About Refugees, By Refugees
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“My dream is to leave an impact, I mean leave a positive impact in any field, on my life or on the lives of others,” says Rasha Youssef (33), who arrived with her husband in Britain in 2012 to do volunteer work. When war broke out in her birth country of Syria, they were unable to go back: “I felt that I was forced to stay, because I had no choice to return… I had to start a new life.” For Rasha, this wasn’t easy; she missed her life in Syria. Applying for asylum was an “exceptional event,” she says. “It robbed me of myself… and turned me into a stereotype for the world.” People treated her differently, but: “I am the same person, I haven’t changed, only my legal status changed.” Rasha has since rebuilt her life, going back to university and starting a new career. Today, she works on resettlement projects for Syrian refugees: “Since I became a refugee, I wanted to work in this domain because it’s related to me and it could give me the chance to change the stereotypes about refugees.”
During COVID I discovered that I have a great passion for DIY, interior design and things that can be created. I started painting my house, making changes, I mean, the amount of possible changes I can make at home, I tried to fix the sink, install the cabinets, and install IKEA’s furniture. I felt that this has given me a lot of meaning in COVID, it was one of my coping strategies. I started to read more, and I bought books about interior design. Now I’m trying to turn it into a business because now we are moving to a new house and I am doing the plan from scratch. So, I planned the whole project which is my first one as a person who is not specialized in this field. It gives me a lot of excitement and fulfillment to work in interior design and I also have an Instagram account to upload all before and after, as well as during the work. It is one of my dreams that I will be an interior designer.
By the way, I noticed that, but I didn’t want to rush.
This is a new hobby, which means I was not before into it. I used to arrange things but not to this degree. Now I discovered…
No, God willing. I am very curious to see the new house when it’s done.
Let’s go. I will take you to the new house but now it is a building site. There are not a lot of things. Background designing and advertising was my full time job, then I worked as a photographer, after that, film making, I’m already working as a movie photographer.
After all, I’m a photographer, I’ll show you my Instagram which I consider as art. Let’s say, I don’t want to be employed in photography, because job times force you to do things that you…
Of course, it’s nice that the social media world is no longer necessary to be employed. You can do whatever you want.
Freelance okay, but I mean I used to work, I worked a lot in NGO and worked in channels such as Al Jazeera before I came here. I traveled a lot with NGO, I used to make ads for them. I always keep photography to photograph things that I really like, not to be ordered by someone to take photos or I choose the client or the client requests and I agree.
Here we only have a few questions related to your experience or arrival in Britain. Let’s make them a matter of discussion. There is nothing that has to be delivered in some way. Tell us about you first, I mean, who are you and where do you live?
My name is Rasha Youssef. I arrived in Britain in September 2012. I came to Britain to volunteer and then the war started in Syria and a lot of problems, we ended up staying. Do you want to speak English? I have no problem providing you with a translation.
It is not me personally who will do the translation.
Okay, there is no problem.
I don’t have a problem either way. What do you prefer? If we chat in English, I can open an English form for you only if it’s easier for you. No, it’s not better for me. If I listen and focus with you, let’s keep it in Arabic.
Yes, let’s make it in Arabic, focus with me in Arabic, but I have no problem either way.
No, let us use Arabic and get it done. Let’s take the questions in a simple way so that we don’t get into it and take a lot of time.
We often ask about the housing you currently live in here in Britain, I mean…
What do they mean by the type of housing?
Is it from the government or not?
No, this is mine.
Okay. Well, good. What about your living conditions, how do you live?
I work, I mean, I do a full-time job with a full-time studying, this is it.
With whom do you live?
I live with my husband and we have no family here, it’s only him and I in Britain, but we have lots of friends, this is the social environment around us.
Can you tell us what you do?
I work on a resettlement project for Syrian refugees with the Home Office, which carries out the work of Churchill Council, the municipality of Churchill District.
Well, how do you spend your time, I mean entertainment?
For fun, I go hiking. I used to participate with a group to organize hiking for young Syrian men and women coming to Germany. Until recently, before I started studying, I used to frequently go to Germany because I had to organize this event whose goal was also to show the opposite of the stereotype of refugees, especially young people who arrived in 2015, but initially since COVID till now, I’ve started studying in September last year so there were not a lot of fun things due to the lockdown and lack of time, I had to study and work at same time.
Nice, well, when you arrived in Britain, did you feel that it was difficult? Did you feel that you were comfortable in the country? What are the things that you felt was easy, nice and comfortable and what were the things that you felt were difficult?
