Ipswich 'gave me reason to believe': 6 asylum seekers who fled their countries for life in Suffolk
PUBLISHED: 06:50 29 December 2019 | UPDATED: 13:03 29 December 2019
They fled the most heartbreaking situations imaginable, including war and genocide - and came to Suffolk seeking a better life.
Yet despite the pain of leaving their native lands behind, these asylum seekers are glad they sought refuge in Ipswich - because it gave them a life they never thought possible, when all hope seemed lost.
Ehsan, Izaac and Francois, who have asked only to be referred to by their first names, and V, A and G, who have asked us to just use their initials, each came to the county trying to escape systemic killings, civil war and violence.
The harrowing scenes they witnessed, which included dead bodies floating in water and villages being burned to the ground, would be enough of an ordeal for anyone.
Yet as they tried to deal with the trauma of what they had seen in their own countries, they arrived in a new country - feeling safe, but faced with the immense task of rebuilding their lives in an unfamiliar country where some did not even know the language.
Thankfully for them, Suffolk Refugee Support (SRS) - a charity set up to give advice and practical support to refugees in the county - was there to help guide them to a brighter future.
Their stories, released by SRS as part of its 20th anniversary year in 2019, are not only tales of amazing success but show the remarkable contribution even those who arrived in Britain with no English or knowledge of the UK system can make.
Ehsan was one of the first asylum seekers supported by SRS, as he arrived in the UK as the charity was starting up in 1999.
His family had been politically active in his homeland of Afghanistan, with his father holding high positions in the government.
But he said: "Unfortunately, all our family including me had to flee Afghanistan during the Taliban regime."
After reading medicine at Istanbul University, Ehsan and his wife arrived at the Port of Felixstowe as asylum seekers.
"We did not know any English," he said.
"However we found people very friendly and supportive. I learned English quickly within six months of our arrival and started to work as an interpreter."
He wanted to work as a doctor but needed to achieve a high score in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam.
"There was no preparation course in Ipswich and SRS helped me by securing funding to take a course in London," he said.
After completing all the necessary exams, Ehsan started working as a doctor by the end of 2003.
He is now GP partner and GP trainer in Ipswich and is also a medical advisor and GP appraiser for NHS England.
Izaac comes from the Darfur region of western Sudan and, in 2004, watched as his village was burned to the ground and his farm was destroyed by the 'Janjaweed' militia, supported by the Sudanese government.
He was separated from his wife and children and detained, but after a few days managed to escape.
Izaac went back to the village to find his livestock dead and no sign of his family. He walked across mountains at night and escaped Sudan on board a ship in a lorry carrying goats and sheep. He did not know where he was going or whether his family were alive or dead.
He arrived at the port of Felixstowe late in 2004 and claimed asylum. He later learned his wife and children were still alive, but he did not know where they were.
SRS helped Izaac, through the Red Cross tracing service, to find his family and they were finally reunited in 2007. Today, Izaac is a British citizen and lives in Ipswich with his family.
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V is a Tamil from northern Sri Lanka. Her father was a writer and poet who worked with the Tamil Tigers, who were involved in a long-running conflict with the Sri Lankan government.
V was first displaced when she was a child and her family were forced to move frequently for their safety - but, while there was a ceasefire, V was able to start working for Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children.
But when the war re-started in 2008, V found herself, along with her husband and child, in the middle of a war zone.
The violence followed them to a coastal area where, along with many other Tamil civilians, they were forced to dig bunkers in the beach and shelter there to avoid the shelling. V's son still remembers the dead bodies floating in the water.
At the end of the conflict, V's family were held in a camp for six months and interrogated.
Today, V lives in Ipswich with her husband and children, where she has worked with SRS as a trainee advice worker.
Francois said that before the Rwandan genocide, he "had a big happy family" and "lived a beautiful and happy childhood".
However he said this "changed completely" when he came one evening to be to told: "All your family is gone. All your family is dead and your house destroyed."
Francois said: "It was an unimaginable feeling. At the age of 10 I started to wander around, from bush to bush in hiding without knowing where I am or what I am doing. I was walking dead, and I could smell death.
"After the genocide, orphanages struggled to cope with the number of lone children. At around 16 I was on the streets of Kigali, the capital city, living on my own and unable to speak, to cry or sleep.
"I had no home, I had no family, I lost all trust in humankind and I could not talk to anyone. Until the day I met a British missionary, who is the reason I'm here today.
"I claimed asylum in 2011 and I had to wait two and a half painful years to get refugee status.
"During this time the support from SRS and my church was amazing. I was not able to sleep for many years and I was helped by the counselling I received in this country, in Ipswich.
"It is the British people I live with today who gave me a reason to believe and trust humans again. I met wonderful people in my church, in the community and at the University of Suffolk, where I completed my degree in social work a year ago.
"All these people have rebuilt my personality. They have made me the new person I am today. Knowing where I come from, I can show kindness to humanity and support those in need. That is what makes me feel happy and complete."
Francois today works as a social worker and lives in Ipswich with his wife and children. He calls his journey "a story of good overcoming evil".
A and G
A and G had 10 hectares of land in Syria where they grew tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, aubergines, beans, apples, pears and tout shami (a type of mulberry).
They used to drive from their village in the Homs region to Damascus to sell their produce.
But as the civil war escalated in July 2012, they heard gunfire as they drive on the main road out of Damascus.
A says he looked directly into the eyes of a sniper who fired at him, hitting his left hand which was on the steering wheel.
G desperately took off her headscarf and tied it round A's arm as a bandage, as he became dizzy with blood loss.
The family returned home when A had recovered, only to discover that their home had been destroyed by shelling.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) selected the family for resettlement and they arrived in Ipswich in December 2016.
SRS showed them "how to do almost everything" and then now have a calm and peaceful life in the Suffolk countryside, with their two younger children both doing well at school and the eldest working.