About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Omair wearing a suede coat and a beret, standing with his hands clasped

Omair Ulhaq

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:

United Kingdom



Zozan Yasar

“When you have love that overcomes fear, then you don’t think of me and you – it’s us, because you are as much me as I am you,” says Omair Ulhaq (39). An artist from Pakistan, he has been living in Scotland for 21 years, but his citizenship is pending: “I’m still waiting to be fully free… It’s not that easy [to wait] more than two decades of your life, of your prime time, of your youth.” Omair could not see his parents for 12 years, and at times wanted to crawl “into a hole.” But his deep friendships helped him to“motivate [himself] and just keep going, despite the difficulties and hardships.” In spite of these challenges, Omair has formed a deep connection with Scotland’s culture, “whether it was Celtic carvings that I was teaching people… or Celtic knot work that I used to demonstrate at festivals.”  “have little land to live on where I would experiment with building huts, but quite artistic, quirky huts… that I could call home.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

Okay. So, what kind of housing do you live in?
It’s a flat share, like a big flat share, several of us living together. And we’re, like, quite an international flat, Italy, Poland, Bulgaria, England, Scotland, Pakistan. So there’s people from, like, you know, different parts of the world. And it’s a shared accommodation. We rent rooms separately and have to just join in for bills and stuff.

How’s the conditions of the house? Is it good?
Yeah, it’s pretty good. Well I mean it’s, you know, it’s about a 150 year old building and it’s not really had that much work done to it. But I think, you know, the kind of people that we are, and the kind of people it attracts, which is a little bit of, sort of, more bohemian alternative sort of crowd, we prefer to have this with an old vintage sort of feel to it, than something, you know, all modernized and with laminated floors and all that sort of stuff. So yes, there are a lot of things that can actually really improve, like my room’s quite freezing most of the time, and all the rest. But I enjoy being in the space, which I guess is important. 

That’s good. Yeah, I can see, like it looks amazing. How do you spend your time here? Do you work or do you do something else?
Well, I had been working until, obviously, the pandemic began. So at the moment, I’m not actually, I’m just working on some personal projects which is a lot of writing, and all that sort of stuff. But before, the last thing I was doing before the pandemic began, was selling my artwork. So that was kind of pretty much my full time job, which was just a hobby that turned into a source of income. But it sort of changes, you know, every so often, what I do, because for the past 12, 13 years I’ve turned my hobbies into my sources of income. So yeah, so it was, I’ve always, you know, made money from whatever I happened to be doing and enjoying doing at that time.

Cool. What are some of the things that bring you joy? And what makes you really feel good?
Music, making music, listening to music, but music as in a sense, like, live music. So we have a lot of sessions in our flat, a lot of us are musicians and — but also connection with people, you know, which I guess is quite important. Music is the transcendental source to the divine. And I guess so is the opening of the heart, and actually making some real true connections with some of the people around you. 

Good. How has life been since you arrived here? And what has been good for you? What has been bad for you?

I guess it’s a really long question [laughing].
Yeah, it’s 21 years of answers in there. But in a nutshell, you know, it’s been a rollercoaster. Have had some incredibly beautiful and amazing times, and also some really dark and difficult times. But I guess, you know, in the end, it is all those put together that make you the person you turn out to be, so I’m thankful for the person that I have turned out to be. But it’s been a mixture of some incredibly enlightening and happy moments, and also moments of just a lot of darkness and difficult times actually, especially in terms of immigration and my status in the country, in which I’ve had to fight for many years and all the rest.

Can you describe how living here has made you feel?
In Scotland?

I often describe to people that Scotland has served as my mother and my father and as my guide. So Scotland has shaped me in many ways, and it’s a home and will always be home. So the experience of living here, how it’s been, that’s your question?

