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Second life: one refugee family’s journey to Hull, via Darfur, Tripoli and Cairo

In 2015 the government's Gateway programme offered 750 refugees the chance to resettle in the UK. Our writer followed one family for six months as they made the journey to England. This article won the feature writing prize at the Amnesty Media Awards in November 2016. 

It was late July and the air hung hot and heavy over Ard el-Lewa, a crowded Cairo neighbourhood of dirt streets and grey high-rises that sprawls along the wrong side of the Upper Egypt railway line. Arafa Hassan Gouda, a 52-year-old refugee from Darfur in western Sudan, was out running errands with her three daughters when her mobile phone rang and she received news so astonishing that all four forgot their public reserve and danced in the road. The caller was an officer from the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, who told Arafa that she and her six children were among the 750 people worldwide to be accepted for the UK’s Gateway resettlement programme, an initiative that, every year since 2004, has offered a hand-picked group of refugees the opportunity to start a new life in Britain. Arafa rushed home to speak to her sons.

The news shouldn’t have been a complete surprise. A team from the UK Home Office had interviewed her in Cairo a few weeks earlier, but the family had learned from bitter experience to keep their expectations low. They had fled across borders in the back of trucks, in cars and on boats, and had waved goodbye to friends who later drowned in the Mediterranean dreaming of Europe. Travelling by plane would be an adventure, doing so with a UK visa an ­almost unimaginable luxury.

“The first thing I thought when I heard Britain was: Mr Bean,” Eithar, Arafa’s 17-year-old daughter, told me when we met in their cramped apartment three weeks after the momentous phone call. Her twin sister, Mayas, giggled.

The twins had since started going to a local internet café, together with their younger brothers, Wael, 16, and Akram, 15, to research their future home, and now they had many questions. Had I visited Stonehenge? Was it true that there was a big library somewhere – maybe in Ireland? Had I also read the news about Prince Harry being photographed gambling?

Arafa’s rented flat had scuffed walls and unexpectedly grand furniture; she was ­sitting on a battered red-and-gold armchair that resembled a cast-off throne. Arafa is short, with high cheekbones and a wide, gap-toothed mouth. She wore rectangular glasses, a black abaya and a purple headscarf, the corner of which she used to wipe away her tears. In the corner of the living room, the television was playing an Arabic rip-off of You’ve Been Framed! but no one was paying much attention. Eithar, ­Mayas, Akram and Wael were hunched over a wooden dining table strewn with printer paper and pencils. They sketched as they spoke to me, their arms moving in smooth, confident strokes.

For many years now, Arafa’s children had entertained themselves by drawing together, and sometimes writing each other poetry or stories. The two boys liked to draw Japanese-style comic strips, and had created cartoon alter egos. Wael, who is tall and reed-thin and was wearing football shorts, an NYC trucker cap and a brown T-shirt, drew himself in louche, gangster poses. Akram, who is similarly built, depicted himself as a spiky-haired superhero with flaming arms. Eithar drew fashion sketches and Mayas was working on a graphic novel that told the story of two childhood friends, separated by the war between northern Sudan and South Sudan. After a long time apart, the friends have met on opposite sides of the battlefield. “What will happen next?” I asked her. “They drop their weapons and hug and everyone around them stops fighting and laughs,” she said. “I hate war. It’s because of war we are here,” she added, softly.

Statistically, Arafa and her children are lucky to have been resettled, yet theirs is an unenviable kind of luck; it’s the luck of surviving a lightning strike or reaching the top of the organ transplant list: good fortune arising from misfortune. In 2015, the number of people fleeing war or persecution reached an all-time high of 60 million. Of these, more than 19.5 million registered as refugees with the UN, which gives them the right to protection in the country where they have made their asylum claim. Some countries treat refugees better than others. More than 50 states have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore do not recognise these protection obligations, and many others only partly meet their legal responsibilities. The parts of the world that can best support refugees, such as the wealthy states of North America and western Europe, are the hardest for most asylum-seekers to reach. They are separated from war-torn areas by policed borders, and vast expanses of land and sea. About 86 per cent of refugees live in poor countries.

Resettlement schemes are intended to redress this imbalance by providing a route for refugees deemed “most vulnerable” to move permanently to a third country. The UNHCR believes that 1.15 million refugees need to be resettled. This group includes the sick and the disabled, unaccompanied children and single mothers, LGBTI refugees who face persecution, and victims of gender-based violence. The 28 countries with resettlement schemes made 80,000 places available in 2015 – enough for roughly one in 14 of those eligible for resettlement – but they rarely meet their annual quotas. The US resettles the largest number, taking in about 50,000 people a year. The UK is in the middle of the pack, behind Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Germany and several Scandinavian countries, which take in more than a thousand a year. Additional ad hoc schemes have been set up specifically to help Syrians, the world’s largest UN-­registered refugee population, who also take up a substantial proportion of mainstream resettlement schemes.

