Escape from Kurdistan to the UK - One Man's Experience
Published here are experiences of a man who has fled his homeland for a new life out of harm’s way. For those of us who have not faced the same dangers and difficulties, a refugee's life and journey is inconceivable, and their stories deserve to be recounted; be they pleasant or traumatic.
Some stories may be upsetting or troubling, but these are shared with hopes of raising awareness and promoting equality.
The following interview shares one man's experiences as he fled to the UK out of fear of persecution for political affiliation in his homeland. No names are shared out of respect and safety of the individual and their family.
I – Interviewer
R – Refugee’s interpreter
Escape to Greece by way of Turkey
I: Thank you very much for meeting us today. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself; where you come from, um, how long you’ve been here in the UK?
R: He’s Kurdish. “Yeah, I come from Kurdistan.” We have no country, actually.
I: Okay, and how long have you been in the UK?
R: 4 years.
I: Okay, can you tell me about your journey? Why did you leave Kurdistan? How did you come here?
R: He says, regarding Kurdish people, all the Kurdish people have 2 different kinds of cases. One is a personal case, which is why you leave your country on the personal basis, and the other one is on the political basis. Because, obviously when you have no country, you’re not, your security is all the time in danger. You don’t feel safe. These are, you know, the grounds for each Kurdish person who comes here. So, you have 2 cases.
I: Can you tell me more in detail about your story? How did you decide to leave? How did you leave?
R: Um, my life was personally in danger because of some political activity I was doing. And some civil activities, you know, regarding issues in my country. So, basically, it was because the political activity he was doing. And as, um, you know the opposite party, um, as an opposition, um, that made him, and, obviously many other Kurdish people in danger. Because of their political beliefs they had.
So, um, I was an activist for human rights there, obviously for the Kurdish people’s rights, and also we were working against corruption in the government. So, these were the reasons I decided to leave.
I: Did you leave alone? By yourself?
R: When I left Kurdistan, I was by myself. But obviously on the way you meet other people and you make friends.
I: How did you travel? Was it legally or illegally, how did you get here?
R: It was illegal. Yeah. So I left from Kurdistan illegally as well and we came to Turkey. From there we took a big boat, a yacht. And we took that one, uh, to Greece. Yes. If I would tell you about the sea experiences, it will be a very long story. The experiences I had as, you know, um, leaving the border between Turkey and Greece, uh, through the sea. Which is a really harsh experience.
I: If you wish to. How long did it take?
R: 8 hours, I was on the sea. It was a very difficult experience for many people. Many times we, during these 8 hours, we were really close to death. I still remember all the screaming.
The boat we travelled with, it was supposed to be for 60 persons but it was actually 130 people in it. Yeah, that was for smuggler’s benefit. It was people from everywhere and from very young age to very old age.
I: And you arrived safely?
R: Yes. After being so scared and so close to death, yes. Yeah. But, of course, when I travelled, I remembered all the other Kurdish people who had been through this as well but didn’t make it.
Okay, so when we landed in Greece, we had no dry clothes and everything, we got some humanitarian support from some organization. We also got some other support from religious, um, you know, church and places like that as well. And obviously because we weren’t, we weren’t able to contact our family, they basically thought we weren’t alive anymore.
Because obviously, you know, in the sea for 8 hours, your contact would be completely gone with your family. So, I mean, that’s the experience most Kurdish people have until they will get contact by their son, or the beloved ones to confirm they are actually safe.
I: Your family thought you were dead?
R: Yeah. So, because the journey shouldn’t actually take 8 hours. But because of so many people being on the boat it took 8 hours. And from the time we left Turkey we told our families we were on our way to Greece. And they know the danger of this. So, if, you don’t contact them within, you know, a few hours they will be very worried. And they actually thought I was not alive anymore.
So, when we landed in Greece, some, you know, these people, from the humanitarian organization, they came and took us to UN camps.
It was a very big and massive camp. From what I remember, I thought it was a place where they had animals before in the past. The camp, it felt like it was where animals were. But then, uh, they had created a camp out of it with many people there.
I: How was the treatment? Any problems?
R: It was not too bad. They were giving food to people and, so, it was kind of supportive. And when you travel illegally through this country, whatever little support you get you really appreciate it.
