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Refugees from Sudan, Eritrea and Iraq reveal their heartbreaking journeys to the UK and the kindness of people in Kent


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This year thousands of people have crossed the perilous Channel strait to the Kent coast, in an effort to escape war, persecution and brutality.

More than 8,000 made the death-defying journey in 2020, after conditions in Calais and the coronavirus pandemic made those seeking asylum all the more desperate to reach the safety of the UK shore.

People landing on the Kinsgdown shore after crossing the Channel. Picture Christian Thrale
People landing on the Kinsgdown shore after crossing the Channel. Picture Christian Thrale

Some have tragically died trying to reach the UK in inflatable craft, highlighting the desperation of those risking everything for a better life.

People have sought sanctuary in England for decades, and many were lucky enough to survive their arduous journeys to settle and build lives for themselves alongside the people of Kent.

What keeps many of them here is the kindness and acceptance they found - from the Kurdish poet who discovered his voice in Folkestone, to the Eritrean student who found a second chance through the love of her Faversham foster family.

The Sudanese journalist

Raga Gibreel realised her life was in danger when she was threatened by high-ranking government officials to bury a newspaper story she was working on.

Raga Gibreel fled from Sudan in 2008
Raga Gibreel fled from Sudan in 2008

The note said that she 'knew what would happen' if the story, which made the ruling government look bad, ever saw the light of day.

She said: "We had a few incidents on the newspaper where a reporter was attacked, our editor in chief was arrested several times - I was the only female journalist who escaped being put in prison.

"For the last three months working there I wasn’t paid at all, and the reason was because the government has put pressure in the paper, they couldn’t sell any papers or report anything. It was wild beyond belief."

Growing up on the outskirts of the Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, life in the Black Belt bristled with danger around every corner.

Raga said: "I am over 40 and I cannot recall a day that I lived in my country when it was actually peaceful.

Sudan is in north-east Africa. Picture: Google Maps
Sudan is in north-east Africa. Picture: Google Maps

"I was seven years old when I first saw my government using bullets. It was from that time I started to understand that the people who are governing our country are insensitive, very aggressive, and we are really confused and don’t know who to turn to."

As a child, she can remember government-sanctioned militia forcing their way inside houses across the community. The soldiers would beat the men outside, and Raga and her family were forced to listen.

She said: "When they beat up people at night all the neighbourhood would have to stay up hearing the noise and the screaming of the men.

"They would often recruit men who were not part of the army, but militias. The government rent places for them to live in and they’re armed. They will accommodate them in camps and they handled things on behalf of the government."

Raga was fortunate enough to go to university, something unusual for those living in the challenging environment of Khartoum's outskirts.

'The neighbourhood would have to stay up hearing the noise and the screaming of the men...'

But her fear for her government continued to grow, when one day government officials marched Raga and her friends out of their university building.

She said: "I had to leave the laboratory with guns behind me. There were a group of students at the university that had a political debate, but we weren’t involved.

"We had all this army coming just for a politician coming to the university. They used tear gas, they used bullets and marched us out - one of my friends who was pregnant and actually lost their child because of it. That’s how fearful people can be during these situations, and it was a normal day really."

Upon graduating Raga spent a lot of time at the British Council library, where she met a kind Englishman called Andy.

She said: "He smoked a lot, we called him smoky Andy. He supported me struggling with my English and he was the man who taught me how to read and write, access facilities on Open learning and made me feel welcome. During that period I made a lot of friends."

Skyline of the Sudanese capital. Picture: iStock/mtcurado
Skyline of the Sudanese capital. Picture: iStock/mtcurado

Her passion for human rights led her to founding her charity Green Kordofan, supporting people who had displaced by civil war in the country.

She also got her job working at The Citizen Newspaper as a reporter, after the editor hired her for a translation job but realised her talents were being wasted.

But as things got worse in Sudan, on March 26, 2008, Raga hatched a secret plan to escape, telling nobody except a close friend.

She fled to the airport and managed to board a flight to the UK, and as far as her family and colleagues were concerned she was there one day and gone the next.

Two months later a militia group from Darfur invaded the capital Sudan - if Raga had delayed her travel it would have been a security matter and there would not have been any flights.

Her charity Green Kordofan supports Sudanese people who have been forced to flee the civil war in their home country
Her charity Green Kordofan supports Sudanese people who have been forced to flee the civil war in their home country

Now settled into life in Folkestone, Raga only contacts people in her home country occasionally, to protect her family and friends.