In terms of easy things, nothing was easy. We were here to work with an organization and everything was different. I used to work as an archaeologist and I worked restoration in Sham, Syria. I also worked in France and many places. My life was very vibrant and full of exciting things, even volunteering in Britain, it was part of these adventures that I used to live in my old life. Suddenly, the adventure became an obligation, we had to stay. It was no longer an adventure. We had to stay here. The main problem with what people think about refugees, is that they come and refuse to return, as if their previous lives has no meaning, but in our case, I felt that I was forced to stay, because I had no choice to return. So I was forced to stay in Britain. I had to start a new life. After a year of volunteering, we applied for asylum and stayed here for five years or more. I have been here since 2012, there were many good things such as the place of the voluntary work. I worked with a group that is like a community where people with or without disability live. This was a very effective thing that I have never done before. It was such a turning point in my life through which I learned many things and transformed my personality. But at the same time the difficulty was that the choices, the goal I came for had changed completely.
Well, what is the purpose that you came for?
My purpose was volunteering for this new adventure. Our plan was that Naseem, my husband, and I came to volunteer for a year, and then we go back to our lives but that did not happen.
Well, I mean, I think you are focusing on volunteering, but is there anything that you missed between being here and Syria?
Of course, there are a lot of things. First of all, the weather is a disaster, it’s a major problem here, there’s no sun. For me, I am Mediterranean after all. I love the sun and being outside all the time. People here don’t consider it as a big deal, so it feels that I’m nagging all the time about how bad the weather is. There are many difficulties for sure because, especially after staying in Britain became a permanent thing and we realized that we won’t be able to go back again and all these things I had won’t ever come back again.
Well, since you said that you arrived more than five years early.
It has been nine years.
Nine years means that you have experienced COVID as well.
Well, have you felt more difference during the COVID phase away from the issue of asylum and all these matters?
Of course, because I had many plans. I got my citizenship in March 2020, at the beginning of the lockdown, and I wanted to go to Lebanon and meet my parents but I couldn’t because of the lockdown. After eight years, the thing I wanted to do most was to meet my parents after all this long time but it didn’t happen. Although I was ready, my things were already packed and everything was prepared, I was about to go but I couldn’t. This is the first and the biggest disappointment. The second thing is that I wanted to go to study in Glasgow. I enrolled in a university in Scotland on the basis that I would leave my job and go to Scotland for a year, but it also did not happen. I had to study everything online and it was disappointing. That year was full of disappointments, but at the same time I felt that although it was disappointing, things didn’t go as planned, but at the same time I felt lucky to have many options. I can study and work. I mean, I didn’t leave my job, for example, but COVID phase. Yes, it was so difficult for me because I love socializing, I get my energy from being social. That was the most difficult thing.
It affected your work in volunteering?
I was no longer a volunteer later because I didn’t have enough time, only the first year of being here. I mean, from 2012 till 2013, I used to be a volunteer, then I applied for asylum, and worked with the same organization.
In your work, it’s your job now, not volunteering.
Exactly, I worked with the Humanitarian and Relief Institute for five years. I used to work with that organization. Then I did career change. I no longer work in antiquities, I started working with the humanitarian field, relief and resettlement. This also greatly affected me. For example, I lost all my certificates. I mean, I studied four or five years in Syria. Here, my certificates have no meaning, they’re useless. So I had to start university again. People do not understand that these are years of lost hard work in a human’s life. Refugees have to get a new driving certificate, a new university degree, we’re obliged to repeat everything, people should appreciate this more.
Well, if we talk about the period when you arrived in Europe, I mean, can you tell us how you arrived or how the flight was?
I came to volunteer so I had a volunteer visa to Britain, thus I didn’t have to go through any dangerous journeys. It was a regular flight from Syria to Jordan then from Jordan I took a plane and came to Britain. There was nothing extraordinary, like the journeys that most of the refugees go through.
Well, there is an important question. The idea is that you also have a certain experience in your country. After you arrived here in Britain, what are the things that you felt you were unique in, let’s say, your strengths in Syria or before. But when you came here, you felt that you missed it personally?