So, we stayed there for two weeks. And then the Greek local authority gave us a piece of paper saying that we had to leave as soon as possible. Okay, they did give us a month, to leave country. We were on an island on the border between Greece and Macedonia; so went there.
I: When they told you to leave Greece, they didn’t tell you go back to Turkey? Like, they told you to go anywhere?
R: You have a whole month to stay in Greece, and after that, you know, before the end of that month you need to leave, you can leave to anywhere you want. And at that time, when I travelled, it was much easier for people to immigrate compared to now.
I: Was it in 2015?
R: End of 2015.
Camp Life in Macedonia
I: What happened after that?
R: So, there were many people in the camp and outside camps in Macedonia as well. Many of them women and children who were outside the camp. They weren’t even allowed to get inside because of how crowded it was. So crammed.
So the way you were treated was different depending on where you came from. If you were from Iraq and Syria, for example, it would be much easier for you get in, not so for those from other countries. I was able to get into the camp, and it was very crowded and wasn’t a really nice place.
Often there was violence because of the police officers there. They were actually really violent toward people, those in the camps.
I: You said they treat people from Syria and Iraq differently. Do you consider yourself being from Iraq or Kurdistan?
R: (Laughs) I always consider myself as Kurdish. Well, when you’re from Kurdistan no one knows where that is as being different from Iraq.
I: Let’s go back to the violence in the camp. What kind of violence?
R: So, the camp was so crowded there you couldn’t even sit. You had to stand up inside the camps even. So that was, itself, something.
The weather was very cold inside there. There was nothing to use to warm yourself.
I saw parents…
Um, I saw parents taking off their clothes and burned them to warm up their children. (Interpreter cries and apologizes, requesting a break. After a time, the interview continued.)
I: Okay, what happened was that parents were taking off their clothes and burning them to make sure their children are warm enough to survive.
So the camp was a closed camp and was very crowded. People tried to warm themselves, but the police surrounded them and tried to put them, you know, into a circle, you know, everyone together. And that’s when violence happened. Because they did it in a violent way.
Once we were waiting for train, and the waiting was not, like, you would, you know, relax and sit down. We were actually standing up for two days until a train, and waiting for a train to come, so, that could take us somewhere.
Also, there was an incident where a Kurdish man, because of all the violence and the pressure he saw, uh, he stepped onto something high so everyone could hear him, and yelled, “You talk about human rights, you’re lying. You have no human rights. You have nothing here.” And when the police offices saw this, they took him down, beat him so badly that they broke one of his hands and his head as well.
That was one incident that made me really sad, and I still remember because you feel like it was a situation where no one could help him.
There were actually some, uh, people from these organizations, the humanitarian organizations; some were journalists. These were the only people who could report it but could not stop it.
So, after a long wait a train came where we took it to another country. This was such a harsh situation where everyone just pushed through to get inside to the train. Many children and women fell and were under people’s feet. They tried to come up again and they did, but they fell again.
Because of all the pressure of the crowd I couldn’t actually get into the train. While some of the other people I have met, which I made friends with, they, they got into the train. Just like that our contact was broken and I did not hear from them ever again.
So I waited for another day until the next train came, and I took that train. It was a very old train, where, like, there were no doors and there was not even a toilet. There was a Kurdish guy who was saying, “How long is there left until we stop somewhere?” And the other person said, “We probably have more than 2 hours”. After a while, he urinated there because there was no toilet. He just did it on the side. You would see all these kinds of, you know, incidents through your journey. All the time.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot about this. While we were on the boat, between Turkey and Greece, there was an old lady from Iraq. A very old lady. She had really bad stomach ache and she said, “I need a toilet” but there was none and was on the boat, and she couldn’t go. We all could feel her pain.
Also, just before we went onto the boat from Turkey to Greece, there was another man from Arabia. While he tried to get into the boat, he, because he was quite chubby, he fell down and broke his leg. We helped him to get into the boat, and he rode with a broken leg.
There was another lady who had a baby who was only 20 days old. At one point, the baby fell into the water. Fortunately, there was another Kurdish guy, who was very good at swimming, so as soon as he saw that incident he got into the water and he actually managed to get the baby out. And the baby survived.