She said: "I keep it minimal, with Sudan I keep my communication with limited members of people who are very close to me. I try my best to keep my personal relationship as limited a possible. It’s not like I don’t like to be close to my community but it carries a level of risk."

Her younger brother was drafted into the military when he was just 13, and Raga's outspoken stance against the Sudanese government could risk his safety.

She said: "He was brutalised. The army used to send their truck around the Black Belt and they cannot got to UNICEF or report things. The children were targeted basically.

"I never thought my brother would be sent to Yemen to kill people. I never thought my country would get to that level."

'It’s not like I don’t like to be close to my community but it carries a level of risk...'

Raga does not think she will return to Sudan any time soon, but the kindness of friends she has made in this county keep her here.

She added: "I think I will always have a place for Kent people in my heart.

"I would never have come to this country if I hadn’t felt I could make it or I could be safe among you. If I hadn’t had a little trust that I had been safe here I wouldn’t have done it."

The Kurdish poet

When Kadir Samad began his year-long 3,000 mile journey to the UK, Saddam Hussein was still the president of Iraq.

Kadir Samad fled from Iraq in 1999
Kadir Samad fled from Iraq in 1999

The year was 1999, and Kadir was nearing the end of his drama university studies at the University of Baghdad.

But mandatory military service was looming upon the completion of his studies - and without serving he would not be granted a passport.

Kadir said: "There is no choice, war after war…You study 18 months or two years and you have to go to be a soldier. The people don’t have a normal life. The situation is not safe.

"There is no freedom or better life, this is the main reason for people to leave.

"I wanted to be an artist, studying drama and acting on a stage. I’ve read T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Joyce, I read all the Shakespeare in the world."

Dohuk, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq (May 28, 2017). Picture: iStock/Joel Carillet
Dohuk, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq (May 28, 2017). Picture: iStock/Joel Carillet

Kadir made the decision to risk his life by leaving the country and seeking sanctuary in the UK, rather than risk being killed in the ongoing wars.

Without a passport he had no choice to set out on foot, traipsing through northern Iraq and over the Zagros mountains into Turkey.

Kadir said: "They call the way ‘to be or not to be’. If you are lucky and destiny gives you a life, you’ll pass.

"But if destiny doesn’t give you a chance to live then you will die, or you will be shot by soldiers on both sides."

Arriving in Istanbul with no money in his pockets, Kadir worked for five months before attempting to cross over the border to Greece.

Kadir fled Iraq so he would not risk his life in military service
Kadir fled Iraq so he would not risk his life in military service

It was here he nearly lost his life, trespassing through a train tunnel with several others.

Kadir said: "We went inside the tunnel, but I had too much pain in my foot. I had to run quickly.

"And some people inside came back to help for me. If I was on my own I 100% would have lost my life.

"I’m lucky, my destiny gave me a chance and I got to this country safely. But there is plenty of people who lose their life."

Finally making it to Calais, fatigued but alive, Kadir paid to be smuggled inside a truck to get to the UK, where he claimed asylum.

'We went inside the tunnel, but I had too much pain in my foot. I had to run quickly...'

Taking as many English language courses as he could, he worked hard to integrate into life in Kent as best as he could.

But between 2005 and 2014 Kadir was left feeling incredibly isolated.

It was only upon attending a poetry night in Folkestone he was coaxed out of his shell and found friends.

Kadir said: "I just sat in the corner and listened to them. One day they said to me ‘come on, read a poem, we want to listen to the Kurdish and what it sounds like.’"

Members of the group helped him with his translation and turns of phrase, until he was confident enough to perform his poems in English too.

Kadir performing his poetry
Kadir performing his poetry

He said: “I got to integrate with the community, the people, and at that moment I finally felt like I was really living in the UK.

"Why? Before this there was no way to get in touch with people. The poetry for me helped express my feelings, how my life was one of loneliness, my days of exile. All my sadness came out of my poem."

Kadir now happily lives in the coastal town, but still yearns for his homelands scorched by the horrors of war.

He said: "The diaspora, and living in other countries is not easy, it’s not a choice.

"Yes I have a life here and a British passport, but at the end there is something you lost."

One of Kadir's poems
One of Kadir's poems

The Eritrean nursing student

Having lived in the UK since 2015, Rishan Tsegay knows more about Britain than the place she was born.

The East-African country of Eritrea borders the Red Sea, and some 300 miles beyond that lies the coast of Saudi Arabia.

