Katy Brown talks to a local musician about his long journey from Iran to Liverpool.
Tell me a bit about where you’re from and what it was like growing up there?
I’m Kurdish and was born in Iran, from a city called Sanandaj. I lived with my family, I’m from a big family and we all lived together and looked after each other. I used to look after family, my Mum in particular, that was my job. The extended family is an important part of our culture. I have nice memories of being with my Mum, brother, friends. I have a lot of good memories, I was young but I had a long time there with many good things.
Was your family politically active in the Kurdish struggle?
My Mum and Dad were both politically active in the Kurdish struggle and were fighters, against religion and for communism and a Kurdish nation with its own land, flag etc. My Dad was killed by the government when I was 8 years old, I was young, but as I grew older I believed in the same thing.
When and why did you leave?
I left 8 years ago in 2009, I’m 24 now, I was 16 when I left the country. I helped with a protest as the government tried killing Kurdish people on the streets with the same ideas as me and my parents. We pushed the police back as they were charging at people and hitting them with batons. My friend was arrested and interrogated, he passed on details about me to the police so my life was in danger. My family decided it was best that I leave.
How did you make it out of the country?
My family paid money to traffickers to cross the border into Turkey and I made it country by country to the UK. I didn’t plan to come to the UK but my family decided it would be the safest place for me. They paid half of the total fee to the traffickers, that’s how it works, with the full amount paid if and when you arrive safely.
Tell me about your journey…
There were dangerous moments, particularly crossing from Iran into Turkey, the Turkish army shoots people on the border thinking they’re Kurdish fighters. The possibility of being arrested and sent back is another danger. Many people die on the way due to the cold, the lack of food, clothing and sleep. Many die trying to get from Turkey to Greece by water on boats. I managed to get through and on into Greece. I travelled from Greece to Italy by lorry, in a secret compartment in a private vehicle, I didn’t know the route, only the traffickers knew the route. From Italy to France I travelled for 45 hours under a lorry.
How did you manage to do that?
You have to get on the axle with your rucksack against the axle, with that supporting your weight, then you have to grip tightly above to keep yourself balanced and try not to be thrown off. If the lorry goes along a bumpy bit of road you can lose your grip, many people die this way. Some people get above the spare tyre and many people have been crushed by the spare tyre when it bounces upwards if the lorry goes over a bump. You can’t go to the toilet and can’t have any food. There are some stops where you can have a quick pee and maybe a small biscuit. You are gambling with your life. A young man from Iran who I met in the Jungle (the refugee camp at Calais) and became friends with was killed under a lorry, I had spent 5-6 months with him. He was just 15 years old.
That’s awful, such a waste of a young life, so sad. Is it really worth taking the risks?
The prospect of deportation is more dangerous than the lorry trip. As then no-one can help you, you can either be shot or arrested and deported.
So is the Jungle where you ended up next? What was it like?
Yes, I made it to the Jungle. I lived off potato and onion for 5 months, there was not enough food. Sometimes Christians would bring food and clothes. Every now and again you would get nice stuff but this wasn’t consistent. It didn’t feel safe. It was cold, you had to sleep on the floor, you’d have to sleep in the wet if it was raining. I couldn’t take a shower for 6 months, or brush my teeth. I was very weak from not getting enough food. There was no Doctor, you have to look after yourself.
Why did you stay if the conditions were so bad?
Every day at night time I’d try to get on the axle of a lorry and gamble with my life without immigration control finding you. It’s a gamble where you go as you don’t know where the lorry you are getting on is going to end up. I made a few journeys from Calais to other countries and back again as I arrived somewhere other than the UK, I didn’t know at the time but most of these were to Holland. I heard of 22 people who died in a fridge in a lorry, they were put there by traffickers, they said the lorry was going to England, a short journey, but it was going elsewhere on a 5-6 hour journey and they couldn’t withstand the cold of the fridge for that length of time.
So, how do you feel about traffickers?
The way I see it it’s like alcohol, it isn’t good but when you need it sometimes you have no choice, or like cigarettes. Traffickers are horrible, they’re not good, they’re dangerous and nasty people. In Turkey I was in one room for 3 months, I wasn’t able to leave and they didn’t feed me properly though they were telling my family I was being treated very well. The traffickers rape women when they feel like it, and hit people, you can’t tell your family and you definitely can’t tell the police because you are being trafficked so you would be deported. There is a lot of violence from them and they carry weapons and slap people around and don’t give you proper food. But they think they are helping us by giving us a chance and they do help, but it would be nice if they treated people better. My family paid £5,000 but it was more as they took the money from me I was carrying, my phone, they took everything from me. They are evil, but at the same time I’m happy with them and I smiled and thanked the person who trafficked me, as he helped me. So I feel conflicted about them.
When did you arrive in the UK?
I made it to the UK in July 2010, I first arrived in Derby and immigration brought me to Liverpool where I received accommodation and benefits. I was put in a shared house on Smithdown Road with many people from many countries. It was a dirty horrible house, no-one looked after it, I felt safe as I’d finally arrived, but also scared because I didn’t know the language. Shopping, talking to people, finding friends, company, community was really hard to do because of the language barrier.