The shortfall in places is such that it can be hard for the UNHCR to select which ­refugees to put forward for resettlement. Heidi Boener, a resettlement officer for the UNHCR in Cairo, said of the large numbers of refugees from Africa, many of whom have suffered traumatic experiences, that “it is difficult sometimes to identify the most vulnerable among a pool of already highly vulnerable individuals”. In Egypt refugees are not legally allowed to work (though many do so), and several nationalities have limited access to education or health care. Rights groups have recorded cases of harassment, arbitrary and indefinite detention and forced deportation of refugees. According to one charity (which asked to remain anonymous because of the political complications of its work), “around 95 per cent” of refugees in Cairo would meet the UNHCR’s criteria for resettlement. Last December, there were more than a quarter of a million registered refugees in Egypt. Viewed from this perspective, Arafa and her children, who are among 150 to be resettled from Egypt to the UK in 2015, have achieved something closer to winning a lottery.


Arafa, in Cairo in October

Arafa once told me that her happiest childhood memory was also her most painful. She was six years old. In the morning she was circumcised by an old lady from Dello, her village in southern Darfur, a vast province that stretches along Sudan’s western border. In the afternoon she wore a new dress and kohl around her eyes; the neighbours gave her gifts and money and they sang until late at night. Her father, who had four wives and numerous children, divorced her mother soon after that and Arafa was sent to live with her childless aunt and uncle in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. She remembers little else of her life in Dello.

Until she was 14, Arafa went to school, and at 16 she entered into an arranged marriage. Her husband, Mohamed, was 30 or so and worked as a clothes trader. He was a quiet, calm man and her uncle decided that he would offer the stability and security Arafa needed. For two months before her wedding she was confined to her uncle’s house, as is customary, while her female friends and neighbours prepared her to be a bride. They braided her hair, and perfumed her body with aromatic ember-wood smoke and incense each day so that her skin glowed and even her sweat was scented. After their marriage, Mohamed slaughtered a goat on the doorstep, in keeping with the local custom, and she jumped over its body into her marital home.

In 1986 she gave birth to a son, Amr, and two years later a daughter, Ghaida. But then, one night three years later, a loud bang marked an abrupt end to their quiet life. Policemen had knocked down her front door, and they proceeded to beat her and Mohamed up in front of their terrified children, before taking her, blindfolded, to prison. She stayed in solitary confinement for about 45 days and was beaten often. It was more than a decade before war erupted in Darfur, yet tensions were already running high between the Arabs, who made up the political elite in Khartoum, and black Darfuris who sought greater independence for their province. Arafa was questioned about Mohamed’s activities – her interrogators believed he was part of a Darfuri dissident group – but she could not tell them anything of use. “I knew nothing about his life,” she told me. When she was released, no one knew where Mohamed was. She did not hear from him until two years later, in 1993, when he sent news that he was in Libya, and that she should join him.

Arafa’s neighbours helped her and her two children travel from their home in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city on the opposite bank of the Nile, to a small Bedouin village in north-western Sudan. From there they could board a truck that would avoid the main checkpoints into Libya. Two trucks travelled in convoy through the desert for 15 days, crossing the Jebel Uweinat mountain range, where the Libyan, Egyptian and Sudanese borders meet, and continuing to the Libyan oasis of Kufra. At night the passengers sang together, their voices magnified in the stillness of the Sahara. Arafa made friends with a woman with two teenage girls, and once they reached Kufra the two families hired a minibus to travel the 1,500 kilometres north to the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Arafa was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Mediterranean city’s harbour, and by her first view of the sea – it looked to her like a painting.

Mohamed and Arafa resumed their life together in Tripoli. She gave birth to the twins, and then in quick succession to her two youngest, Wael and Akram. The marriage was traditional: Arafa stayed at home to look after the children, and Mohamed kept his life private, as before. He was kind to his children, who remember his love of drawing and how quickly and skilfully he could capture anyone’s portrait, but he was distant. Money was often tight; Mohamed would disappear for weeks on end, eventually returning with cash. In 2005, two years after the beginning of the war in Darfur that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Mohamed said he needed to go there for work and Arafa could not talk him out of it. She never saw or heard from him again. The family can only assume he was killed.

With his father missing, Arafa’s eldest son, Amr, then 19, became the head of the household. He was studying medicine at al-Fateh University in Tripoli – for as long as anyone could remember, Amr had wanted to be a doctor – but took on part-time jobs at a restaurant and on a market stall. For the first time in her life, Arafa began working, too. She taught Arabic to children and illiterate women. Life as a black African in Libya has never been easy, with discrimination and abuse by civilians or by the security services commonplace, yet Arafa and her family had assimilated well. They made Libyan friends, and although they still spoke Sudanese Arabic at home, the children easily switched to the long, flat vowels of the Tripolitanian dialect on the streets.

