Seeking asylum not about taking jobs and homes

Akoi Bazzie chatting with Sue Pearson. Picture by Dean Atkins
Akoi Bazzie chatting with Sue Pearson. Picture by Dean Atkins
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They come from two entirely different countries, eras and backgrounds – but one pair of Sheffield residents have a special thing in common.

Both Akoi Bazzie and Sue Pearson were welcomed into this city with open arms at a time when they were fleeing a life-threatening situation.

With their families gone, no option to go home and no idea how their futures would pan out, both found safety in Sheffield – the City of Sanctuary.

Sue, now aged 86, was just 11 when she arrived in Sheffield from Prague on the Kindertransport in 1939. The rest of her family died in the Holocaust.

And Akoi, now 39, came to Sheffield with his wife and baby in 2004 after spending 12 years in a refugee camp in Guinea, having escaped almost certain death in his West African home.

The two have united to tell their stories ahead of a special City of Sanctuary event tonight, where four Sheffield residents and refugees will share their experiences of being welcomed to the city.

Akoi, now of Gleadless, was born and raised on his family’s farm in Liberia.

At the age of 12, he went to school to learn to read and write, but when war broke out in 1989 his life fell apart.

He says: “I had to run from there. I lost a lot of my family – we just scattered and some of them were killed. I had to find my way to another country.

“At 14, I knew I didn’t want to become a rebel and I didn’t want to fight. Some boys were fighting at the age of eight.

“As far as the rebels were concerned, you were either for them or against them, so I found my way to Guinea.”

Akoi spent 12 years in a refugee camp in Guinea and it was there he met his wife, Rose.

The couple already had a child when they got the news in 2004 that the UN had accepted them into one of the first groups to be resettled in the UK as part of the Gateway Programme.

Sheffield welcomes 90 people through the programme every year.

Akoi, who now works for the programme himself and has gone on to have two more children, says: “One thing I have learned from the City of Sanctuary is about sharing our differences.

“It’s about teaching people how to welcome new arrivals. To hear other people’s stories is very empowering.

“Some people have the mentality that all asylum seekers have come to take their jobs and homes. The City of Sanctuary is here to make people understand.”

Sue, of Nether Edge, was welcomed to Sheffield more than six decades earlier.

The retired teacher was among 10,000 children brought to Britain from Europe before the outbreak of World War Two. She lived with the same Sheffield family from when she arrived up to the age of 16. Sue says: “I wonder how many people would open their homes to destitute children these days.”

Sue still has a vivid memory of her arrival in the UK.

“We arrived on a boat and they gave us white sliced bread and we all thought it was horrible,” she says.

“I came to Sheffield with a group organised by the Woodcraft Folk.

“In Sheffield I very quickly wanted to be like the other children. I didn’t want to be picked out, so I quickly developed a thick Sheffield accent.

“When I do my talks to children now I always tell them they should feel OK about who they are.

“They should be proud of their heritage.”