How it makes you feel? 
Well I have, you know, quite deep connection with Scotland and Scottish culture and it’s, I’m sure, one of the things that have contributed to it is my time being spent in a place called Galgael in Glasgow which is a very unique center that holds a lot of old Scottish traditional craftsmanship at its heart, and teaches that amongst the sort of unprivileged and, you know, people with troubled backgrounds in a poor neighborhood in Glasgow. And as well as having a general interest in Scottish culture as I believe to immerse myself in every culture that I go and live in, I did immerse myself fairly well but Galgael really shaped it, and you know, those values into quite good characteristics that I still carry with me and that was the connection to the land and the history and its culture and its people, and it’s not a surprise that some of my friends would say you’re more Scottish than I am. So whether it was Celtic carvings that I was teaching people, and I’ll show you [inaudible] or Celtic knot work that I used to demonstrate at festivals or generally just been really interested in the old folklore stories and folk music that even, you know, sadly, and unfortunately, even many of the young Scots don’t even know about those singers and those people because that culture is, you know, slowly dying. So I would generally say I have quite a strong and a beautiful connection to Scotland at many levels and in different ways. So now when I — you know, sometimes I would if that’s, if I’m doing something and someone asks what I’m, you know, what am I doing? I would point it out and tell them, well that’s from the Pakistani side of my culture, which is where I’m from, or that’s from the Scottish side of my culture because I have two cultures, they’re very embedded into my heart.

That’s so cool. So let’s talk about a bit your home country and then family and being away from all of them. How how it makes you feel being away from your family, your home, or like you describe a lot of things actually in your previous answer, but the feeling of belonging or discrimination, how can you describe this? But first let’s talk about being away from your home and then belonging.
It’s been difficult at times and it hasn’t really bothered me at other times because my friends have always played the role of my family, which you know, helps a lot to be settling into a new place if you’re surrounded by warm, welcoming and good people. But you know, don’t get me wrong, I have had times when I felt very lonely and I felt almost in a prison. And so it’s yeah, it’s had its tough times. But I guess that’s life.

Yeah, I understand you. It’s difficult, even sometimes 25 years pass away, but your feelings sometimes don’t change. I definitely understand you.
Actually, you know, my parents are quite old now so I don’t think, you know, I don’t know how much time they’ve got left and I’ve spent very little time with them, because of being here and having immigration issues and not being able to see them, not being able to spend time with them. At one point I didn’t see their faces for 12 years. So, to be honest with you, it actually breaks their heart and makes them cry a lot more than it does to me. Which makes me more sad for breaking their hearts and making them suffer because they cannot spend time with me.

How can you describe to seeing them after 12 years?
It was a strange feeling. It felt very foreign to start with. Yeah, it’s almost like you are from two entire different worlds, but coming together. But it was – the joy of it was just indescribable. You know, being able to hug them after 12 years. I mean I actually even didn’t even see their faces literally.

Okay, if you want we can stop or if you want I can carry on, you okay? Okay. Could you ever imagine that you would have been able to handle this situation that what all happened to you, or how have you been able to overcome all these difficulties?
Sorry, can you repeat that question again?

The question is: so your’re 21 years being away from your family and everything, all these difficulties behind you, could you ever imagine that you would handle all this difficult situation? Because I still can see just like you, alive and struggling and then also like staying strong and how did you overcome all these difficulties? And did you think that you’re that strong to overcome all these difficulties? Handle it? Because I have my own experiences, like, so many times I felt that I fell you know, and then I failed, and then, like, which is really sometimes difficult to express and explain so, but sometimes you feel so weak that you cannot handle that situation anymore and then you come and then start from the beginning, you find something that motivate, you find something make you stronger or I don’t know, like there are things that make people to stay alive you know to stay, continue to keep motivated, to continue otherwise. Otherwise we would find ourselves in a dark place.
You know, I have felt strong at most of this time, and I guess otherwise I would have been quite broken in pieces, because you know, it’s been 21 years and I’m still waiting to be fully free and to get my citizenship and the rest. So it’s been very difficult because it’s not that easy to be waiting all the time and waiting so many years, more than two decades of your life, of your prime time, of your youth. So yes, there have been times when I just wanted to crawl and just get into a hole somewhere. But I guess the good people around you sort of, you know, good friends around you are quite a good tool to motivate yourself and just keep going, despite the difficulties and hardships.