But by early 2011 their lives were once again in turmoil. An uprising against the 41-year rule of the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, had quickly escalated into civil war. Rumours spread that the government was employing Africans as mercenaries, and black people became the target of brutal attacks, torture and detention by rebel militiamen and vigilantes. Amr received a call from university friends warning him not to go to class. The family barely dared to go out. That March, when Nato forces began bombing government and military targets in Tripoli, they stayed in one room at night. The younger boys, Wael and Akram, then aged nine and ten, became traumatised by the low-flying planes and nearby explosions and began to wet the bed. One day, Mayas, one of the twins, opened the front door to find a bullet-riddled body on the ground in front of her. Arafa and Amr decided they needed to leave Libya.

Initially they planned to travel west by road to Tunisia, but heavy fighting had made the route impassable. In September 2011, a few weeks after Tripoli came under the control of the rebel-backed National Transitional Council, Amr received a call about a boat chartered by the Red Cross that was leaving the following day for the port city of Benghazi, in the east. From there they could hire a vehicle to take them across the border and into Egypt. They decided to take their chance.

For 16 hours they huddled inside the boat, packed so tightly they could barely move. The passengers were mostly Libyans, but there was also a small group of young Sudanese men. The atmosphere was tense. “Everyone was afraid of everyone else,” Ghaida remembers: no one knew whose side the other was on. There was heavy fighting in the city of Sirte, the pro-government stronghold between Tripoli and Benghazi, close to where, one month later, Gaddafi was shot and beaten to death. Rather than hug the coastline, the boat diverted north before Sirte to the island of Malta and then south again. In Benghazi Harbour, Libyan officials threatened to arrest the group of Sudanese men. Some of them jumped into the sea, attempting to swim to safety, but the police fished them out and handcuffed them. Arafa’s group was allowed to continue on its way, because they were a family. Amr phoned a friend, who arranged a private minibus to take them to Salloum, the main border crossing with Egypt.


Sudanese culture is important to the family: Mayas tries on a traditional bridal headdress

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), between February 2011 and January 2012 more than 290,000 people entered Egypt through Salloum. Some were Egyptian migrants in Libya returning home; others were Libyans fleeing war. Both of these groups were granted safe passage into the country. There were also people from third countries, including migrant workers or refugees from sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia. The Egyptian government did not want to permit these nationalities to enter Egypt. As a result, the UNHCR struck a deal with Egypt to create the country’s first refugee camp since 1948, designed as a temporary measure to allow the UN to register arrivals. Under the agreement, those deemed able to return home safely would be repatriated – either voluntarily, with an assistance package organised by the IOM, or involuntarily, by a government deportation order. Those given refugee status would be resettled to Europe or North America.

The first camp at Salloum, used between February 2011 and August 2012, was little larger than one square mile. At its peak, it was home to over 1,800 residents (third-country refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants) as well as several thousand people transiting. The UN-issued tents were packed so close together, they almost touched.

Arafa’s family quickly faced a big problem. In late 2011, when they arrived at Salloum camp, they were denied refugee status. As a result, they were stuck: Arafa did not feel safe going back to Libya or to Sudan, but they could not be treated as refugees. They did not have the right to be considered for resettlement, nor did they have a right to accommodation, food or medical assistance in the camp. Arafa often grows angry when she remembers the anxiety of having to wait until last in line to collect leftover food, or the humiliation of being barred from camp meetings and once, temporarily, from receiving a tent in the new, expanded camp established in 2012.

The UNHCR’s decision to reject Arafa’s refugee claim is odd. It contradicts the organisation’s most recent advisory opinion (dated 2006), which states that “the threats are so widespread” for “Sudanese of non-Arab Darfurian background” – such as Arafa’s family – that they cannot safely return to any part of Sudan, and should be granted refugee status. It also urges that “due attention [be] given to the particular protection needs” of single women and previous victims of persecution. UK policy guidance issued in 2012 makes the same recommendations. The UNHCR refused to comment on why Arafa’s claim was rejected, saying it does not discuss individual cases, out of concern for client confidentiality.

Arafa and her children tried to make the best of their situation. Her two eldest children, Amr and Ghaida, volunteered with the health clinic in the mornings, and in the evenings they worked as UN community leaders, checking up on babies and delivering medicine to those with long-term illnesses. When an Eritrean refugee was found half dead from fever and dehydration in the desert near Salloum, Ghaida put him on a drip and stayed up with him all night until he was transferred to hospital. As soon as he recovered he escaped from the camp to cross the border to Libya, on foot once more, and try his luck finding a smuggler to take him by boat to Europe. He was never heard from again.

Mayas, Eithar, Wael and Akram were too old for the UNHCR-supported school, but borrowed books whenever they could and took English lessons from a fellow refugee. They took advantage of the internet access provided, and developed an obsession with  Japanese and Korean cartoons. One day they found a sick kitten, which they named Far (which means “rat” in Arabic) and nursed back to health. Far had kittens, and then her kittens had kittens, and still Arafa’s family remained stranded at Salloum. During their four years living in a tent, they acquired nine dogs and four cats, which they named after their favourite comic heroes: Clark (Superman) and Bruce (Batman) as well as Krishna (the Bollywood superhero Krrish), Tama (a black cat in the Japanese anime television series Dragon Ball Z) and Nekobaa (“Granny Cat” in the Naruto manga books).

