Born Again: Britain As Refuge
Val Walsh interviewed Sheria who came to Liverpool with her husband and young daughter after fleeing their own country, Iran. They applied for asylum and arrived in Liverpool in September 2002.
Early impressions and experiences
Asked about the circumstances behind her move to the UK, Sheria spoke of ‘a horrible time in my country. We got problems, especially women.’ I asked what it was like at the beginning:
I came from a scary country and didn’t know anything about freedom. So at the beginning, I was scared of everything.
On arrival, Sheria spoke no English, which contributed to an initial sense of isolation. As asylum seekers their financial situation was difficult, because they could not seek employment. Stress was a big factor, compounded by the difficulty of going out of their home and mixing with people in the community. This has been a slow process. Although she knows she can go out and meet people, there remains an inhibition: ‘You’re shy, this is your feeling, that you can’t’. Being able to share these feelings with others on the allotment, especially other asylum seekers, has helped.
Her daughter is at school in Liverpool, where ‘everything is nice for them’; it helps that ‘at school young children fit in’, and quickly learn to speak English very well. Her children (a young son was born here) do not want to return to their country: ‘They have seen horrible things on TV about it’. For Sheria, communicating adequately with teachers remains a problem: ‘You can’t say everything you want to say’. Although an interpreter is available for speaking to a lawyer, there is no such help for talking to teachers at their children’s school. Sheria has attended college to improve her English and begin the process of acquiring education and qualifications. She finds it enjoyable and rewarding to be among different students in a mixed group. Sheria says she now has ‘very nice feelings’, ‘am very relaxed’:
I say born again – just miss family, that’s a problem. Because I am relaxed here, I can’t think about my people.
She added, ‘I do feel safe now’. I asked her if she had felt welcome in Liverpool when she arrived, and she replied, ‘Yes, everyone was very nice, all the adults very nice. Some teenagers were a problem.’
The allotment experience
Sheria thought the allotment project was ‘a very nice opportunity’ when they joined two years ago, and spoke of the difference it can make to the ‘closed lives’ of asylum seekers. Coming to the allotment was the chance to talk to people outside the family, and Sheria again referred to the problem of making contact: ‘You can’t contact people, you are very shy’. The allotment is a much appreciated, very sociable environment. ‘You get peace here’, she said. ‘Even in winter. Every season is beautiful, so quiet’. People swop plants and information; there is precious social interaction. The afternoon of our meeting it was sunny and aromatic; soothing and friendly.
The allotment is also an international community, with people from different countries and cultures, in addition to Liverpool English. When they have barbecues they bring and share food. If you have a problem, you can speak about it with the manager of the project. Sheria and her family come to the allotment more in summer, of course, but in winter they still come every week. Because asylum seekers can’t go out to work, she pointed out how important it is in helping you keep your body healthy.
I wondered whether she had ever grown food before. Sheria said that as a child she saw her father cultivate the land, growing wheat. This was before the government confiscated land and ‘nice homes’, and passed them to rich people. So this allotment experience brings back those good memories of growing food, as well as memories of that painful loss. Reviewing the experience of the allotment, Sheria was expansive: ‘Everyone is good to you in England’; ‘it’s a very nice life for me and my family’.
Everything makes you very thankful. Sometimes I want to write a letter to the Queen. . . who do I have to say thank you to?
We laughed. I said, ‘I have to tell you, the Queen is not responsible for this project! It is local people who have set this up.’
Given her experience and memories of people behaving badly towards each other, I wondered whether the allotment project acted as a kind of healing process. ‘It is very helpful to everybody’, she replied. I was interested in the possibility that the allotment experience, involving nature, cultivation and social interaction which is not competitive or harsh, could help prevent a life being permanently ruined by those bad memories, those losses: that life after loss can be good, even in exile. Our conversation so far seemed to suggest this. Sheria added: ‘You can open your minds together’. And: ‘You can speak about the problem in your country to each other – all the world has a problem’. It sounded as if Sheria felt part of a community on the allotment, if not yet in the wider society. She agreed, and when I asked if she feels she belongs, she said, ‘Yeh, I would miss the allotment. This community is like a family’.
Risks and opportunities for women: the key to health and wellbeing
I returned the conversation to the question of the situation of women and children in Iran. Sheria told me: ‘They have a very hard time, they haven’t any democracy in my country. It is a very hard life for the women especially.’ There is clearly a problem in even discussing the situation, and she has got into trouble before for doing this, because it is seen as an attack on her religion. She insists the is problem is not with the religion: ‘Another country with the same religion has a very nice democracy, and is free’. In contrast, ‘it is very closed in my country’. I asked for more detail: Was she referring to access to education? Unchaperoned movement on the streets? Dress codes? Being controlled by men and/or government?
There is access to education, she said. ‘You are free to go, there is no rule against it’, but ‘really you can’t go safely out on the street’. ‘Women are controlled by the government’; ‘you are scared to go out of your home, so you prefer to stay at home’. If you go out shopping, you might be stopped by the police and accused: ‘Why your hair come out?’ (See Azar Nafisi  for more detailed discussion of the significance of women’s visible hair, even a strand, on the streets of Iran; the relentless scrutiny and surveillance women are subject to; and the far-reaching consequences for them: their minds, their hearts, their lives and bodies.) Sheria referred to the fact that a girlfriend or boyfriend risks receiving eight lashes. (A woman must not be alone with a man who is not her father, brother, son or uncle.) When the government speaks to the world, she said, it declares that it is easy for women to have an education, but ‘really, you can’t’. ‘Men count more than any woman.’ Here in the UK, she feels ‘very comfortable, very free’. ‘This is a very, very big change, to come to a free country.’
When Sheria was first in the UK, she did not know that, as a woman she could have a lawyer to represent her, just like a man. ‘You are the same as a man. I’m important’. Yes, I said: Your life is valued; your opinions matter; and people will listen to what you say. This has been the area of greatest social and cultural change in the UK over the last 100 years, and especially the last 50. I added that I was oversimplifying, as in the UK women’s equal status and value remain unfinished business. Obstacles to women being taken seriously as human beings in their own right still exist, but that is our aspiration. The law cannot do everything, but it is important to have it there.
We finished our conversation with Sheria speaking about her hopes for the future: that her children will get good jobs and make a contribution; that they will be able to help their adopted country. I commented that it was a great advantage that her children mixed with children from many different backgrounds, countries, cultures; that this familiarity would help prevent them seeing people different from themselves as inferior and/or frightening. I asked finally, how it had been for Sheria and her husband as a couple, coming into such a different society. ‘He’s ok’ she responded. ‘Even more than me, he’s very changed, happy, healthier’.
Sheria’s message for NERVE readers was ‘just to say thank you to all people, from me and my children, to all the teachers, to everyone in Liverpool for all their support’. Sheria started off her life in Liverpool ‘scared of everything’. Her time here has allowed her to become hopeful about life again, and now she has aspirations:
I hope I’m going to be the kind of person who is useful to their city or country; to be able to help somebody. If you don’t do anything, you can’t feel you are alive.
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