When I Was An Asylum Seeker I Wasn't Allowed To Work. Here's Why That Must Change.

As if the cruel, hostile asylum process isn't enough, not being able to work for three years made me feel ashamed of myself. We deserve to be treated with humanity.

I came to the UK in 2012 after witnessing a series of wars in my home country, the DR Congo, and then in the Ivory Coast, where I had lived since 2003. I had seen my country go from a happy place to live in with lots of opportunities to a battlefield of powers where civilians were murdered on a daily basis, children taken by force to become soldiers and women raped and killed every day. Goma, my beautiful town of birth, was once declared the ‘rape capital of the world’.

I had to find a way to escape the danger, make it to a safe country and claim asylum. When I arrived in the UK is when I got to endure the hostility created by the Home Office.

Being an asylum seeker meant I was not allowed to work for nearly three years. For someone who has always worked, that felt like torture. I did not know how to fill my days so I tried to stay in bed as long as possible to kill the hours. I was used to being active so eventually I just had to get up and find something to do. With no television or radio, I would walk as far as possible, hoping that the day would soon end and I could look forward to the night again.

I felt inferior in our neighbourhood as people knew about the house we lived in and the kind of people that lived there. I felt ashamed every week when I had to go to the post office to collect the £36 weekly allowance. I felt useless as I had skills which I wasn’t allowed to put to use. People viewed me as a person in need. A few times people gave me money after church service and I never returned to those churches as I didn’t want to be that person. I had no disability, why would I receive donations? These people meant well by giving their £10-20 but it made me sad. All I wanted is to be allowed to provide for myself.

I was taking heavy pills to be able to sleep for a just a couple of hours. The lack of activity made it worse. I felt tense as the days seemed endless. I was anxious, every time I woke up I thought: here we go again, how shall I cope today?

Luckily, I found out that I was allowed to do voluntary work, so I started applying for positions. I volunteered with the Refugee Council, the Red Cross and the Evelyn Oldfield Unit. I took on every volunteering opportunity that I came across. That was my way of coping with the inactivity the Home Office forced on me but it was also a way of contributing to the nation I lived in and assisting those in a more vulnerable position than I was.

Even then, the Home Office tried to stop me from volunteering. While reporting at Becket House Immigration Office, I was told I was not allowed to volunteer and needed to stop. I reported this to the Refugee Council who reassured me that I wasn’t breaking any law which was a relief.

I was volunteering so much that it was almost like a full-time job except I was not being paid for it. But I needed to do something because I feared that sitting around with nothing to do would kill me.

When I was banned from working and applying for volunteering opportunities, I was just grateful for whatever I could get. The opportunities were very rewarding because I felt that I was making a difference to people’s lives.

Finally, I was granted refugee status. Since then I have managed to get a part-time job as a team administrator in an NGO, have completed a degree course in Business Management and set up my own property management business, Kish Properties Limited. Although my company is still small, I have created jobs for two cleaners, as well as working with a self-employed IT technician and an accountant. I have plans to grow the business to create even more jobs as a way to contribute to the growth of the UK economy, as I now consider this country to be my home.

I sometimes think of the time when I was not allowed to work, and it feels like a nightmare which I am grateful to wake up from. The worse thing is, I didn’t know when this period would end, leaving me in total limbo. Not being able to work is extremely stressful, takes away all my confidence, and in my case, deteriorated my mental health. I see people who are still in this situation and my heart goes out to them. Some are given £36 per week which is meant to cover all their living costs, including transport. Some of them get nothing at all. That’s why I’m supporting Lift the Ban, a campaign to give asylum seekers the right to work.

What the Home Office put asylum seekers through is cruel, particularly after they’ve escaped torture and death from their country of origin. Some people choose to leave their country of origin for various reasons, but asylum seekers don’t. They are forced to. They deserve to be treated with humanity and that includes giving them the right to work.

Refugee Week is the UK’s largest festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of people from refugee backgrounds. The theme for Refugee Week 2019, 17-23 June, is ‘You, me, and those who came before’, which will explore the lives of refugees and those who welcomed them throughout history in the UK.


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