“We were always waiting, waiting, waiting,” Eithar, one of the twins, said. In winter, the tents were cold; in summer, it was frequently over 30°C. Some residents organised protests and hunger strikes at their continued detention and the poor conditions. One report, published by the UNHCR, describes how a woman doused herself in petrol and attempted to set herself alight in the camp’s clinic, only being stopped by volunteers. Gradually, the number of people in the camp dwindled as residents were resettled, returned home, or escaped either to Cairo or to cross the Mediterranean. On a laptop that Eithar describes as a “superhero” because it has been dropped so many times but always responds well to Akram’s fix-it jobs, the children have saved a few photographs of Salloum. Their tent is surrounded by lonely, spindly wooden stumps and scraps of blue-and-white UN tarpaulin remaining from tents hastily torn down as, one by one, the families around them departed. It pains Arafa to remember how Akram, her youngest, always asked mournfully when they, too, would be able to leave, and how she never had an answer.


Jebel Uweinat, where the borders of Libya, Egypt and Sudan meet

By 2014, the UN was coming under pressure to close the camp, as it was believed that it was attracting migrants who were not fleeing Libya but merely hoped Salloum could provide a fast track to resettlement overseas. On 31 October that year, Salloum officially closed and the United Nations and other agencies departed. Thirty-nine people – including Amr, Mayas, Eithar, Wael and Akram – remained inside. Arafa had fallen ill with high blood pressure and chest pains and was in Cairo, where she had received a heart cauterisation and was being monitored. Her eldest daughter, Ghaida, accompanied her but then she ended up in hospital, too, with appendicitis.

Early on 12 December in Salloum, while the children were asleep and Amr was preparing for his first prayers, Egyptian men in military uniform shouted at everyone to get up and dressed. The family, together with the other remaining residents, was bundled into a truck and taken to a detention centre in the nearby town of Marsa Matrouh. They did not have time to say goodbye to their pets, and left behind most of their belongings, including all their family photographs. Two days later, Amr was taken to al-Qanater Prison in Cairo.

“This was our first time without my mother or Amr, just alone. We were scared at first but after that, we looked at it like an adventure,” Eithar told me when I first asked about their detention. Only months later did they speak about the terrible cold of their cell at night when they slept on the bare floor, or how Mayas collapsed several times and had to receive oxygen. “Sometimes, I was feeling like my head would explode,” she said.

During this time, Ghaida and Arafa were in Cairo frantically looking for a way to secure the teenagers’ release. They visited a local organisation (it requested anonymity in this article, citing political sensitivities), which began looking into the case. Members of the Egyptian security forces had begun following Ghaida and Arafa to and from hospital and to their meetings with refugee organisations, saying that as soon as they were well they would be sent to Sudan. A local organisation contacted the UNHCR with their concerns for the family. Finally, on 27 January 2015, nearly three and a half years after arriving in Egypt, Arafa received blue refugee cards for her and her six children. It was too late. A deportation order had been issued for Mayas, Eithar, Wael and Akram. They were driven by police car from Marsa Matrouh to the southern town of Aswan, and then across the border to Sudan. They had never been to Sudan before, and did not know anyone there; Arafa’s aunt and uncle, who had helped raise her, had died many years earlier.

“There was no hope. All of our life stretched in front of us was black,” was how Arafa once described this period. Somehow, she found the composure to contact an old Sudanese friend in Libya, who arranged for some of her relatives living in Khartoum to collect the teenagers and take them in. The girls helped with housework. The boys spent their days doing “three things”, Akram said: “watching TV, watching TV, watching TV”. He describes it as “living like lions, just sleeping and eating”. In March, Arafa, with the help of some friends and the refugee organisation, arranged for the children to travel back to Egypt by boat up the Nile. They paid a Sudanese border guard to wave them through.

On the teenagers’ return, the family were placed on a fast-tracked list for resettlement by the UN. They were deemed to be in a dangerous predicament: despite the last-minute issuance of refugee cards, they remained on a government list for deportation. Worse still, Amr remained in jail with four other men from Salloum, and resettlement was his only route out of jail. In Egypt, those accused of illegal migration can be detained indefinitely. Technically, Amr was allowed weekly visits in prison but Arafa could afford to visit him only fortnightly. He was growing sick and depressed. Because of him, Arafa could not stop crying.


By early last autumn the Cairo sun had lost some of its fierceness. Arafa’s family waited anxiously for information on when they would move to the UK, yet none came. They were not sure what was causing the delay. Secretly, I began to worry and made my own inquiries into the case, but received only vague assurances. Finally, in mid-October, there was some news. They would move to Hull within weeks. Amr, however, would not go with them. There were problems processing his UK visa but, with a bit of luck – they were told – he would join them by the end of the year.

