I'm a refugee, desperate to work and give back – but I'm not legally allowed to

Me, my wife and four young children fled Mosul, Iraq nearly seven years ago as Daesh marched into our neighbourhood.

We left with just the clothes on our backs, and my wife’s gold, which we had to sell to smugglers to get us out to safety. We didn’t mind, because with the loss of every piece of jewellery, we took a step closer to the UK.

The UK was a sensible choice for us – we all speak some English, rather than other European languages, and Britain has a reputation with us as being the best-run country in Europe.

Some of our friends do not feel safe in other European countries – for example, Denmark has started deporting Syrian refugees, saying that Syria is safe even after giving them residency in Denmark.

But three years after arriving here, we still don’t have any sense of stability. We are still waiting for a final decision on our asylum claims – the thought that we should return to Mosul when our neighbourhood is rubble is terrifying.

I’m grateful for the help we get from the UK Government. I know the money has to come from somewhere – it is all the taxes of hardworking British people.

But we need more than money. We have a roof over our heads and our children can play in the local park. But I can’t remember the last time I bought them a toy, or took them to a theme park. Being able to do this would make me feel like a good father.

Most of all, I want to work. I had a sandwich shop back home, which I loved running, and before the war, we were even planning to expand.

I have friends in Birmingham who have tried my cooking and have told me they would invest in me starting a shop here but I’m not legally allowed to work – even working for myself – and I’m trapped between wanting to provide for my family and respecting the law of the land.

I’ve chosen the latter. But I wish I didn’t have to choose.

I never imagined it was possible to be in this level of poverty in the UK

Before the lockdown, my family had it hard, but the past year has just upped the challenges we face daily. 

In March last year, the local grocery shop we buy food from got much busier than usual. My wife started crying when she saw the empty shelves. She whispered to me: ‘It’s like we are back in Mosul’. This made me feel like everything we have gone through was for nothing, almost like we are cursed or destined to suffer no matter what we do.

As the shops got busier, the prices went up. The amount we are given by the Government to live on – £5.39 per day per person for clothes (for four growing children), food and personal hygiene – was just about enough for us to scrape by before, but in the last year, it hasn’t been.

We have coped by trying to cut down on our costs as much as possible, sometimes skipping meals, giving the children donated clothes, and relying on a hardship grant from the National Zakat Foundation, which was a big help.

Our children – who were developing their English rapidly and making friends from many different backgrounds – have been hit hardest. Months of staying home has affected their development. 

My eldest, who remembers the war, has started having flashbacks of when we were confined to our house in Mosul. We are on the waiting list to get her help with the NHS, but I know they have other priorities now because of the pandemic.

It’s not in my nature to ask for help from others. I have worked non-stop since the age of 14 – up until when I left Iraq. 

It breaks a father’s heart to see my wife ask me when she will be able to buy makeup, or for my son’s shoes to have holes in them. I never imagined it was possible to be in this level of poverty in the UK – and I know that many UK-born people are in the same situation.

I started asking my children to stare at the floor when we went for walks on the high street, so they wouldn’t see toys that they desperately wanted but knew their dad couldn’t afford.

I feel bad for my wife who knows she will never see her elderly parents again in this life. I feel bad for my children who are not fluent in English or Arabic, and have forgotten how to interact normally with other children.

I feel bad for myself, and that I am unable to give my family the stability they deserve.

And I feel guilty that many British people see us as a burden – when this is the last thing we want to be.

I’m hopeful that soon my case will be resolved and we will have long-term residency in the UK, which comes with the right to work. I’m ready to work three jobs and save up until I can open my own sandwich shop.

Until then, we have been grateful for the support we have received. As well as some much needed cash, our neighbours have checked up on our children through the window, and even given them some toys and exercise books.

We’ve been trying hard to make this place home – until the day we are told it actually is.

Some details have been changed to protect anonymity. The author was supported by the National Zakat Foundation.

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