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Refugee studying at Canterbury College describes journey across Sahara from Eritrea to Kent

From crossing the Sahara to hiding in a freezing lorry, refugee Luwam made a perilous journey to the UK - and has now made Kent her home.

Crowded into the back of a pick-up truck in sweltering heat at the age of 14, she had no idea back then she was headed for Great Britain.

She was in the Sahara desert and terrified. She had seen other passengers – many refugees like her from Eritrea – left behind after losing grip and falling into the sand.

Refugee Luwam, who still fears for her family's safety, speaks to reporter Anna MacSwan
Refugee Luwam, who still fears for her family's safety, speaks to reporter Anna MacSwan

Their driver was now lost, having changed course to avoid another vehicle thought to be carrying people traffickers.

“I thought we were going to die. It was really, really hot and we ran out of water and food. Even the driver lost hope,” she says.

“We had to stop for two days. He said ‘We can’t go anywhere, because I don’t know where we are’.

“There were so many people. Some of them would fall and we would scream. But they don’t care who dies.”

All but certain they would not make it any further, they were eventually found by another vehicle and given directions to Libya. From there, Luwam would carry on to Europe.

Today, Luwam is 20 and has made Canterbury her home.

A vivacious young woman who studies health and social care at Canterbury College, she has a job as a carer and is determined to become a mental health nurse.


She wants people to understand how she has beaten the odds to do so.

“People need to understand that to leave your family and go through this journey, come to a new country, get an education, learn a new language a new culture, it’s a lot,” she said.

In Eritrea, Luwam’s home country, there are no elections, no constitution and no independent media outlets. According to Human Rights Watch, 12% of its population has fled.

All citizens are required to serve an indefinite period of national service, often in the army.

Her father, who she barely knows, is one of them.

Luwam decided to escape as a teen but was caught and imprisoned for a month.

“We were in a situation where I would have rather died...” - Luwam

She was released but barred from returning to school, leaving her with little option but to get married – so she fled again.

Her seven-month journey took her through Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, Italy and France.

She was reunited with her brother in Sudan. But knowing the dangers of the sea crossing to Europe – which in 2015, the year they made the journey, claimed 3,770 lives – they split up to increase their chances of survival.

“We thought if one of us did die, one of us would still be alive,” she says.

Even several years later, her bubbly demeanour changes when conversation turns to her two months in Libya, where migrants are frequently raped, beaten and tortured in detention centres.

But what she does say is enough.

“We were in a situation where I would have rather died,” she says.

Luwam says she was beaten - while other girls were raped.

Refugee Luwam, who still fears for her family's safety, speaks to reporter Anna MacSwan
Refugee Luwam, who still fears for her family's safety, speaks to reporter Anna MacSwan

“It was really hard to get through it,” she says.

She never planned to end up in the UK, but says she just wanted somewhere safe.

“When I arrived in Italy, people said they were going to England, France or Germany.

"I just followed them, because I didn’t know the difference,” she explained.

She eventually reached the so-called Calais Jungle. At the camp, she became close to another Eritrean girl and the pair made it to Kent by stowing themselves in a refrigerated lorry.

Luwam, who lives in Hales Place and wants to study nursing at Canterbury Christ Church University, says she is so busy with her studies and work that she has hardly any time to socialise.

“I want to do everything,” she said.

“I don’t want to stay at home. I don’t want to be on benefits. I want to be a success in my life.”

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. When she first arrived in the UK, she spoke no English, but gradually learnt after being placed with a foster family in Folkestone.

"I don’t want to be on benefits. I want to be a success in my life...” - Luwam

“I used to learn grammar on YouTube – how to speak, how to pronounce words, and how to write. I was excited to learn English.

“Through learning you can make friends, you can meet people, you can read, you can watch films,” she says.

Two years later, the Home Office accepted her application for refugee status, giving her permission to settle in the UK.

After enrolling at Canterbury College, she moved to the city and into a shared flat.

Then aged 17, she relied heavily on her foster mum and help from the charity Kent Refugee Action Network to learn how to live independently.

“I didn’t know what shops to go to and which ones were expensive, they were all the same to me.

“My foster mum taught me to go to Aldi, how to manage money, how to buy food, and even how to wash my clothes,” she says.

“Now it’s easy, but it was difficult. I used to phone all the time and say ‘I’m stuck’.”

The trauma she and so many other refugees endure as they search for somewhere to rebuild their lives has made her all the more determined to become a nurse, she says.

“I would really love to help people who have mental health issues.

“Not just Eritrean people, anyone who has been through it,” she explains.

“When I think about my journey, my mum, and how I’m here and everything is new for me, it’s a lot. It’s really hard, for some people.

“But with the right support, people can do a lot of things.”

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