To celebrate the news, we visited the pyramids. Arafa had once told me that she was sad at how little of Egypt she had seen, and I’d promised to take them to Giza. The teenagers rolled their eyes at their mother, who embarked on a happy frenzy of photo-taking as we walked up beyond the Sphinx towards the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Wael enjoyed climbing boulders and posing on top of them. His younger brother, Akram, requisitioned his mother’s phone and shot his own video. “Hello, this is Akram and here before me you can see the pyramids of Giza,” he narrated as he panned across the landscape.

We took it in turns to ride a camel. Arafa tired quickly, and so I took a car with her to a viewing spot while the others continued exploring. Cairo is a filthy, chaotic city but it looks beautiful from afar. We could see the three pyramids, and then beyond them the interlocking flat rooftops that stretch into the hazy horizon, and the million white satellite dishes that point heavenwards. Arafa burst into tears. She was trying to remember when her children had been so happy, she said. On the drive back to Ard el-Lewa the whole family was all uncharacteristically quiet, lost in thought.

On 25 October, the first day of rain after the long summer, Arafa and Ghaida travelled to downtown Cairo to collect their UK visas. They needed to pick them up from the Mogamma, an institution memorialised in Egyptian culture by a hit comedy film, The Terrorist and the Kebab, in which a meek family man becomes so frustrated by attempts to obtain the paperwork needed to transfer his children to a new school that he starts taking hostages. At 11.30, three hours after they had first arrived, I joined them sitting in the drizzle outside the Mogamma’s hulking, Soviet-style building on the edge of Tahrir Square. They still had several hours to wait.

Ana farhana w’ana za’alana,” Arafa said, slowly raising her index and then her middle finger to the grey sky. I am happy, and I am sad. She was thinking of Amr.

Six young African men came out of the Mogamma building and rushed towards us, greeting Ghaida and Arafa warmly. They had known each other in Salloum, and now the men were collecting their visas to move to Sweden. Ahmed Adem, a 28-year-old from Darfur, paced up and down, occasionally exhaling loudly into cupped hands. “I have found a new life,” he told me. “Waiting is so, so difficult. I am so worried.” Even now, he could not quite believe he would be given a visa and allowed to travel.

As their departure date approached, I asked several times if the family had started packing. I got the impression the question was strange to them; they had so few belongings, it wouldn’t take long to put them in bags. They attended a one-day cultural orientation programme on the UK, organised by the IOM. The teenagers also learned their new address and searched for it on Google Street View. Viewed from a poky bedroom in Ard el-Lewa, the postwar terraces looked exotic even to me, the grass and trees almost impossibly green. Soon afterwards, Eithar asked me how their names would be pronounced in Hull. It had just occurred to them that their own names would sound foreign to them when spoken by English tongues. Wael would lose the glottal stop that separates the two syllables of his name, Akram and Eithar their rich rolled Rs. The letter ’ain at the start of Arafa’s name is almost unique to Arabic: in England, her name would start and end with A.

On 2 November the family left Cairo. I met Arafa and her kids outside the departures terminal at the airport to say goodbye. They arrived by minibus, flustered and jittery, accompanied by a few friends and a dozen brand-new suitcases. Their Sudanese friends, all refugees too, had pooled their money to buy them bags and clothes for their journey. Ghaida and Arafa, who usually wore black robes in public, were wearing new jeans and high-heeled ankle boots. Eithar and Mayas wore matching striped jumpers with colour-coordinated headscarves. Wael and Akram looked proud in their hoodies and beanie hats as they played jenga with one large trolley and too much check-in luggage. More friends arrived to convey their good wishes.

As the family disappeared, smiling and crying, through the sliding doors of the strip-lit terminal building, I felt briefly overcome with sadness and anxiety. For Arafa it was the end of a long and difficult journey – and perhaps the start of a new one.


Refugees get little choice regarding the country in which they are resettled; although the UNHCR tries to take individual preferences into account, where you end up is to some extent governed by luck. More than half will move to the US, which places the highest demands on new arrivals, who receive less support or welfare than those resettled to Europe. The UK Gateway refugees end up in the north of England, predominantly in Hull, Sheffield, Rochdale and Bradford, where local authorities have volunteered to house them. They are eligible for the same welfare entitlements as UK citizens (but cannot vote), and are given 12 months of specialised support, which is delivered by a charity. In Hull, this service is provided by the Refugee Council, whose representatives meet them at the airport, take them to their new home, and try to help them adjust to British life.

“Some of the people on the Gateway programme may have lived in a refugee camp for a decade,” said Lisa Doyle, who is in charge of advocacy at the Refugee Council. “Some children will have been born there, and will not have ever lived in a house, or had a front door that you lock, or a fridge, or a bed.” Sometimes, the initial support needed can be as basic as showing someone how their door keys work, or what a supermarket looks like, let alone how to pay an electricity bill or council tax, or write a CV. Arrivals can struggle to adapt to the weather in Britain, but often their biggest challenges are learning English and finding work. It is rarely easy, but Gateway refugees have an advantage – other asylum-seekers in Britain do not receive this support.