Departing Macedonia and arrival to Western Europe – Exploitation in Camps
R: We left Macedonia and, if I remember correctly, we arrived at Serbia. We travelled through Croatia and other countries, until we got to the Germany. We were transferred through the camps because of all the crowded people. Lots of immigrant people coming in. So, it depends, you never knew, like, how long you would stay in a camp because they would transfer you.
When we got to Serbia, we had to walk for a whole hour. The people in Serbia were very kind to us. Very generous. That was a happy moment when I landed in Germany. Before that I stayed in a camp… Austria, I think. I then stayed in Germany for 2 weeks and then went to France.
There were a few camps in France I had been to. I stayed in camps in France 4 months. There were so many incidents that happened there.
I: Such as?
R: The camps in France were very dirty, and there was nothing, like, that would make a human be able to live there. There was nothing that could make life easier for us. There were smugglers there who had knives and guns. And they were, uh, they were leading the whole camp.
There were no rights, not for children or women either. I remember there were also women there who gave birth to children.
So, there were many volunteers there, like, people coming and wanted to help. But many of them were taking advantage of the people in the camps rather than helping them.
I: How so?
R: One thing we heard was that the volunteers were bringing drugs inside the camps to sell. There were also volunteers who brought money that was supposed to support us, but they kept the money for themselves. They even made more money in the camps.
R: Through drugs. Yeah. There were volunteers from Holland and some from Britain as well. Before they came, they had campaigns to raise money for us, but when they arrived, we never got anything from them. They did this volunteering for their own benefit.
At one point, there 15 people, including myself, who tried to create some kind of order…to organize the camp. And we tried to get support from other voluntary organizations who were there. So they created a sort of camp where we could try to organize things better.
Through creating this, we started writing letters to other organizations. Even sending letters outside of France to let them know what’s going on. We came to the conclusion that we were being used; like trafficked. Even in these countries, no one could actually help us. So even those countries were part of the exploitation rather than supporting us.
One example of this would be when Canada sent people, saying to the French that they could take some back to Canada. The France government asked people inside the camps to get money from the Canadians before being able to leave. Like, we wouldn’t be allowed to go to Canada if they did not give their Canadian money to them first. So that was how the French government took benefit from those people.
The French government would also ask these refugees to stay as immigrants in France rather than in the camps. But because of, like, even if they did and applied for asylum, because of the very bad circumstances they would rather come back to the camps rather than, you know, live in France legally.
So, by creating this group, we made a lot of networks and contacts. There were MP’s coming from Sweden and also from the Labor Party in the UK. But no matter what we did, UK would not accept us. And we couldn’t come to the UK legally.
We even tried to get those who are underage, like under 18, with their moms to get into the UK legally. But that was not accepted either. That’s why many people had no choice but to come to the country illegally. So, either they came one by one or as a group.
There is only one option you have. That is to come in by lorries because otherwise there are so many obstacles, like, security guards and all that. So, that’s the only option you have. And the way between France and the UK is not the nicest way.
There were many incidents that happened on the way. For example, one of them was a Kurdish guy who was on the lorry. And he was miserable and struggled to endure. But and because the lorry didn’t stop, he didn’t have the strength to keep going on. He dropped himself and died. He was, um, up until the moment he died, he was texting his friend in the camps; and saying, “What can I do? What should I do?” and all that. But he didn’t make it.
We heard that where he died was very close to one of the, you know, UK leaders here. But it didn’t even make it to a, you know, it wasn’t even publicized.
There were others who got on the lorries with the intention to come to the UK but landed in other countries, like Holland or Belgium. There are so many stories that it’s uncountable. As everyone else, I had to come to the UK illegally as well. I came by lorry, too…after trying for a few times.
When we landed here, the first question they, you know, the officials ask is why you came to this country illegally. I told him how I tried for 4 months to come to this country legally. Even through our networks, contacts, and the groups we created, the UK never allowed us to come legally. So, you know, what can you expect? We came illegally. This was a short version of the story. How I came here.
I: After you arrived in the UK, what happened?
R: I applied for asylum and took all the steps that, you have to do when you come to this country. Through solicitors and the home office, which is a long process. And that’s hard, itself. To come to a new country, you don’t know the language, and you start from scratch.