So were you strong? Were you feeling more strength and strong before or do you think you develop your, that one like in this fighting way all the way?
Sorry, can you repeat your question?

Did I develop this?

So let me ask direct from here, do you think that you developed an ability to deal with these challenges, or do you think you always had those skills, strength, this mechanism or resilience?
Definitely didn’t have it from before. And developed these skills just as the tough times came and yeah, learning along the way just to see how to handle and, you know, learning more by making mistakes.

Good. Let’s talk a bit about COVID-19 and how has COVID-19 affected you in terms of your daily life, your mood, your feeling?
Mood, feelings, or work?

Everything like?
Work, in terms of work, I can’t work anymore. I mostly sold my artwork to tourists and there is no tourism in Edinburgh anymore. Other than that, I practice holistic therapies which, you know, locals are my clients, but you cannot see people for that at the moment as well. So, I mean I’m kind of pretty not being able to work at the moment, but I’m actually enjoying this time because I normally work, I love to work hard, and I could be working for, you know, 10 days, sorry 10 hours a day and seven days a week for a long time. But not being able to work now and having all this time has given me the opportunity to slow everything down and you know, take my time and work on some of the things I couldn’t work on before because I was working so hard. So now I have a lot of my personal projects that I am really enjoying doing, such as writing poetry and hopefully short stories soon. And experiment with different art mediums and making some more music and things like that.

Sounds cool. So let’s move into talking a bit about your past. And when you leave your country, can you describe what happened?
I was, I came here to study. So, it was in September 99 that I applied to come here. I actually grew up in a boarding school for 10 years of my life from the age of five. So I was quite used to living by myself and then at one point, I had to move back in with my parents and I just couldn’t cope with it, so I decided to go somewhere abroad and I ended up being in Scotland.

Okay so how did the decision make you feel? Like how in that time, how do you, what do you remember about your feelings?
It’s a, you know, a strange bunch of feelings and emotions in a sense that, you know, when you’re going to a new place and everything is strange and everything is foreign and everything is new, and you don’t know what you’re stepping into. But there’s a thrill in that also, which is why I, you know, I love traveling now because you don’t know what’s round the corner. That makes life more interesting.

Good. Do you have something particular to tell us about your journey to the UK and anything [crosstalk]. Do you have any something that particular from your journey to the UK? First time when you come here and anything that you tell us?
Not really.

You don’t remember.
Well I mean, I do but there’s, like, nothing that was, like, that exciting or interesting in that. It was just a simple old plane journey. I was actually planning to go to Germany first. And there was a guy who was working in a German consulate and he would tell me about how amazing Germany was, like all the time, and then I was like, okay I’m gonna go study in Germany, but then my, you know, my friends and family around me, they said, hey you have to learn German first if you want to study in Germany and I thought, I will do that. And they’re like, well it’s not that easy of a language you know, why don’t you just go to an English speaking country because you speak English already? So I ended up actually coming to Britain, but the actual plan was to go to Germany.

Oh, interesting. [Pause]. So there’s one question I want to understand more because we talked that you said that your friends and something that about music and things, but I want to open more in details. What are your strategies to stay strong, or like stay motivated and every person, every person has different strategies in their life for different things. So what makes you really like strong and to stay strong or to cope with difficulties?
That’s a good question. I quite like the Buddhist philosophy of, you know, being in the present and not be constantly living in our past and our future because that’s where the misery comes from, that’s where the suffering comes from. So I try to enjoy just today or just this hour, or this minute, but you know, it’s easier said than done, it’s not always that easy to do, especially if you happen to be going through a lot of grief and and sadness and, you know, once again I would often turn to my friends and get– you know, try to spend time with people that really raised my vibrational energy to a higher level than bringing it because grief and sadness and anger and jealousy and hate and all these things bring your, sort of, your vibration frequency lower. Whereas, you know, love and compassion and all these things bring it up higher. So you know, there’s certain people that just have that around them all the time and luckily I happen to know some of those people and I just always, you know, go towards them to, as a strategy. And personally, you know, I really for years tried to avoid conflict and really it’s just not a good feeling as we, you know, as well as I do [not] like being in a not a nice place, in a dark place and if I can do anything to avoid it in the first place, you know, I would choose to do that. But I guess, you know, circumstances in conflict are something that you cannot run away from as I’ve learned in my life, wherever you are, you’ll find something.

