“You are lost and your life does not have any purpose.” That is how Sheffield asylum seekers have described the anxious wait to discover if they will be able to stay in the UK – or face deportation back to their dangerous homelands.
But one Sheffield mum and daughter have dedicated the last eight years of their lives to helping asylum seekers.
Mum Gill Rhodes and daughter Hayley Nelson run the Learn For Life Enterprise social enterprise centre on London Road in Sheffield.
The pair teach asylum seekers English and arrange for them to study, while helping out with their asylum and benefit claims.
One asylum seeker they have assisted is Olivier.
The 31-year-old has been in Sheffield for 14 months and has been waiting on his asylum application for almost two years.
Olivier was forced to leave Cameroon after his life was put in danger. He still has trouble walking because he was often beaten on the soles of his feet.
He said: “I don’t know why it’s taking so long. I have mixed feelings sometimes. Sometimes I feel angry or misunderstood. Sometimes I feel really sad.
“You feel stuck. You can’t do anything. You can’t work, you can’t study, you can’t carry on with your life, but you can’t go back to your country.
“Sometimes you feel that you are missing your life. You are lost and your life doesn’t have any purpose.
“When I first arrived in the UK I thought ‘I am free. I can breathe’.
“But the Home Office doesn’t want to let you breathe.”
Olivier said he and other asylum seekers turn to volunteering in a bid to find that purpose while they await their fate.
He added: “That’s why we try to be as useful as possible – we help people and we have that feeling that we are useful. We are doing something.”
It is a feeling echoed by others.
One asylum seeker, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “It is very difficult. You don’t arrive with any evidence – the only evidence you have is your story.
“You know what has happened to you. You know you had to leave. When people tell you ‘you can go home, there is no problem there’ it makes you very depressed.
“Why would we leave our homes, our families and travel thousands of miles and risk our lives if there was no problem? The problem is pushing us to leave our homes and our parents.”
The man, along with about eight others, all came to the UK after battling through dangerous waters in a boat on the Mediterranean.
But reaching the UK is not the end of their problems.
“We don’t know what will happen to us in the future. We are always worried. It’s a very difficult process.”
But many people do manage to claim asylum in Sheffield successfully – thanks in no small part to Gill and Hayley’s help at the centre.
Muhailam Salih, 33, has successfully claimed asylum in Sheffield.
He described how the process works. After fleeing Sudan and travelling to London, Muhailam was sent to a temporary house in London, where he stayed for two weeks, before being interviewed.
Following his interview, he was put up in a London hotel for three nights before being sent to temporary accommodation in Wakefield. He was there for 14 nights before being given a room in a shared house in Sheffield
Muhailam was given the room for free and paid £36 per week in National Asylum Support Service payments – essentially benefits for refugees. After successfully claiming asylum, refugees are made to leave and find their own way by getting a job and renting accommodation. Muhailam said this is where many refugees struggle. He has been looking for a job for four months and is crashing with friends.
Mudather Ishag had a similar experience.
He left Sudan because of political upheaval which led to him being seized several times for his political views.
The 30-year-old fled Sudan to Libya, before travelling to Turkey, Greece, France and finally the UK.
Asked why he did not stay in one of the countries he
first reached, Mudather said: “In Turkey, they didn’t want us to stay for a long time.
“Greece is in economic crisis. Even if you have a right to stay, the police will take your papers off you, rip them up and put you in jail. In France, they told me I could not claim asylum for six months. They told me to go to Calais and after six months, I could apply for asylum.
“The camps at Calais are cold and there is no shelter.
“I decided to get out of France. I got into a lorry – the lorries drive past the queue at Calais.
“You have to be careful that the driver doesn’t see you or they will call the police.
“I didn’t know where the lorry was going to take me when I got on it. I got out and realised it was the UK.”
But is there any truth to the idea that people are just coming here to take advantage of the benefits system?
Gill said: “We might have had maybe one or two who weren’t genuine. But you can tell when people are being genuine.
“The push is what drives people, not the pull. The push to have to escape.”
n To volunteer at the centre or to donate, visit the website Learn for Life Enterprise