In September 2015, following EU summits on the European refugee crisis, Britain agreed to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. It has not expanded its Gateway programme and has refused to accept refugees from the countries on Europe’s periphery which are struggling to cope. The government evidently does not consider increasing its refugee intake a popular measure; the Home Office said it did not want to participate in this article. I submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out how much the Gateway programme costs: in 2014-15 and 2015-16 it received £11.4m in funding per annum, from a mixture of EU and UK government funds (the Home Office said it could not break down the figures).


Springtime in Hull: Mayas, Ghaida, Eithar, Arafa, Amr, Wael and Akram. Photo: Rick Pushinsky

As the plane descended in Manchester, Arafa and her family looked down at the green fields and trees of England in wonder. “It was so beautiful,” Ghaida said. “And we saw sheep – we love sheep!”

A team from the Refugee Council, including Lisa Doyle, met them at the airport, and they were taken by bus to Hull. Eithar kept on opening and closing her eyes, “just to check it was real”. The Refugee Council support worker asked them repeatedly if they were OK, which they found touching. “We were so well looked after, like babies,” Ghaida said. They found their house beautiful, too, and the backyard, which they planned to plant with flowers. Even the cold was bearable. At 15, Akram considers it a point of pride that he rarely wears a coat.

I called them a few times from Cairo, and then again when I visited the UK in early December. “Welcome back!” Arafa said, the first two words of English I had heard her use. A few days later, I travelled to their three-bedroomed red-brick house not far from Hull station, and the family gave me a tour. A few of the neighbours had decorated their homes with flashing Christmas lights and plastic Santas, and Arafa thought she might join in next year. For now, perhaps because they did not have many belongings, the house didn’t yet look lived in. The white walls were bare; the light wood tables and chests of drawers carried no ornaments. There was more evidence of the previous owner – a beige stairlift, a Zimmer frame in the bathroom – than the current ones. Instead of sitting in the impersonal, sparsely decorated living room, we gathered in the girls’ room, sitting on their twin beds with matching, multicoloured animal-print duvets. The teenagers appeared surgically attached to their new, identically bright orange smartphones, yet somehow they kept on accidentally picking up the wrong one.

“We have a bank account. We have everything,” Arafa told me, over a cup of sweet black tea and a mince pie. She fanned out a selection of plastic cards: her permanent residency card, her bank card, a library card, her college ID and her Tesco Clubcard (this one was Akram’s idea). I thought of the time she’d shown me Amr’s refugee card, a piece of blue paper cheaply laminated like a primary-school poster, and I had been struck by how flimsy this life-changing document was. Perhaps Arafa was thinking something similar, because as she reordered the cards into a pile she said: “I feel human for the first time.”

Arafa and Ghaida cooked me lunch, as they had done on so many afternoons in Ard el-Lewa, piling my plate precariously high with Sudanese meat stew, rice and salad. Afterwards, the teenagers sloped back upstairs to their smartphones, and the mood briefly changed. Ghaida told me she felt haunted by the people she’d left behind. She talked about friends lost in war, young men drowned at sea. She said she could not stop thinking of an Iraqi man who had cried in fear and desperation as he begged for medical care for his dying toddler, or picturing a Somali teenager who had been punched in the face by a guard outside the UNHCR. She worried about the Chadian mother who had shared a cell with the twins at Marsa Matrouh, with her baby son whose cough wouldn’t go. She said that since last summer she had asked UNHCR staff over and over, “What about the others?” They had tried to reassure her they were not her responsibility and urged her just to take advantage of her lucky break, which the whole family was trying its best to do.

Ghaida and Arafa were both learning English at college. Ghaida hoped that once her English was good enough, she could study medicine at university and work as a doctor. Akram and the twins had started school and college, respectively, and Wael was at a special academy for teenagers for whom English is a second language. Amr had not yet arrived, and Arafa still fretted about him. (He finally landed in England on 12 January. After they were reunited, no one could bear to leave his side, so when he took a nap, the whole family stayed in his bedroom, silently watching over him.)

The teenagers were making friends. Eithar loved studying with students from all over the world. “It’s like a door to every country. You just have to open it and discover,” she said. Akram had played rugby for the first time. “I do not like this game,” he said drily. Their English had improved, but they were far from fluent. When I asked them if it was difficult studying subjects such as maths and science in a foreign language – after all, they had not attended school for four years – they shrugged. Because he struggled to read English numbers out loud, his teacher let him write down the answer and hold it up, Wael said.

