The refugees who did much more than survive
yasmin kadi

The recent refugee crisis in the Mediterranean was a powerful reminder of the lengths some will go to to find safety, security and a better life.

But the refugee story doesn’t end when they reach their destination.

To mark Refugee Week, we spoke to three people who have transformed their lives – and others’ – since they came to the UK, through art and culture. Here they talk about their personal stories, their work in music, theatre and performance, and offer a message to the British people.

Temor Al-kaisi escaped a life-threatening situation in Iraq and came to the strange new world of southern England in 2009. He has now found his calling in theatre, working with The Paper Project at Ovalhouse Theatre and touring across the UK

temor

His story

“I’m based between Kent and London. I’m from Baghdad originally. The reason I came here was the war, what happened back home. It was a bad situation. Being kidnapped back home, and nearly killed. Also my Dad got shot, nine bullets, because of his political views. My two brothers got kidnapped, and my uncle was killed.

“When I came to the UK I didn’t know about it, my Dad planned it. My parents thought it was better not to tell us until the same day. It was 2009, and I was 17 at the time.”

baghdad
Smoke billows from a car bomb in Baghdad, capital city of Iraq, in 2009 (Getty)

“I went to Syria and then from there I came to the UK. It took five hours, and when I came here everything looked different, bright, shiny. I’d never been on a tram before so I took a tram.

“The second day was like… when you live in a place where there’s loads of war, no electricity, and then when you go somewhere that’s quiet, it’s a big change.

“And then you think about going outside, and you think, ‘I don’t speak the language, what are people going to think?’.”

His work

“When I was doing my English studies there was a teacher doing drama lessons, and that’s how I got involved in theatre. From then I got involved in a film called Leave to Remain by Bruce Goodison, and then a project called We Are London.

“I met an Iraqi guy there and stayed for about three months, before Ovalhouse Theatre approached me about becoming a part-time assistant director. Later I was able to start my own project with a director, which we performed in London and Manchester. Last year we did a show about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, which was recorded by the BBC.”

His message

“Don’t listen to the media. Go and meet refugees and find out why they’re coming to the UK. It’s not about young Muslims coming to take over the UK. We made the journey here because we know that British people don’t treat people based on race or religion.

“In our country we have so many religions as well, but we need to respect each other. So love each other, regardless of race or religion.”

Yasmin Kadi came from war-torn Sierra Leone to London in the early 1990s. Now she is making her name in the music industry, with festival headline shows and a new EP due soon. She is also an actress, and is just back from shooting a US TV series in Budapest.

Her days in touring musicals, she says, are long behind her. And she thanks Barack Obama for that

yasmin-kadi

Her story

“I’m from Sierra Leone. We came over due to the civil war, more commonly known as the Blood Diamond War. The war happened in 1991, but we didn’t manage to escape until 1993. We came over as asylum seekers, and we were homeless for nine months, and stayed in a hostel. Eventually we were housed in a council flat in Forest Hill.

“It was difficult settling in at school. In Sierra Leone we never used to swear, and it was almost unheard of to refer to your elders by their first name. Being young at school, kids could be cruel, saying stuff like ‘go back to the trees you monkey’. Later on you realise it’s just ignorance rather than anything malicious.

“When I did start performing it kind of broke down those barriers. People saw me as Yasmin rather than the refugee girl. The funny thing was I became friends with some of the people who teased me.”

freetown
Freetown is the capital of Sierra Leone (Getty)

Her work

“I’m a singer-actress. Music-wise, my genre is a fusion of pop and afro-pop, influenced by hometown of Freetown, and having grown up in the UK.

“I got into stage school and got various leads in musicals. I’d always wanted to sing but didn’t know how to break into music. In 2009 I was on tour with The Jungle Book, and I came across Barack Obama’s biography, and I was inspired by his story and struggle. Literally as I read that book I made up my mind that The Jungle Book would be my last musical for a long while, and started writing my own music.

“Having grown up in two countries, running away and losing family members, you find you have a lot to say. I’d also witnessed how poor or underprivileged people grew up, and how tough life was.

“But when you openly talk about stuff like that, no-one wants to hear it. So over the years I try to make my music fun and catchy too.

Her message

“I have two messages to the British people. One: a huge thank you really. I know the media focuses on the narrow-minded side, but the British people are one of the most giving in the world.

“And for those who obviously have issues, or reservations, I’d say: please just be a little bit tolerant. Try to put yourself in that situation for a few seconds. If you lost your home, and watched people you grew up with and loved being murdered, and then ending up in a country with a foreign language, where everything’s different, and then you’re met with hostility, how would you feel? How would you cope with that? Until you’re in that situation you never know what it feels like.”

Yasmin Kadi performs a free headlining gig at Lewisham Peoples Day at Mountsfield Park Catford, London at 5pm on the 9 July 2016 / www.yasminkadi.com

Lucky Moyo escaped his native Zimbabwe as a refugee and lived in Zambia. He later travelled the world before settling in the UK at the turn of the millennium. He works with refugees and asylum seekers in detention centres to help them adjust to British life

lucky moyo

His story

“I’m originally from Zimbabwe but I’ve spent time in about 36 countries around the world. When I came to the UK it was as a performer, working in schools and theatres. I was a refugee in Zambia during the struggle in Zimbabwe.

“I was coming in and out of the UK since about 1990, and settled here in 2000.

His work

“I do songs and dance from southern Africa. Now I work in detention centres and prisons in the UK. I go in there and work with people who come in as refugees. Because of cultural reasons their stories may not be believed.

“I’ll give you an example: if you come from the UK and you’re talking to someone and they don’t look into your eyes, they think you’re hiding something. If you come from Zimbabwe or South Africa, and you’re a woman, you’re not allowed to look into a man’s eyes directly. So cultural differences can actually break down communication.

“It’s about creating a space for critical dialogue. I challenge refugees to think that, if you’re in Scotland or England, and you really want to be part of the community, learn about Scottish culture, learn about English culture. Then you’re not going to be playing your music late, because the culture here is that after 9 o’clock you don’t do those things. At times I end up doing cultural orientation.”

zimbabwe
Zimbabwe has been under the rule of Robert Mugabe since 1987. It is one of the most corrupt nations in the world, and most elections are blighted by fraud (Getty)

His message

“Immigration is not something that started yesterday. The Vikings, the Normans, the Romans. I normally say, are we talking about the people who came here yesterday, or the people who came here 500 years ago, or 5,000 years ago?

“Science says now that we’re all from Africa. So we’ve always been going on a journey, we’ve always looked for more grazing land for our livestock, for agriculture and for family purposes. Human beings want food, want to better their lives. Some are running away from disaster that’s not of their own making. We need a platform for open dialogue, and I think that the arts creates this.”

Refugee Week runs from 20 – 26 June. For more info, visit refugeeweek.org.uk