When a student at a UK university becomes a refugee

Arabic language teacher Aziz* from Syria first arrived in London in 2010 to pursue his master’s degree in the UK. In March 2011, while he lived in London, protests started in his home country. ‘It took me a while before I realised I couldn’t go back home anymore – probably some 6 months into the revolution.’ So he filed for asylum upon finishing his studies. This is his story.

A war back home

Aziz remembers the start of the Syrian war very clearly. “A friend of mine said that there were protests going on in Damascus. We couldn’t really believe at first that such a thing was possible. I followed the news daily, read reports and kept in touch with people in different parts of the country.”

“I finished my master’s and applied for asylum the following month.”

Meanwhile, Aziz was working on his studies. “I came to the UK on a student visa. The plan was to finish my master’s degree and go back home, but it soon became clear that that wasn’t possible anymore. I finished my master’s in September 2012 and applied for asylum the following month.”

It was quite a straightforward process for him. “I am very practical. As soon as I realised there was no chance of going back to Syria, I knew I needed to focus on establishing a life in the UK. I got a solicitor, but he didn’t really have to do much; the case was clear. I was granted leave to remain –refugee status which after 5 years can be transferred into indefinite leave to remain, i.e. permanent residency in the UK – and was allowed to work within a month.”

From pessimism to hope

Aziz acknowledges that the asylum process can be quite emotional. “When I first applied for asylum, it was devastating; a confirmation that I couldn’t go home to Syria anymore. It’s been 7 years since I left the country and I don’t think I can ever go back. But when you are certain about that, you can work from that knowing that you need to start a new life elsewhere. I think when you reach a certain level of pessimism, you become hopeful again.”

“I think when you reach a certain level of pessimism, you become hopeful again.”

After working at an NGO for a year, Aziz is now a full time language teacher. He has started his own company – teaching everyone from students to businesspeople – and has rented his own office recently. He also volunteers with various organisations, working with refugees. “That’s probably part of how I deal with the situation: thinking of how I can help other people around me.” As well as supporting other refugees in the UK throughout the year, he spent some of his Christmas holidays in refugee camps in Northern Greece and in Calais.

Life in a new country

His own transition into working life in the UK was quite smooth. “I already spoke English and had lived in London as a student. Many people I know had much more difficult experiences than mine – first in getting here and then in being here. It is important to get to know the language and way of life in the new country. To learn about law, education, the job market, health – how things work. But before learning about language and life, you need to come to terms with yourself in this new place. That’s the most important and challenging thing for everyone.”

Read more about Aziz’ experiences and recommendations for the asylum procedure.

* The interviewee prefers to be anonymous. His identity is known by RefuTales.


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Wieke Vink

Author: Wieke Vink

Wieke Vink is a human rights lawyer and writer for RefuTales.