With all the stigma and stress refugees and asylum seekers face, loneliness is not seen as an obvious problem. It is.
There are many reasons refugees and asylum seekers experience loneliness. They have to contend with language barriers and cultural differences and are often separated from family and friends. They also often lack the income to be socially involved.
The Red Cross provides a wide range of services for refugees, from language and music lessons to free clothing and legal support.
For many of the refugees we support, our services also offer an important sense of community and routine.
The Sunlight project, a welcome and orientation group run by the Red Cross in Leeds, is one such initiative.
Two refugees from the project share their experiences.
“I never wanted to leave,” said Takura. “The place that I love is my country. But if your house catches fire, you just need to get out and fast.”
Six years ago Takura fled Zimbabwe because of political persecution, leaving his wife, three children behind. He did not expect to be in the UK this long.
Asylum seekers like Takura are not permitted to work here, but are given housing and £37 a week while their application is assessed.
While this support is a lifeline, the money you get is not enough for any kind of social life.
“You end up staying indoors,” explained Takura. “Maybe you can read or go to the library to use the free internet. But you can’t afford to go to say McDonalds, or to see Leeds United play. You can’t go to college or pursue a career. The income you have marginalizes you.”
To make matter worse, this limited support can end suddenly if your asylum claim is refused.
“To be refused is the worst of the worst,” continued Takura. “Life changes from just mere loneliness to worrying every day about ‘where will I sleep tonight? Which street will I go to? What food will I eat and where from? Am I even going to eat? Am I going to be warm?’”
Takura’s asylum claim was refused in 2015. He was told he did not have enough evidence to support his application.
Gathering more evidence could put his family, who remain in Zimbabwe, at risk. It’s something he is not willing to do.
“The system is designed to be hostile and frustrating to people seeking asylum and you just realise you are powerless,” he said. “I have met people who fail to hold it together because of the system. Even people who have contemplated suicide.”
Takura now lives with friends. “If I were able to work and generate my own income, I could raise the money to go somewhere else. But I am stuck, and if not for people’s goodwill, charities and churches, I would not be able to survive.”
All the while, Takura stays in touch with his family via Whatsapp, but only when he can find free wifi.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The Red Cross’ Sunlight group in Leeds is a welcome and orientation group for refugees and asylum seekers.
Takura is now in his third year of going to the project, and is involved in sports groups, English classes, as well as the occasional visit to museums and historical sites.
“I started attending Sunlight to meet people, to run away from loneliness,” he said.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends there, and it is the day of the week I look forward to. I would be very lonely otherwise.”
Despite the difficulties that asylum seekers face, not many find it easy to discuss being lonely.
“People tend to develop a resistance mechanism and just live with it,” said Takura.
“My journey started with Sunlight. We have created a kind of nucleus of a relationship and everything now revolves from that. I have met people that make my life much more bearable now.”
Fifty-year-old Omar is another member of the Sunlight project.
Originally from Kuwait, Omar is Bidoon – a stateless community who often face persecution and discrimination.
Before coming to the UK, he had lived in Iraq, but the conflict there meant he had to flee for a new country again, leaving his wife and five children behind.
“When I arrived in the UK I had a lot of difficulties,” said Omar. At the time, he felt isolated. He didn’t speak English and also had a problem with his leg.
Because of Omar’s leg, it was difficult for him to leave his house. His asylum support, at £37 a week, did not allow him to get a taxi into the town centre or to his doctors.
The Red Cross helped him a lot during that time.
“I went to them and explained that I had a disability, and that I had no money, or papers,” he said.
“[T]hey helped me to complete an application for a card which would allow me to travel. The doctor then helped me with my medication and … with my leg.”
For the last three years, Omar has been going to the Red Cross’ Sunlight group.
“This group helped me a lot,” he said. “If I sit at home, maybe I would have depression.”
Four years after arriving in the UK, Omar is still living apart from his family. As a stateless group without documents to prove their nationality, Bidoon people often face difficulties reuniting with their families.
He stays in touch with his family via email, Whatsapp and Facebook.
All too often loneliness is a pervasive influence on the lives of refugees in this country. Many don’t have enough money for a bus fare, and are living apart from their families.
For those who have their asylum claims refused, life can feel particularly bleak. They very often become destitute and reliant on informal networks of friends, acquaintances and charities to survive.
Projects like the Sunlight group in Leeds allow refugees the time and space to develop a vital support network.
It’s work like this that breaks down the barriers to integration that refugees so often experience. Without projects like Sunlight, life would be lonelier for many refugees in the UK.
- The British Red Cross is the largest provider of support to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.
- Read more: Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers at risk of loneliness.
- Names have been changed to protect identities.
- All photos are staged and do not feature the people mentioned in this blog.