Their British next-door neighbour had popped round to introduce herself, and Sudanese families nearby were organising a welcome party. Some of the local Sudanese had bought them a TV in the Black Friday sales. They liked watching My Wife and Kids, an early Noughties American sitcom, and The X Factor – even if Mayas did insist on singing along. They were interested by how often British people said “please” and “thank you”. Arafa saw politeness, and the tidiness of British streets, as a form of gratitude to a country that cares for its citizens. They found the postman extraordinary – in Egypt and Libya there is no national postal service that will deliver letters to your front door. They were exploring the city on foot or by bus, and even this was simple. In Egypt, forcing your way on to a bus is “a matter of life or death”, Eithar said, but in Hull you just wait in line and buy a ticket.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

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As one of Abu Dhabi’s unofficial citizens, when will I get to call my country home?

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. 

The United Arab Emirates tends to lure three types of Western scribblers to its shores. First off the plane are the well-heeled jingoists, many of whom hardly ever seem to leave Abu Dhabi or Dubai's airports and hotels. Despite the oppressive heat, these intrepid correspondents take to bashing “morally destitute” Emiratis with great gusto, pausing to wax lyrical on their hatred of that “scorched, soulless land of labour abuses” or to condemn the country's obsession with Vegas-style kitsch. Finally, their “patience frayed”, they find themselves “snapping” and take their leave, citing their dreadful experiences as further proof the West should dread the dark cloud of Arab oil money, or Islam, or both.

Next come the neoliberal Orientalists, who attempt true-to-life portraits of this sandy, oil-rich Eldorado, where life is good under the tax-free sky and red-lipped young women in abayas clutching Gucci bags stride confidently into university lecture theaters and government jobs. A litany of clichés invariably follows: dhow rides along the creek, camels, sheesha cafés, elusive Emiratis in blingy rides, indoor snow-skiing and cosmopolitan shoppers in gargantuan, Disneyesque malls – perhaps a wee glimpse of despotism here and there, yet not enough to spoil the happy picture.

Finally, there are the fly-by reporters, who prowl the gardens of the UAE's otherness for the inspiration they're unable to find back home in London and New York. Their takes on the UAE range from the chronically confused, such as denying the country's tight censorship, defending its sodomy laws, or comparing Dubai to “an unreliable Tinder date” – to the embarrassingly naïve, turning the UAE and its highly complex society into exotic curios. Adam Valen Levinson's The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East, for instance, was deemed so problematic that a magazine which ran an excerpt was forced to issue an apology. For the latter writers, life in the Emirates is so “confusing and eclectic” that they are forced to wonder whether “such a nomadic population could ever settle down long enough to develop a culture”, as an article in the New Statesman recently put it, which depicted the UAE's foreign-born residents as hardly ever seeing the country as their home. I am glad to say the reality is altogether different.


Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. After all, I am not a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, nor could I ever hope to be. Acquiring Emirati citizenship is almost impossible and besides, I don't even look the part: being white-skinned, whenever I speak Arabic my interlocutors assume that I'm Lebanese. As the son of an Iranian father and an Italian mother, and raised almost entirely in the UAE's capital during the 1990s and early 2000s, my statistical designation throughout my childhood was clear. I was a guest worker's dependent, alongside my mother and younger brother. Thus, although I come from Abu Dhabi, I am not Emirati.

Regardless, the island of Abu Dhabi is the only place I think of as home. It is where my parents' romance blossomed, where I was conceived and where I was reared. My father, a leftist forced to abandon Iran at the end of a barrel in 1979, had worked on and off in Abu Dhabi since 1980. As such, I have few memories of Venice, my birthplace, where my mother was obliged to go a couple of months prior to my birth, since unmarried pregnant women were required by UAE law to return to their countries of origin.

Abu Dhabi is where I spent my childhood and adolescence. I planted saplings in Mangrove National Park, just off the T-shaped island's eastern shore. I whiled away hours at the Cultural Foundation, then the city's only public library, next to Qasr Al-Hosn, the ruler's abandoned 18th century fort, where I devoured Abdel-Rahman Munif's Cities of Salt novels, which chronicle the rise of the Gulf's oil kingdoms. I slept feet away from the ruins of the Nestorian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island; and I visited the old pearling grounds of Abu Al-Abyad, which once provided locals with their only tradable commodity before oil. I grew to know the city and its people's language, culture and history well. However, like all the male children of guest workers, at age 18 I was forced to leave, and I have re-entered the country ever since as a tourist. Despite having spent close to two decades in the UAE, each return visit has been limited by the 30 day visa stamped on my passport on arrival. Notwithstanding, Abu Dhabi has shaped my outlook and sensibilities more than any other city I have lived in. Much as I have tried to deny it at various times in my life, I am an Abu Dhabian.

My parents, for their part, wouldn't think of themselves as Abu Dhabians. Nevertheless, they were perfectly happy to spend their lives in the UAE, and absurd as it might seem, in their long decades there they hardly gave a thought to the inevitable prospect of one day being forced to leave. We weren't alone: approximately 86 per cent of the UAE's population is currently made up of foreigners. Although over the years I have grown used to seeing my hometown pointlessly praised, or derided, for having the world’s most expensive hotel, the world's largest theme park – and rather bizarrely for a majority Muslim country, the world's most expensively decorated Christmas tree – this is the record Abu Dhabi should be chiefly remembered for: the world's highest number of foreign-born inhabitants.

