Young refugees tell Sarah Wellard how it feels to be strangers
in a strange land.
Children who come here as asylum seekers, either alone or with
their families, are among the most marginalised children in the UK.
Fleeing violence, war and persecution, they may be traumatised
after witnessing the killing of relatives or neighbours. Asylum
seekers usually have to survive on incomes below the level of state
benefits and rarely have any choice over where they live. While
their applications for asylum – or those of their parents – are
considered they exist in a no man’s land, not allowed to work
or travel outside the UK and not knowing whether they will be sent
Two young women who came to the UK as children with their
families talked to 0-19 about the racism and other difficulties
they have encountered, and also about their friendships and their
hopes for the future.
Louise, who is now 17, came to Britain in 1997 to escape war in
her native Congo. “I don’t know much about why we came or how
we managed to come here. I was only 10 years old. I know that my
parents were trying to protect us. We had to leave our house in the
middle of the night because the soldiers were coming.
“We’re still waiting for our decision [on the application
for asylum]. We have to wake up every day not knowing if
we’re going to be able to remain here. What am I going to do
if I go back? Half my life is here. All my life as a teenager is
“When I went for my national insurance card they said I had to
bring my passport but I have no passport. It’s to do with my
parents’ status. I’m not allowed to work. At the moment
I am studying media, communications and sociology. When you start
college you should be able to get £30 a week, but I
can’t get that.”
Louise experiences double racism, as a black person and as a
refugee. “People look at you differently when they know
you’re a refugee. They think that you don’t pay for
anything. I’ve had very difficult white people saying to me,
‘Do you think people will give you money, give you a
house?’ I said to them that for some of us to leave our
country was really sad. Our parents left our country to try to find
a better life for us.
“I don’t like the words refugee and asylum seeker. [People
think] every refugee or asylum seeker is the same. We try to go
about things the right way but we’re still labelled.
“I don’t smoke or drink or smoke weed, but the way [the
media] show black people all the time is as dangerous, like only
black people smoke weed. How can I set about my life without being
“I look at myself as a teenager, not as a refugee. It
doesn’t matter where you’re from. We all face problems
in our teenage lives.
Despite Louise’s daily experiences of racism, several of
the people she is closest to are white. “My best friend is white.
It wouldn’t matter if she was Chinese or black – what matters
is that we have personality in common. She suffers racism too
because she’s Russian and hangs around with black people. My
mentor is British. I love her very much. She doesn’t care
that I’m black and she’s white. She treats me like her
If she is allowed to stay, Louise wants to continue her studies
and to work in the community. “I want to give back everything good
I’ve received from the community, like as a mentor or social
worker. I’ll try not to let the next generation suffer.”
Martha, now aged 19, fled to London from Colombia at the age of
12 with her mother, older brother and cousin. Her father, a
prominent trades unionist and former deputy leader of a left-wing
political group, stayed behind and continues his work from hiding.
“I always knew we were under threat. In Colombia we were always
moving around. Then my mother got a letter saying she should tell
[the paramilitaries] where her husband was or her children would be
killed. We packed our bags.
“I didn’t really understand what was happening. I packed
two changes of clothes and my Barbie – no sweaters. We went to the
Red Cross in Bogota and stayed in a refuge for two weeks. From
there we flew to London – the Red Cross bought the tickets.
“The man who sent us was Swedish and didn’t know about
asylum application procedures in the UK. In immigration they split
us up. We didn’t know what we should say so I said I wanted
to study and my mum said she was a tourist. They said we were
liars. They gave me a personal examination. I was very scared.
After seven hours – and no food – they let us go and gave us an
appointment to come back.”
Once in London, Martha’s mother was able to contact other
Colombians living in exile, who helped her find a lawyer. “At the
beginning you are afraid to go outside because you think someone
might speak to you in the street. It just terrifies you. You feel
the isolation and depression that comes from not really
understanding, and the clash of culture.
“At school absolutely no one spoke Spanish. In the playground
someone came up to me and told me I was stupid. So I said,
‘Thank you, you too.’ I’d been told that was a
polite thing to say. I didn’t understand why people were
“As a foreigner you encounter racism, but as an asylum seeker or
refugee it’s different. It has all these negative
connotations. There’s this idea that people are just here to
get benefits. I don’t think that people understand that being
a refugee is hard.”
Martha’s mother took her to a community centre in Bethnal
Green, east London, that offered information and advice for
refugees. “At the community centre I saw a lot of young people in
the same situation as me who were depressed and angry. We started a
group to share experiences. We didn’t speak English so we
just painted what we wanted to say. Then we started silent drama.
Art gave us a voice that we didn’t have.
“The first paintings I did were very violent, all blood and
people dying. In Colombia you would be playing in the streets and
you would have to run because you saw a shooting. I saw people
being picked up after being shot. The art allowed me to leave
something behind and let me get on with my life. Otherwise
what’s in your heart pulls you down and down.”
After five years of waiting, Martha’s family finally
received leave to remain last year. “Someone told me that being an
asylum seeker is like being a bird in a golden cage. When
you’re an asylum seeker you are not allowed to travel so I
couldn’t see my relatives in Argentina. I couldn’t go
to university because they won’t let you in.
“Now I have hopes and dreams for the future. At the moment
I’m raising money to study dance. I give workshops for
children. I want to work in the community and work with dance.”