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Fleeing Iraq and forming friendships in Stockport

(6 min read)

Maha (not her real name) is a regular volunteer at the Stockport Race Equality Partnership. In January 2023 she was forced to flee her home country, Iraq. Now she and her family are seeking asylum in the UK. Maha shared her story with us to help raise awareness of how lives can be turned upside down and thrown into the asylum system so suddenly and unexpectedly.

I spoke with Maha at The Space, Stockport’s Cultural and Wellbeing hub. We found a quiet corner amidst a bustle of activity; people chatting, practising their English, others receiving support with housing issues, some just sitting quietly enjoying the warm and welcoming environment.

Maha starts her story in Iraq,

“In my home country of Iraq I had everything. I ran my own accountancy business. I had my own house, my own car. I lived with my husband and three children and had no problems. I had a good and comfortable life.
My life changed drastically when my friends came to me about a problem they had and needed my help. I was not involved in the issue directly but I wanted to help them. I soon found out that this was enough to put me and my family in serious danger. I just wanted to help someone and it changed my life. I lost everything. All of a sudden, in the space of 1 or 2 months almost everything was taken away from me. We were in serious trouble, people wanted to kill us. All I could think about was how to keep hold of my kids and my family.
We urgently needed to seek safety. We managed to find someone to help us move from Iraq. We would have gone anywhere that was safe. We came to the UK by plane in January 2023."

Tearful, Maha continues,

"Now, I am depressed. This life is so hard for me.
When we arrived at the airport we explained our situation and said that we are seeking asylum. The Home Office brought us to Stockport and placed us in a hotel. They are currently keeping hold of our passports and personal documents and we are waiting to find out what is happening with them.
In the hotel it’s hard. The five of us share one hotel room. There is no place for the kids to play. My two boys are aged 10 and 9. They want to play football but they can’t. None of us have any privacy.”

A few weeks after arriving, Maha noticed a flyer in the hotel for the S-REP sewing group on a Tuesday morning.

“I wanted to volunteer and initially it was just an opportunity to get out of the hotel room for a bit. I met Aba and she was so kind and good to us. She helped us so much, even with developing our English. I learned how to use a needle and thread but I also helped with registering participants. Then I started to help at the Cultural Food Bank with cleaning. Aba now calls me whenever she needs help at events for example. I really enjoy these experiences. Really, I was so happy when I found Aba.
S-REP has supported me in so many ways. They’ve given me vouchers for shopping at Asda and to use at the foodbank. Even for the kids in the holidays they have made food and organised games and activities.”

Maha explains how the opportunity to volunteer at S-REP provides her with vital escapism

“When I come here, even though I am just volunteering, I can get out of my situation a bit. It helps me, it’s better to be active.
I’m now friends with a lot of people. Even in the hotel I have friends. But your problems stay with you.
I cannot sleep at night. The problem I am in and the threat I’ve experienced fills my head. I go to the GP and they give me medication for sleeping because I cannot sleep.
We still have family and friends in Iraq but I am afraid to contact them. Sometimes I contact them briefly but it’s upsetting for me to hear their voices. I want to be strong for my family and my kids. I don’t want them to see me unhappy. But this problem stays with me.”

Maha and her family have been living in Stockport for 4 months, getting to know the local area, the support available and making friends. This morning Maha was told that she and her family are being moved to Oldham, a Greater Manchester borough roughly 11 miles north of Stockport. It’s an additional concern for her.

“We don’t know where or what the accommodation will be like. We have just been asked to collect our things and be ready on this date. I am afraid. I don’t know why but it’s scary to have to get to know a new area again. The kids will have to change schools. It’s a lot to get used to. Sometimes they cancel, so there is a lot of uncertainty. If the taxi comes, you go. If it doesn't you go back to your room.”

Each week Maha and her family receive £45 (£9 per person) as an allowance from the Home Office whilst they are not allowed to work. The family has to choose carefully what they use this money for.

“I walk half an hour to get to S-REP and half an hour to get back to the hotel, even when it’s raining. The bus is £2 one way, £5 for the whole day so we can’t spend this money on the bus if it’s not necessary. When we go to the supermarket our sons want everything! But we cannot afford it. My daughter is 3 years old. They are all growing so fast it’s hard to provide clothes for them and we certainly cannot afford to treat them. The S-REP cultural food bank has helped a lot. We’ve been able to give our kids fruit, vegetables and chocolate as treats.”

As we talk, a new S-REP volunteer, Kate (not her real name), comes to introduce themselves and sits with us to hear Maha’s story. Kate is also a mother and can identify with Maha’s concerns about providing clothing for her children. Without pausing for thought, Kate offers to bring in clothes that her own 6 year old daughter has grown out of - such is the spirit of The Space!

The conversation continues around children and family,

“My kids enjoy school. My daughter stays with my husband whilst I am here volunteering. He is unhappy but he has supported me with this problem and so we came here together. He has a disability in his hand so he finds it hard to do certain things. Because he is so unhappy it’s hard for him to do things with the kids. They want our attention and they don’t understand how we are feeling or the situation we are in financially.”

Thinking of their future in the UK Maha shares her hopes

“I hope to complete my job journey. I hope. But until now we cannot go to college or anything. They say you have to stay in this country for 6 months before you can start to study. I hope in the future to use my accountancy skills, even if it’s as a volunteer. I hope when I move to Oldham I can still come back here once a month to visit and keep in touch with the friends I have made.”

Maha finishes her story for now and we sit quietly together for a moment before we rejoin the others in The Space. Maha wipes the tears from her cheeks, not wanting people to see her looking upset. Her mobile phone rings and her husband is calling, he has news that the move to Oldham has been cancelled and that they will remain in Stockport for a while longer. It’s one small relief for Maha and her family. We rejoin the others and a smile spreads across Maha’s face as she greets friends and shares the news.

Maha’s story shines a light on the little things that make a significant difference for people experiencing hardship as an asylum seeker in the UK. S-REP will continue to work with ethnically diverse communities to provide these meaningful opportunities, support and resources that make all the difference.

Please help us to raise awareness by sharing this blog with others. Thank you.

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