Exactly. So every new journey opens for new fighting of new conflicts in our life. So it doesn’t matter how strong they are or how difficult they are. So, I have, like, some questions about your dreams in past, in present, and future and, yeah, how you come up. Before you left your country, what was your dream? When you answer, could you please tell that, My dream was:
My dream was to get a decent job and a decent career and be, you know, quite well settled within a few years of coming here and none of them came true. [Laughing]. But the dreams changed. So it’s a good thing that they didn’t come true because those are not my dreams anymore.

So when you were leaving your home, what was your dream for the future? Basically you answered both, they’re so similar. Yeah, so let’s go on that the other one. And I’m gonna wrap up all the questions. And then to see like before leaving your home country, what would you describe as your strength? And have you maintained that one, because you were quite young or little when you left?
I was 18, yeah. I guess people skills, very good people skills and I would say I got much better at it at those skills over the years. But then there have been times, like times, difficult times when it just wasn’t, that skill wasn’t very good as it had been the other times. But I would say for sure that people skills is one of my strengths and still is one of my strengths.

Good. Yeah, what you have been through seems difficult. And do you feel that you have grown in any way as a result of all these experiences and anything positive came out of it?
I’ve grown enormously. Really, nothing else but growth is all that’s happened. I guess it’s your experiences that really, you know, turn you into the person that you turn out to be and what you learn from them is what really grows you and, yeah I have learned a lot over the years and having that understanding of not only just the political and philosophical and social and you know psychological state of affairs of the world but actually having their impact on myself and then having that connection with myself and observing myself within all this has not only connected me to myself more but also has grown me in a magnificent way.

Good. What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I wanna —

Can you say, My dream is.
My dream is: one of my dreams is I want to have little land to live on where I would experiment with building huts, but quite artistic, quirky huts made with natural material – wood, mud, stone, cob, you know, straw, just a whole lot of different natural materials and make these little dwellings out of it that I could call home. But I could actually grow and maybe keep some livestock and be more connected to the land.

Good dream. I hope it will come true.
It will in the next couple of few years. I’m on it.

I appreciate all your answers and is there anything you would like to add that might help people in Europe better understanding of like people coming to this country, refugees.
It’s a difficult one. I – you asked me if there’s anything I would like to say to people of Europe actually about people coming to this country.

Yeah, and about their like, view of refugees and migrants.
Well, you know, it’s an interesting dynamic that we are in the world at this day and age, in these times, because, I don’t know, at one point in our history, at somewhere in our history, you know, we think, something interfered with our conscience and that has, or maybe it’s been always like this, but I doubt it – actually I’m sure there have been many ancient communities and societies and practices who have lived very much in harmony with not just each other but with their environment. But for us, we’re so influenced by so many negative factors all over, including in the media. In fact, very much so in the media and from the governments at times that we base our opinions and our understandings of sometimes the little texts in the articles or just a couple of things that we read here and there, not really fully understanding actually what the story behind it is. And then we can come up with very strong opinions and very strong understandings of something. Which I’m not thinking there’s anything wrong with but at least I have come to understand that a lot of those things are very subjective and they don’t, at least for me, don’t hold the space very well. So in a society where we think that one person is below another, that a woman who lost all her kids in Afghanistan is anything less than the Queen, there’s something fundamentally wrong in that society. And you know, clearly something needs to be changed and needs to be improved. So, you know, people, wherever they are, whatever, you know, happiness or difficulties they go through are human beings, wherever they are. 

 And it’s the love that keeps us, you know, together. And when you have love that overcomes fear, then you don’t think of me and you – it’s us, because you are as much me as I am you. So by hurting you or thinking of you as inferior, all I do is hurt myself and think of myself as inferior. 

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.