“We need to look after refugees with generosity and kindness”

On World Refugee Day, Aghileh Djafari Marbini recounts her personal story that underlines the importance of the Refugee Convention.

On a cold dreary November 1992 morning we landed in Heathrow Airport from Iran.  My mum and my two sisters had had an unusually early morning start. We woke up 3 am Iranian time and for the last time drove from my aunt’s flat in Tehran to the airport to fly to London.  All of our belongings were in four suitcases.

Earlier that month my mother had received a call from the British consulate in Tehran. They had told her my dad’s refugee status had been approved by the Home Office and she was to go to the consulate to get a family visa to travel to the United Kingdom.

It was a day of heightened emotions. On the one hand, we were all relieved that my father’s asylum claim had been accepted by the British government and we were to see my dad after a year of being away from him and he would finally be safe. On the other, we were leaving an extended family that we loved and relied on – and also everything we had and we knew.

I remember crying endlessly at the airport saying goodbye to over twenty family members who had come to say goodbye. The crying didn’t stop in the aeroplane. My memory still tells me that we cried the whole five and half hours of flight but I am sure that can’t be true.

Happily, those days we were not aware that we had years of difficulties and challenges in front of us: the day to day was hard enough. We lived with my aunt in London for the first few weeks and then we were given two adjacent rooms in a B&B. I still remember the peculiar smell on the B&B and I remember the day that the owner was falling around completely inebriated and my sisters, who had never seen a drunk person in our lives, coming from practising Muslim family, were horrified and scared in equal measure. To his credit, the next day he came with a bunch of flowers and apologised to my mum and dad.

We were finally given a council house and I am forever grateful for that. I don’t know what we would have had to do if that was not available, as it is not for thousands of others today.

School was a real challenge for all of us. Hosnieh and I were teenagers with almost no English, with all the anxieties that all teenagers face in their lives. Teenagers are not kind to each other and being so very foreign made both us stick out like a sore thumb. My youngest sister was four and going to school, not knowing what yes and no meant. I am a mum of two young kids myself and if you ask any parent, those few first days of school are as traumatic for the parent as they are for the child. I don’t know how my mum and dad managed to let her go every morning at the school gate, knowing that she didn’t understand English. Recently my sister told me that if my parents were late one minute she felt really scared, and to this day that feeling of fear has remained in her life.  

Since then I have missed many important things, I have lost two aunts and grandparents and have not been able to say goodbye. My daughter has never been to Iran. These are things easily dismissed when you have them and heart-wrenching when you can’t have them.

And yet with all this going on, I have to admit that my family was one of the lucky ones for a number of reasons. My aunt and her family always showered us with love and supported us as much as they could. We are forever grateful to them all.

My dad was a known editor of a newspaper, so it was not difficult to prove the veracity of his asylum case. It had been covered by Amnesty and other organisations. It took only a year for him to get his refugee status.

My parents didn’t speak English but had lived in Germany in their student years so had some understanding of the west and how things worked.

These are all positions of privilege if you are a refugee family, despite not having money and feeling foreign. Things are often much harder for most asylum-seeking families: loneliness, lack of English, lack of knowing how to access services and support, no matter how limited what is on offer. However, I am convinced the most painful of all is homesickness: to this day I have a pain in my heart that does not disappear for long no matter how happy I am.

29 years ago when my family moved to England, things were much easier. There seemed to be more respect for the legal commitments that our governments have to the Refugee Convention.   I thought hard how to frame this article on World Refugee Day and I wondered whether a personal piece was appropriate. I came to the conclusion that the reality of people’s lives are sometimes easier to understand than mere statistics and numbers.

I wanted people to know that becoming a refugee is not a choice. People don’t wake up one morning in a fit of madness and decide to leave their home and move half way across the world. They carry grief, trauma and sadness, which they often carry with them for the rest of their lives. We need to look after them with generosity and kindness as we do at our best.

On this Refugee Day, I pay tribute to my parents for a life that has never been without struggle of one kind or another. They have paid dearly for wanting a better future for their country. For our part, we need to make sure we elect politicians that do not create a hostile environment for refugees – Labour ones included.

Aghileh’s mother and sisters soon after arrival in the UK

Aghileh Djafari Marbini is a Labour Party activist in Harrow.

More of her family’s story can be found in these videos made by her sister Hosnieh here and here

Main image: A multi-lingual poster for World Refugee Day written in various languages. Author: MisterMashtots, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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