Where did you go to get help and what did you do with your time?
I went to Asylum Link and Refugee Action. Someone at Asylum Link introduced me to Liverpool String Orchestra where I played for a while. I applied to study music at the Community College and studied for four years for a diploma in music as well as maths and English. I also worked as a volunteer at Tate Gallery, at FACT and Sola Arts doing drawing and painting.
And you gradually made friends and became part of the community?
Yes, and things got easier. I met a girl and we were together for 2-3 years but she developed throat cancer and passed away last Christmas, December 2016. I looked after her for 1-2 years. For 8 months she couldn’t eat and was fed by a tube.
I’m so sorry, but she was lucky to have you to look after her, that must have been really tough especially being still so vulnerable yourself.
Yes, for 7 years I had no visa. I got 3 years of support from a social worker once I arrived, after that immigration refused to give me a visa and my social worker refused me housing and benefits. When I was homeless I stayed with friends here and there for a couple of years. I had finished college but couldn’t go to uni as I had no visa. So I also couldn’t find work. I couldn’t travel to see my family as I had no visa, I had no bank account, no driving licence, I couldn’t get or do anything. You can’t even go to a club or to the gym with no id. I went to Salford uni to study music but was kicked out when they found I had no visa. I’d already lost my girlfriend, when I lost my place on the course I’d lost everything.
How did you survive through these hard times?
I am a musician in churches and the cathedral, every Sunday I play 3 times and translate Persian and Kurdish to English. People have supported me with money for food and instruments, Church people or Kurdish people have let me stay with them, I have helped teach music and dance in exchange for small amounts of money or food, 5 or 6 meals. I had no benefits but people supported me and so I was able to survive.
Despite the difficulties you’ve been going through, whenever I’ve seen you since we met in 2011 you have always had a smile on your face, in fact seeing you always cheers me up…
Ah yes, people have commented on this, a businessman who owns a restaurant who has lots of money and family has told me he is jealous of me, he says he has everything but is always miserable and that I have nothing but am always happy.
So how do you stay so upbeat?
If I feel bad I go dancing, or play music, meet friends, help people and keep busy. Also working with the Kurdish community here in Liverpool has helped me stay positive. I have been helping to create a festival to raise money for Kurdish charities, we have organised a huge event for Kurdish new year, Newroz, two years running and raised a lot of funds. We also make and sell stuff and organise protests against ISIS killing people, Kurdish people, or Iran or Turkey killing Kurdish people and we support any nationality fighting for freedom.
What instruments do you play, and did you learn to play back home?
I play violin, piano and drum. I am self-taught and started learning when I came to the UK. I learnt when I was at home by myself in the flat. I wanted to do music since I was little. I play in some bands, a church and a cathedral band, I play drum and violin, this is Christian music. Before I didn’t have any religion but I am Christian now and believe in Jesus Christ.
What does your family think about that?
My family is ok with it, they just think the main thing is that you are nice to other human beings.
What other music do you play?
Outside of this I’ve played with a jazz/rock band Gyrus and have played at various open mic and jam sessions. I’ve also recently started playing with a Kurdish band playing traditional Kurdish music.
What is Kurdish music like?
Kurdish people love dancing, it’s a very important part of the culture with dance music being the most important music, particularly fast dance music. There is sad music for when you lose someone but it’s fast music you can dance to that Kurdish people love.
And you dance here in Liverpool don’t you?
Yes I am a good dancer now in Liverpool. I dance Latin, Tango, Bachata, Salsa, Merengue, Swing, Jazz, Reggaeton (free style) and am teaching people dancing, music, piano, violin and Cajon (drum) both electric and acoustic. I do drawing and work as a volunteer in two workshops for acting, film and drama.
Do you think music, and the arts in general can play a role in bringing together people from different countries and cultures?
Yes, music, dance and art are really important in bringing people together from different cultures. Music from different cultures can seem strange at first but then you get used to it and start to like it. It’s like food, it’s not good or bad, it’s just what you’re used to. It’s what you’ve grown up with and your history. My latest band is mixing Middle Eastern and European music, everyone can listen to and relate to this. With dancing, you don’t need language, only body language, so different nationalities can easily dance together. Painting is the same, you see something and you draw it, you don’t need talking, everyone can understand what it means. It’s the same with acting and film, nationality doesn’t make a difference, anyone could watch me act and would understand what I was doing.
You seem to be so involved in all of the arts, what future plans do you have for yourself?
I want to make a film about the journey of people coming from the Middle East to the UK and show the reality, of having no food etc. And show that people aren’t coming for fun, they have no choice. I have been 10 years apart from my Mum. I want to have dinner with my family and cuddle my Mum. I’ve spent 7 years with no house and no benefits, it’s not fun, I had no choice.
Hopefully you will be able to see your family again soon though as you recently got some very good news didn’t you?
Yes, 15 days ago I got my visa, after 7 years. I’m waiting for my ID card, I’m going to start uni, get a house and get a job and in the summer I will go and see my family for the first time in 10 years.
I’m so pleased for you, you must be so glad after all this time and all you’ve been through?
Now I’ve got my visa I am happy and excited for the summer and going to see my +family and going back to university to complete my degree after losing it.