“Whatever you do, please don’t turn away and pretend we don’t exist. And don’t, for one second, think it couldn’t have been you.”
We interviewed human rights activist Hoda Ali about what it means to be a refugee working in the UK.
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
My name is Hoda Ali and I am a nurse and human rights activist. My focus is defending the rights of girls through campaigning to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in the United Kingdom. FGM is one of the most extreme forms of violence against girls and women. It involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia and has devastating lifelong consequences for survivors. FGM is usually carried out on girls before they reach puberty. It is child abuse.
I currently lead a 3-year project working as a Community Outreach Project Manager for Safeguarding in Perivale Primary School, one of the first schools to set up an outreach programme on FGM. Education is critical in preventing FGM and through our outreach programme we educate in the school and run workshops for parents and the wider community. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive, and we are working together to ensure the safety of all the girls in our schools.
My passion for human rights comes from my own experience as a survivor of FGM and being a child refugee. In 1988 my family had to flee from its home when the first civil war broke out in Somaliland and 1991 after the second civil war started in Mogadishu, we had to leave Somalia. Eventually, I came to the UK and I have now lived here for 21 years.
After qualifying as a nurse, I worked in the sexual health clinic at Ealing hospital and after taking part in the Channel 4 documentary The Cruel Cut in 2012 I started campaigning against FGM. In 2013 I co-founded the Vavengers, an FGM awareness-raising group and we ran the first anti-FGM billboard campaign in the UK.
In March 2018 I was nominated as an Amnesty International Human Rights Defender and I was honoured to be included on the Suffragette Spirit Map.
This month we are focusing on women in conflict; from displaced peoples to the women working in conflict zones as journalists and medics. How can we be more aware of their experiences?
It can be easy to rush through life, focusing on our personal priorities and not taking time to think about life from another person’s perspective. In a country like the UK it can be hard to imagine suddenly losing everything, but it is the reality for millions of people whose lives are torn apart by war, famine or other disasters. Women and children are especially vulnerable in all conflicts and suffer terribly. Try and think about if that was you, imagine leaving everything you know behind, your country, your home, your friends, your school and everything familiar. These things are gone forever, and you no longer feel safe. What would you do? Who would you turn to for help?
We should all try to be more aware of what is happening in the world and pay attention to the stories of those living in or escaping from war zones. Follow the work of journalists who go to the refugee camps and allow the voices of the injured and homeless to be heard. When you hear the heart-breaking personal stories and not just the political posturing of warring leaders you start to understand what war really means.
If you are lucky to live in safety and prosperity, treasure it and use your advantaged position to support those who need your empathy and help.
Can you tell us a little bit about the challenges that refugees face whilst living in the UK?
Leaving everything behind in one life and beginning another in a new country with different laws, different education and health systems, different languages and different cultural expectations is frightening and requires a period of adjustment.
For people who seek refugee status the process is one of the most difficult things they go through due to the circumstances under which they leave their home country. It is administratively complicated and can feel dehumanising and many refugees are deeply traumatised, so this difficult process is even more challenging.
One of the worst things is feeling isolated. Refugees may be separated from family and friends and everything around them is unfamiliar. Communication may be difficult or even impossible due to language barriers and this makes integrating into a new community very hard. Food, clothes and all the daily things we take for granted seem strange and can get overwhelming when you are suddenly in a new country.
There is also a lot of ignorance and racism towards refugees. It is exhausting and soul destroying to have to constantly justify yourself. Settled refugees contribute greatly to their new homes but this is rarely acknowledged.
Being a refugee is especially hard for children. You lose everything including your sense of safety and may be separated from your parents which has a huge psychological impact. Many refugee children also have interrupted education and need support to catch up. However, given security and support most go on to shine!
If you could share one thing with our supporters, what would it be?
Some days, just hearing the news makes it hard to breathe. Like everyone else, I want to shut my ears whenever the word refugee is mentioned. Switch stations on the radio; turn off the TV and pretend it isn’t happening. But unlike most people, I can’t. You see, I know what war is. The words ‘bombs’ and ‘massacre’ are not something I’ve only ever heard in the news. I am a refugee and I always will be.
While EU Governments debate whether to give shelter and to how many, my hope lies in people. Everyone can help. There are things we can change in the long-term, and we have the resources to respond immediately to help those in crisis now. Write to your MEP/MP and tell them the UK has a responsibility to offer sanctuary. If we stay silent it is assumed that we don’t want to help refugees so do not let them think that you don’t care. Write to the papers and the BBC whenever you hear the word ‘migrant’ being used to describe those fleeing war. Tell them the word is ‘refugee.’ Tell them words matter when people’s lives are at stake.
Whatever you do, please don’t turn away and pretend we don’t exist. And don’t, for one second, think it couldn’t have been you.