that was our main point, that we should raise our children for the good future. Now, that difficulty or that strategy we use now, it’s now we have a better life.

OK, the question is, do you think that you develop the ability to deal with these difficulties or you always had these skills and this mechanism to overcome these difficulties?
Now, to be honest first, when you have a problem, you will have the strategic or mechanism. You will find it if you have any difficulties. Any difficult things come, well, I told you, we I can’t tell you all because there’s not, a long time ago I forgot to what I did for some situation that we can do to it. But now at least I can say that we went through to the difficulties by helping. I got help from friends, for example. I get help from if I need I had help from people. They already passed that difficulties. And that’s why we also cross that border.

OK, and if we if we talk about the COVID, how the COVID impacts your life in the last year?
Oh, yeah, that’s a really big problem. First of all, on the first week when we hear from that COVID-19 so it was a shock for everyone. It was the same like to me as well. Then when we heard in England, in Chinese, in China and these countries. so we were very worried about it. So the government lock, put lockdown in place and that was in my area as well. So I was locked down from 3rd of March, I think something like that in the March. And for me, I don’t remember exactly the time, we were at home. Then I had I told my children that, listen, in one month or maybe two months, one and a half months, we will be at home. Let’s make a plan for it. We had a plan for it- very good plan. We made a plan. And in the morning we have a schedule like, for example, what should I do in this? Thanks God, you know, in this my house I can show you one day I did seventeen thousand step in this just into a small house upstairs, downstairs, upstairs, downstairs. And also I had some, some I have Quran and to memorize it like surat Al-Hujuraat, amma yatassa-aloon, surat Al-Buruuj I all of them and I had one online class from 11:30 to 3:30, five days a week. That was just I keep that was one was like tahsir. I was listening to them. It was by Zoom meeting. So we were like, I had a plan and my wife also had some plan about Islamic knowledge. She was doing very well. She she did a lot about to learn about Islam. And also my children, they had their class online classes. But thanks God we not have any problem. Some people, they had big problem because for five, we never been at home for this much long time to not go out. Especially for two or three weeks I was at my home. I was not able to come out because I’m a diabetic and now my my other family says we should not go out. And then after three weeks, then I went to park and we are away from some greenest places .

And back to 2001 and years before that date, why did you leave your country?
Oh, there was some political issue. I mean, yes, it difficult. It was difficult for me to live there. My life was in danger this why.

And how was the journey to Europe, to the U.K.?
The journey was, to be honest, we were lucky. One of our families member, he talked with somebody and I was not in that situation. And my journey was when I come out, the guy was with us up to London and they said we asked him where we are. He said from beginning when we get the plane the guy told us, we should just sitting. You sit there, we… Just follow us, we follow them. And we didn’t know where we are. And one one occasion, we were in London and he will disappear. And then we went to police and he said “This is London”. We understand this is London. And I said, look, I don’t know that police understand. They said, OK, you immigrated somebody. I think they caught that guy or not. But he they look for this guy and then we will we had some for six month visa, then they gave us for four years and then they give us full refugees if we just started.

And I will ask you now two questions, and I want the answer like this. My dream was and the second answer is my dream is. So before 2001, where you were in Afghanistan, what was your dream?
OK, before in Afghanistan? Because I…that’s and and.

I’m sorry, Alam, I want to start with “my dream was”. OK, so what was your dream? And I’m going to start…
My dream was to be like my father. My father was a general in the army and best personality and now we’re proud of him and lots of Afghan people are proud of him. So that was my dream to be- to help and build my country.

And now if I ask you, what is your dream?
My dream is when my country become, when my country become free from the fight and from the invasion of the foreigners and to build my country, to help my people.

We almost finished the interview. It’s just the last question. If you sent a message to the UK government and the UK people regarding the way they are dealing with the refugees. What do you say?
First of all, I’m thankful from from government of the U.K., they help out lot in the people of U.K. They help us a lot. I think, in my point of view, they not help us only, they help us all of the refugees. There is can’t see something like that it is to be very negative. They are positive with us and they treat us like like human and they treat us like any other citizen, like a British citizen. If I’m in the in the bank, they are just the same, treating me the same. But they should a little bit more focus on the refugees. If some some of the refugees, they don’t have paper they still living there without paper. Please sort out.  The people that they came here, they are not coming for  for enjoyment. They they they have their country. They have family there. But when they are they are very needy to come there. They have a big problem and back of country, some of them even risk of life. So it is better to to help them to finish their documents and get the paper to stay as a, as a human has, because some of them, they don’t have paper. They are too pressurized.

Thank you very much. Anything you want to add before we finish?
No thank you.

Thank you very much, Alam.

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.