John is sitting in a cafe, just across the road from the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants. “[In]this place I feel truly cared about”. He is sipping a glass of water and recalling growing up in the DRC, living at his family home. Times were always very hard, food and work scarce. When, aged 26, John was offered a job with the government working in an office he saw it as a good opportunity to earn a living and help his family.
“What I had not realised” he says now “is that the job offer was just a way of getting people in to become soldiers to fight for the government. In 2000 we were told we must go to where the war was.”
“I didn’t want to fight and kill. I don’t believe in doing this. I was very much against it.”
He ran away and after a time went back home. But he was a wanted man and government officials came looking for John. They arrived at his family home unexpectedly several times while he was out and intimidated his mother, asking questions about his whereabouts. She knew he was in danger and suggested he go to South Africa.
John did this and lived there for 14 years, but it was a half-life. He experienced racism and violence. “They did not want refugees coming in and I was never accepted. Getting any work was very hard and I never felt safe there.”
By this time a friend was living in Paris and John thought he might have a better chance of a new life in Europe. In 2016 John managed to get himself to his friend and then on to the UK where he immediately applied for asylum. However, his claim was rejected. He appealed again was rejected. Now he must appeal again and knows if he does not succeed this time he may well be returned to the Congo and almost certain death. Many asylum seekers fail to gain asylum, despite the danger they face in their country of origin. The UK asylum system has been described as being pervaded by a ‘culture of disbelief’, and huge cuts to free legal advice have made successfully claiming protection even harder.
The UK asylum system has been described as being pervaded by a ‘culture of disbelief’, and huge cuts to free legal advice have made successfully claiming protection even harder.
It is a frightening and lonely time but John’s face lights up as he talks of the Centre, his safe refuge, a place where he was immediately welcomed when he came for the first time. “The people there know what you need to do as an asylum seeker, the importance of demonstrating that you need refuge – and in return that you want to offer something to the country.
“So the first thing was they signed me up for was English lessons, they helped me learn about Britain and its customs and laws so that I would be able to answer questions showing this knowledge. They got me onto a course learning painting and decorating which will be a very useful way to earn my living if I am allowed to stay.”
“There are lots of activities, including music which I enjoy. When I feel low and worried people at the Centre take time to hear my problems. I feel the people there really care about us and see us as a big extended family. I can’t imagine how I would have coped without being able to come to the Centre.”