Many people are waiting to receive an answer for their asylum status from home office, it takes ages. That’s hard itself, as well. And still many people in the end are declined.
This happened only a few months ago. A friend that I met here, after being in the UK for 6 months, he had lost his parents. He had been in this country for 16 years. Without doing anything illegally, or any kind of crime he was forced to go back. Just like that.
I: He lost his parents here, or in Kurdistan?
R: In Kurdistan, yeah. And, so he couldn’t actually see them again because he was in this country for 16 years without having any kind of approval, like, asylum approval. So after 16 years, and all the waiting, they were sending him back. They forced him on the plane to go back.
I: You applied for asylum right away when you arrived, yes? Did you get it? Or are you still waiting?
R: I was lucky that my case didn’t take long. And the wait was less than a year.
I: Back to Kurdistan. You told me you were an activist. Would you tell me if you faced abuse or threats? What kind of pressure was on you?
R: Before I go on, I wanted to mention something very important about what happened in the camps in France. Many people think it is only women who are sexually abused, but young men are as well. For example, in the camps in France there was a European woman coming there to the camps and abusing young boys sexually. This was something that everyone knew was happening.
I: Boys? You said, or men?
R: Men, but I am talking about the young boys. This is because, you know, legally you can’t have any sexual interaction with a young boy. But with the men that was different. In these camps, women came and abused both men and young boys under 18.
I: Were they giving them money, or were there exchanges?
R: There were actually many, for these women, there were many reasons they could abuse you. Because, obviously, as a refugee, and when you’re in a camp in such bad circumstances, you would not only need money, you needed everything. So, sometimes these women who were close to the camps would come take a few boys or men and say, “Oh you can have a shower”, for example, in the hotel or something. But that was never the true intention.
Even in my home country it didn’t matter if you are a women or a man, but obviously if you have, if you do some kind of activities which is against the government and against the corruption, you will be blackmailed and they could do whatever they want to you. This was not just for men. Both genders could go through this, just because of the political ideas or beliefs they have. Even activities they do for pushing for better human rights.
I: Did you receive any threats yourself?
I: What kind of threats?
R: Many times, because of the activities we were doing in our organization. We would be blackmailed, uh, to be beaten, killed, all sort of things. They could blackmail you for many things.
I: Did you get any threats? Did your family?
R: Most of them were blackmailing me, not my family.
I: Are you married? Single?
I: In the UK do you have anyone here, like family members or friends?
R: I have a few relatives and friends here.
I: And in Kurdistan, your family is still there? Like parents?
I: When you got the UK, um, how many times did you change your accommodation?
R: I’d have to count because it is so many. I have changed a few hostels and a few houses as well.
I: Also, do you have any qualifications?
R: Yeah. I have graduated. I have studied at Uni. Since getting my status, I’m studying ESOL: Level 1.
I: And do you work at all?
R: Not at this moment. If your English is not good enough, it is very difficult to find a job.
Occurrences of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
I: Earlier you mentioned the men in the camps. Were there other situations where you felt either you or someone else were targeted for sexual/gender-based violence?
R: We never knew what happened in reality, to those Kurdish women, who came with their husbands. Between borders, between countries, the smugglers either intentionally or…. maybe because they have to do it, they separate the couples. Even if they’re married. So, we don’t know exactly what happened to those women but there are many stories about them as well.
Is it the smuggler’s intention to separate the couple or is it the women who actually want to be separated from their husband? For example, one incident happened only a few weeks ago was a Kurdish woman who, the husband, um, took them all the way to France. He paid for travel and the journey. But when he came, she was in the UK with two children as well, and, uh, as soon as she landed here, she said, “I don’t want my husband anymore.” And she never went to her husband and went with someone else.
So, there was an incident, I think in previous interviews, they talked about this incident that happened to the Kurdish lady in Stoke-on-Trent. She had 4 children and was killed by her husband. But he tells us another dimension of the story. I was shocked when hearing this. If it’s true or not, that’s another matter. He said that there are reports saying that this when she came to the UK, that smugglers gave her money though the reason is unknown. He said that it could be that she was killed by the smugglers and not him. But that’s just one dimension he mentioned and if it’s actually true or not that’s…we don’t know.