To the west is Sudan, where Rishan's family escaped to after suffering from Eritrea's one-man dictatorship under President Isaias Afewerki.

But life in the neighbouring country was not much better, and at 16-years-old Rishan made plans to leave.

Rishan began her year-long journey to the UK in 2014
Rishan began her year-long journey to the UK in 2014

She said: "I didn’t tell my family, I just left. I was the oldest sister, I have two sisters and one brother.

"I felt I had to do it, I didn’t tell my mum because she would have stopped me. I left with my friends and went to Libya."

In Libya, Rishan was imprisoned with hundreds of people for four months: "I was in one place where hundreds of people were in one small room. We didn’t see the sun, I missed days because I didn’t know what time it was."

Although Libya was difficult, Rishan said others had an even more traumatic time: "Other girls were raped, they’d be abused and harmed. I heard a lot of other people, so I was lucky to say Libya was better than Calais."

On the way to France Rishan lost contact with many of her friends.

Eritrea sits to the east of Sudan. Picture: Google Maps
Eritrea sits to the east of Sudan. Picture: Google Maps

She said: "I know some some of them are in Sweden, some in Germany, I keep in contact with them.

"But one friend we lost in Libya. They separated us in different lorries to get to Italy, and we ended up in different boats.

"His boat didn’t survive, and I found out in Italy he didn’t make it."

Rishan arrived in France and had to resort to living in the Calais jungle for a month, struggling to stay warm in flimsy tents.

The 23-year-old said: "I thought getting to France was going to be different, but going into the jungle it was horrible, I hated my life there more than in Libya.

French police next to tents lining the road in Calais. Picture: Poppy Cleary
French police next to tents lining the road in Calais. Picture: Poppy Cleary

"I came to Calais and seeing people going to the lorries and jumping in, and I was like ‘okay I’m going with them’ because that must be a better place."

Finally arriving in the UK, Rishan was exhausted: "I was so tired when I got here because the journey took so long, the first thing I wanted was just a bed to sleep in.

"I felt like I made it and couldn’t believe I was here, because most of the people I know didn’t, some of them died.

"I don’t where they are now. I feel like I made it, it was like an achievement I survived."

At 17-years-old Rishan was classed as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child, and was placed with a foster family in Faversham by Kent County Council.

She is now studying to be a nurse
She is now studying to be a nurse

Here she discovered people who supported her and helped her to integrate into a country and culture alien to her own.

She said: "I love my foster family, they are such amazing people.

"I was loved and cared for by people who loved me, but when I went outside to college with people a similar age it was difficult for me. I was trying really hard to fit in."

But determined to make a better life for herself than the one in Sudan, Rishan worked tirelessly through the GCSEs and A Levels to realise her dream of being able to help others in need.

She is now studying Adult Nursing at Canterbury Christ Church University with the aim of becoming an NHS nurse, and in her spare time works as a youth ambassador for the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN).

'To judge is easy, but to be in their shoes is hard...'

Rishan works with other children who have arrived in the UK seeking asylum, and helps to put them at ease in their new life: "It’s my role to tell them ‘it’s okay to ask this person, it’s okay to say what you need, it’s okay for you to feel that kind of way because I came here and I had this experience.

"They’re scared even to ask for help because they don’t know how to trust people."

Having experienced the kindness of her foster family and others in the community, Rishan hopes more people in Kent critical of asylum seekers crossing the Channel will think twice before judging them.

"For you to watch from TV and say ‘Why would someone do that, why would they risk their life?’

"It’s easy to watch something and then judge on it. But when you’ve been in the same situation, you don’t have another option. At the time I felt I had to do it for my mum and two sisters and brother.

Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network
Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network

"To judge is easy, but to be in their shoes is hard."

Bridget Chapman, from KRAN, said: "The KRAN Youth Ambassadors are a key part of our team. They have lived experience of seeking asylum, and their voices and experiences are vital in deciding how we work.

"They help shape KRAN's priorities as they feed in the issues that are affecting young refugees in Kent on a day-to-day basis, and they give us important feedback on where we are doing well, and where we need to make changes.

"All our ambassadors are wonderful and Rishan is a great example. She takes her role incredibly seriously and keeps us on our toes, she is a terrific ambassador for KRAN, eloquent and passionate, and with a fierce determination to improve the life chances of young refugees in Kent.

"She is absolutely brilliant and contributes so much to what we do."

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