By Veecca Smith Uka, Co-founder of Sisters United and Refugee Week Ambassador
I show my presence everywhere in Halifax, my new home city – at the council, at schools, at hospitals. I’ve been in the UK for six years and my passion is to give refugees and asylum seekers the support I never got when I first arrived.
I don’t just go with people when they need to register with their GP for the first time, I’m also there with them when they have physiotherapy appointments, maternity appointments and even heart surgery. I help other refugees and asylum seekers register their children at school and I make sure they get free uniforms – these parents are often living on just on £35 a week for food, clothing, transport, everything. I babysit for others when they need to go for their appointments.
I also do everything I can to help people with the loneliness that can come with being in a new country. I give walking tours around the town, often grouping people from same country together, and I also organise community groups to go out together. In these groups, we do things like going to the countryside to visit farms, to cinemas, to York Minster and community meetings where people can socialise.
The reason I do all this? Because I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.
When I arrived in the UK, the change in how I was treated came as a shock. Suddenly I was referred to and defined as “Oh, this poor asylum seeker and her children.” Whereas in Nigeria my home country, I had everything. I was doing well in my profession. I had good money and all the latest cars.
When I flew into the UK, I had a feeling of finally being saved, being free to be myself. This is the dream of everyone who has lived in fear of persecution in their country. After everything you’ve gone through, you now believe you’re in a country where there’s human rights – you never think you will be immediately reduced to a criminal, to almost nothing.
When you’re dehumanised, that feeling quite often is mentally draining. I felt like my qualifications and experiences had gone down the drain overnight, because first and foremost you’re labelled as “Asylum seeker” or “Refugee” and often that comes with a stigma. Instead of being saved, I found myself lost in the UK’s “hostile environment” and complicated immigration system. At one point, I was even made homeless when my landlord forcefully locked us out of our house because of the government’s Right to Rent rules.
The system often knocks you down, but it is up to you to keep your sanity and refuse to give up. You just need to keep going with a big smile, because you know who you are and how strong you are. You’ll finally find your feet and see your children settled into school.
In July 2016, my children and I were placed in Halifax. We had no local connections and no one to turn to – it felt so far from the rest of the world. I was glad to have my mobile phone for directions. I began to find my feet and a real turning point for me was when I was welcomed into the fantastic team of St Augustine’s Center, a community centre that is regarded by everyone as a home for all. Once you have local connections, things start to free up.
I started to work hard, volunteering everyday in Halifax, Bradford, Leeds and Manchester, to help people with refugee status to apply for the benefits that they’re entitled to and integrate into the community. I volunteered with amazing organisations such as St Augustines, Shelter, Reachout Leeds, and African Rainbow Family. The housing situation for people seeking asylum was a very big issue – the houses are very bad and if something like the cooker, washing machine, or boiler breaks down, getting it repaired takes forever.
If you believe in yourself, a lot can be achieved and you can change the image of people seeking asylum. I became the BAME Officer for Calderdale Labour Party. I’ve also been recognised by UNHCR and Migrant Organise as woman of the year in Women on the Move Awards.
If you believe in humanity and yourself, and if you fight for what you believe, your goals will be achieved. It’s about celebrating who you are and not giving up on yourself.