I: Maybe the smugglers are using the wives of these couples on the borders when they separate them?
R: Yeah, that’s one potential. Or the other potential is that…
I: …the ladies are finding it as a way to escape a marriage.
R: Yeah. So, it could be both.
I: These are acts of sexual and gender based, yes?
R: From my understanding, take the camps as an example, if you have no legal system, if you have no system itself, it’s possible to happen. So, it doesn’t matter if you, if it happens to a woman or a man, it’s still a, it’s still the violence. Because you don’t have any kind of system you can’t stop it. You can’t do anything about it.
I: What kind of acts exactly?
R: Basically, anything that you don’t want to take part in, that’s abuse. And that’s, you know, you’re being forced to it. But, apart from that is the legal age, as well, that matters. So, if you’re under 18, any kind of acts done to a person who’s under the age of 18, like, then I consider that as sexual abuse and gender-based violence. But, it’s also not only about the age, but it’s about the willing. Do you want, really, to take part in this? Do you want to do it or not? It’s about consent, basically. Consent and age.
So, these kinds of violence, sexual abuse and violence, it’s not only physical. You could be used as well. Like, what if you get blackmailed to do this? What if they abuse you, like taking advantage of you, all this acts also count in my opinion as gender-based... anything that makes you do things that is, in my, I consider as gender-based violence.
I: You mentioned people who got abused. Were you aware of any kind of support they’re receiving? Or, someone they can go and report these issues to?
R: I mean there was some, um, volunteers in the place. The only thing they could do is actually to report it. But not stop it. It’s like a photograph. Taking a photo of an incident, they can, the only thing they can do is take the photo, not stop the incident…or the event.
I: So, there were no support provided.
R: No. No support. No one would take actually responsibility to do anything about it.
I: How do they survive? Like, how did they cope with it?
R: They have no choice. They have no choice apart from just, you know, to live with it. The only thing you may be able to do in this kind of situation is just protect those who are very close to you. That’s the only thing you may be able to do.
When we were in the camps, we were telling the police there that things like this happened. They said, “We know about it.” But they never did anything about it.
There were smugglers who were free inside the camps, like no police would actually take them away. But, there were others who had only the intention to come to the UK, and they were taking them without any trace.
I: Are you aware of some who made it to the UK? Like, after they got to the UK, had they received any kind of support?
R: I think many of them wouldn’t mention what happened to them. So, how could they get support when they don’t tell agencies, authorities, of what happened to them?
I mean, everyone had their own way to heal themselves. One of the ways for me was to write down what I had been through. That helped me. In the camp there were people who were singing to help themselves. Or playing, you know, music, or an instrument.
I: How about the services provided here? Like English classes? Housing? Getting the status? Do you find these things are helpful in supporting the resilience and the coping mechanisms in people?
R: These services are only for those who get their asylum seeker’s status. Not for all those who came to the UK and who are actually here. So, I feel like, yeah, these services can be supportive, but it’s only for certain people.
I: So, providing these to people who apply for asylum, before they get their status, might help them?
R: Yeah. I think definitely that would be helpful for them rather than having nothing.
So, one example was a Kurdish guy here who was disabled. He had lost one of his legs. Obviously because he doesn’t have any legal status here in this country he can’t work. He can’t do anything. He can’t receive any kind of support. What can you expect from him? If he, one day, got into some kind of crime or anything which is illegal then what would you tell him? You know what I mean? He has no support. Nothing.
And, yeah, people like him could be actually abused even here, because they have nothing. They don’t have money to survive. And I actually know other people who, because they don’t have a, uh, status, they were being abused when they do work. Abused like, they worked 12 hours but they get a very limited wage.
So that’s a disadvantage not only for that person who’s being abused and exploited, but for me as well. I don’t have the status, so I work 12 hours and get only £20. If had legal status and can work, I wouldn’t work for that wage. So, in this case, I will lose the job and another will get the job because they are able to exploit him, the way they want to.
I: What can be done to prevent the abuse and incidents from happening, in your opinion?
R: Um, I think, I believe that, one of the things would be to protect human rights. It doesn’t matter where. Protect human rights. And also obey the law.
I: All right. Thank you very much for your time.