Today I’m going to tell you a story about a young man called Sami. Sami grew up as an Arab in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he lived a (relatively) normal life until things started to kick off with ISIS in early 2015. His family were murdered by ISIS, who also told him that he wasn’t Islamic enough and that they were coming for him next. Around the same time, Sami was also told by Kurdish militias that since he only spoke Arabic, it was better for him to not stick around in Kurdistan for much longer.
The road out of Iraq
With his life under threat from the armed groups in his area, Sami released he needed to escape. The way Sami put this to me is that he “just started walking”. This was a confusing journey for a young man who had just reached adulthood and had never left Iraq – he recounted crossing borders through Turkey and Hungary, for example, and not really understanding what was happening. This guy only spoke Arabic and he was travelling among large groups of people, but always alone. His main memory from this period is seeing police and immigration officials as he moved across the continent and being waved through; being told to keep on walking.
Settling in to the UK
Eventually, Sami arrived in the UK. This was not a specific choice or decision – Sami had simply kept on moving when he had been told to by the authorities, and this culminated in his arrival over here. After making an asylum claim, Sami was dispersed to a town in the North of England, where I first met him. I can remember very clearly the first time I met Sami. He’s an attractive man with a youthful naivety and, owing to his complete lack of any English at that moment in time, he’d fucked up majorly and was liable for arrest and detention. You see, as someone seeking asylum, you do get some shared accomodation and a few quid to spend each day. What you don’t get, is someone clearly explaining to you in your native language that if you don’t report to a centre in another town every few weeks, your asylum claim will end up in a bin and you’ll end up in a cell. Anyhow, with the help of an Arabic speaker and my own body language, I was able to communicate to Sami the urgency with which he needed to report to immigration officials. All was good; Sami did what was required of him.
A few weeks went by and I saw Sami every now and then. The guy is full of such warmth and we always had a chat – his English was constantly improving and he’d also been dating a British girl and trying his best to settle in to UK life…
A deeply disturbing episode
A couple of months later, Sami came to me looking visibly distressed. In these situations, I had been told to get on with the task at hand and not to ask about emotions. But I’m a human, so I ask. By this point, Sami’s English was very clear and fluent, pretty impressive for a guy who didn’t understand a single word I said when I’d first met him in the not so distant past. The previous week, Sami had been walking across the town centre in the early evening. Some British guys shouted something at him, but he ignored it and kept walking. The next thing he knew, Sami was in a hospital bed being told by a nurse that he’d just lost a litre of blood and had 20 stitches in his head, which had split upon. Sami had been set upon, unprovoked, by a group of 10 men who beat the shit out of him and left him lying in a pool of his blood. He was literally left for dead.
The physical scars of this assualt were fucking horrendous. Even worse though, were the psychological scars. I believe at this point that Sami was likely experiencing what British doctors would describe as severe anxiety and depression. Sami told me he was paranoid of leaving his house, as he felt certain he would be attacked again. His British girlfriend was deeply concerned – he was worried to leave the house even with her. And it doesn’t end there. As a result of trauma to his brain, Sami was experiencing forgetfulness and kept struggling to remember the names of his family members. This more or less brought Sami to tears. The point at which I almost cried was when Sami told me how he kept hearing British people say the words “fuck off” to him. He had initially assumed this was some common greeting or pleasantry, perhaps like the phrase “thank you”. By the time Sami was telling me this, he had come to understand what “fuck off” actually meant.
Don’t believe the asylum hype
So what is the point in me telling you this story? In the first place, I believe strongly that we all need to connect with others and hear their stories. This is especially the case for marginalised groups, who are often silenced under the sea of stereotypes that are screamed at us by the stronger voices in society. Specifically in relation to Sami, I want to give you a more true understanding of what it might mean to seek asylum, an understanding that shows how life in the UK can also entail lethal dangers for vulnerable individuals.
‘Sami’ is a pseudonym – his name has been changed to preserve his anonymity.