An asylum seeker in the UK: Staying alive is a full-time job

Ahmed Zaha, whose name has been changed to maintain his anonymity, is in his late 20s. He was born in a country in West Africa, where he lived for most of his life. Then, a few years ago, he attended a pro-democracy demonstration, which led to his detention and torture at the hands of the state. After he escaped, he fled to the United Kingdom in 2017, but was forced to leave his family, including a wife and young son, behind.

Ahmed now stays with a friend in South London while he awaits a decision on his asylum appeal. We are not mentioning his country of origin or any details about the torture he endured as this may put him in danger if he is returned. He told Al Jazeera his story.

The way I understand it, a job is work that someone does to earn material things: food, clothes, money. When you are recruited by an employer, a job has duties, tasks and responsibilities that are definite and specific, and that can be accomplished.

Back home, I was a physics and chemistry teacher. My job was to share knowledge with young people and sometimes pupils older than me – I enjoyed it very much. I loved these subjects because they are part of all of our lives.

For me, being a teacher was not just about teaching, but also about being another parent, a pillar of support and a good example. Because of my teaching, my love for my subjects and the relationships we built, most of the students in my class aspired to be scientists themselves.

Back home, I lived with my wife and young son who helped me make important decisions.

I had a good life then; until I was harassed and tortured by the government for my opposition to their policies and involvement in student activism at university. When I left university and started teaching, most of my colleagues supported the government, so I was exposed.

I saw my friends being killed and I realised I was no longer safe.

So I made the difficult decision to leave – not only my job, but also my young son and my pregnant wife.

Fearing for my life, I took the first chance I had to escape and ended up in the UK as an asylum seeker.

New language, new home

When I first arrived, we landed at nine in the evening in July, and the sun was still up. I had never seen anything like it before back home. I was amazed.

At the time, I spoke two African languages and fluent French, but very little English. “Hello, how are you?”, I could say, as well as “What, how, when, where” and a few verbs. But I could not understand a word anybody said in response.

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