There are things related to my personality and things related to my skills. I mean, skills, for example, due to my job as an archaeologist, I used to speak many languages, English, French and Arabic with the missions I used to work with, but in Syria to speak many languages is something huge. Then when I came to Britain, I felt that being able to speak English was not a big deal. I mean, everyone here speaks English. On the contrary, I was much less than them. So I had to make amendments and changes in order to reach their level in English. What was considered a privilege in Syria turned out to be the bare minimum here. In addition, in Syria as a woman who is without hijab and living in a restricted community. Surely, the Syrian committee is diverse, but generally the work of archaeologists is not for women here, it is work related to men. I thought in Syria that because of the nature of work, my whole life was about traveling and so, which was something that distinguished me from the rest of women in my community. This thing gave me satisfaction, while this is very normal here, I mean women are archeologists in Britain it’s not special at all. There are more things that can be addressed, I have not thought much, but these are the examples that came to my mind. Another example is, in Syria, you can simply be distinguished from other people in the way you dress. but here nothing you can wear is special because there’s huge diversity in Britain. Whatever you wear is normal, you’ll be blended in this community and no one sees you, I do not know if this is the answer to your question.
Of course, you are required to answer this way. Nice. Well, you told us about what you are doing now and how your journey was. Of course, if there is anything you feel is related to the missed period, but thank God you told us that there were no slightly difficult experiences.
I mean, there were a lot of difficulties for sure because I did not know enough about Britain before. I had stereotypes in my mind, I mean, I had stereotypes about white Europeans, English people in particular and British colonialism. I had many things in my mind that I wanted to make sure of. I was born in a place where most people are simple. They do not reflect colonialism. They are very normal and simple, and then I got to the conclusion that white people who came to the Middle East do not reflect the reality of normal people here. I mean, it was interesting for a person to learn about culture, and learn about culture through ordinary people and not through a language course or what the government wanted to achieve. For example, such as the Live Roosters test, this is the kind of information that the government wants to cultivate in people’s minds without thinking, but I felt that the most interesting thing in my experience is that I was present among all working class people in Britain. It is very different from what I had in mind about the English, especially the white.
Well, we are almost done. There are two questions left, but I want to ask you again, do you remember any particular event in which twist was positive or negative here in Britain. I mean, for example, there is a day you cannot forget that was a shift in your circumstances here in Britain. You felt that it was much better or it was a very difficult day for you, and you felt that you could not forget.
Applying for asylum was a very exceptional event, because I felt, in terms of applying for asylum, it robbed me of myself. I mean, it robbed me of myself because it turned me into status and turned me into a stereotype for the world. Even the people I worked with before applying for asylum dealt with me in a way but when I got the status that I am a refugee, they dealt with me in another way that has no justification only that they have a very bad image about refugees, although I am the same person, I haven’t changed, only my legal status changed. For me, this has been a great thing. Even if I want to give you a more specific example, for example, my boss when I was a volunteer, we were friends and we spent time together. When I applied for asylum, he invited us to have dinner together so I didn’t think much of it and said okay but then he said “every week”, there was a look of pity that changed so quickly. Well, I can’t blame him, he was just trying to be nice and help, but for me it hurt, the friendship turned into charity. I was deeply hurt and I knew that it was the view that I was looking forward to changing in other’s minds.
Understandably, you told me that you arrived as a volunteer. How long have you been working for?
One year of volunteering and then you applied for asylum, right?
Well, what do you intend to do in the future?
A lot of things have changed. In fact, since I applied for asylum, the problem of asylum is that it robs people of their options. But I mean, after nine years of experience here, I say that there are two main types of problems, a type that you can do something about, and a type that you can never do anything about. It is very good that I have made the decision that I never want to waste energy on the kind of problems I can’t fix. For example, I have to wait until I get my papers. I have absolutely no authority on this, thus if I spend my time thinking about it, it means that I’ve made a decision that turns my life into hell because I’m only focusing on something I can’t control. The second type made me decide to take the other direction of things. I ask myself what can I do according to the available conditions? I came back to my job and decided that I want to do it because the voluntary work I came for was with people who have disabilities, which does not require any certificates in terms of educational attainment. But requires a lot of effort at the humanitarian level. Since I became a refugee, I wanted to work in this domain because it’s related to me and it could give me the chance to change the stereotypes about refugees. I started volunteering in organizations in Liverpool, and then I got a job related to resettlement and I’ve been in this field for four and a half years. For me, it’s a hard thing as well because you are starting a career and you are thirty years old! It’s a pity that all my previous life experience had to do with something else completely unrelated.
Well, we’ve finished. Just tell us if you know or think of a particular dream that you feel is your dream?
My dream is to leave an impact, I mean leave a positive impact in any field, on my life or on the lives of others. I think this is what I dream of, I really dream of having a positive impact. On a personal level, my dream is to learn and travel more. Initially, if we want realistic dreams, I want to graduate, because studying has been very challenging for me. I am going to finish my studies in September. If this dream comes true, this is a very good thing.
Inshallah. Thank you Rasha, I’m happy that we have talked together, and God willing all your dreams will come true.
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.