Families stroll down the Corniche

Since the late 1960s, the world's nationalities have spilled into the UAE, supplying it with nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, service workers, entertainers and police forces. For certain Westerners, the UAE is a revolving-door country in which to spend a lucrative two or three years. We, though, defined ourselves as long-termers and hardly ever came into contact with such opportunists. My father, who speaks four languages including Arabic, was an architect employed by an Emirati prince. The masons, carpenters, electricians, drivers and foremen he worked with were almost entirely from South Asia and the Middle East. There were times when, despite my father's stories of his Emirati friends and my few Emirati classmates, I thought that I lived in Little India: a solid 60 per cent of that 86 per cent majority was – and remains – composed of people from the Indian subcontinent, mostly men employed in the construction and transportation industries.

Our Abu Dhabi wasn't as tall then: the island's neighborhoods were mostly capped at five or six stories and stubby palm trees still jutted out of the gardens of crumbling villas built in the wake of the 1970s oil boom. The polished steel and glass skyline that can be seen today was still being sketched on the drafting board. The famously heavy, humid air was always pregnant with two kinds of sounds: the call to prayer five times a day, and the drone of 24-hour construction sites. The sandstorms and sea-salt constantly lashed against the cheaply-built beige apartment blocks, which were studded with the loud but vital external AC units that rattled precariously on their sandy perches. Tagalog, Malayalam and Hindi tinkled constantly in my ear. I went to school with Arabs, South Asians and Africans, ate Afghan bread fresh from the downstairs bakery and was more familiar with Bollywood than Hollywood, perhaps owing to our living above a cinema that played double-bills of Hindi hits every night. Although there were a few Westerners, they largely kept themselves confined to their own residential enclaves, schools and beach clubs.

Our fellow long-term, informal Abu Dhabians exhibited no desire to leave, but also made no attempt to entrench themselves, either. Foreigners cannot own property in the Emirates, they can only lease it. Since naturalisation was deemed impossible anyway, the general understanding was that there was no point in doing anything about it. The longer the permanence in the UAE, the shorter the visits back to their real, supposed homes became. While first-generation immigrants remained somewhat more connected to their origins, their children were often horrified by the prospect of ever having to leave, even though they mostly knew this was inevitable.

The choice facing all male children at the age of 18 is this: find employment and thus secure a sponsor for your visa, or else attend one of the country's franchise Western universities. The first is a near impossibility, since businesses in the Emirates do not hire untrained adolescents, especially foreign ones. The second is exorbitantly expensive. (Unmarried daughters are allowed to remain in the family fold.) Knowing that that my parents could not afford to continue paying for my education in the Emirates, I applied to several institutions in the UK, where, thanks to a clerical error, I was offered a place at university at the lower “home” fee rate, then just slightly over a thousand pounds.

Adapting to life in Britain, I often reflected on how, despite causing me a great deal of pain, my illusion of permanence in the UAE had nevertheless been an incredible gift. Such an illusion was denied to millions of other informal Emiratis. Visitors to the cities of the Emirates over the past few decades will have all stumbled on the same inescapable sight: the striking preponderance of men, in particular the millions of South Asian labourers who spend their lives in the UAE entirely alone, denied the option to bring their families over. While many could afford to do so – at a stretch – they are systematically blocked by strict entry quotas based on their countries of origin, no matter how long they've lived and worked in that country.

In the early 1990s, visitors to Abu Dhabi's Corniche, the broad waterfront boulevard on the western shore of the island, would be struck by the sight of thousands of South Asian laborers in their distinctive blue overalls. Back then, the Corniche was one of those few places where Emiratis and foreigners, and the poor and the rich could mingle. On Thursday nights, labourers would pose in front of the Corniche's Volcano Fountain, an 80 foot water feature lit by bright crimson lights at night, making the drops look like lava.

There, they would snap photos of themselves to mail back to their families. The ideal stance involved leaning one elbow against the trunk of a palm, with the sputtering Volcano in the background. The rest of the week, the labourers were restricted to the construction sites and their accommodations in hangar-style shacks outside the city limits, on the mainland.

The Volcano, which grew into one of the city's most beloved landmarks, was demolished in 2004. It made way for a sleeker, broader Corniche, yet one that was ultimately far more exclusive. Today its beach pavilions and cafés are the bastion of the middle class, part of a trend that has seen the city grow more segregated. Although the UAE is a cacophony of cultures and nationalities, the government's unwritten policy is straightforward: one is welcome to live there so long as one silently subscribes to its system of apartheid by consent. While foreigners are free to mix, the UAE's informal hiring practices mean that jobs are allotted almost exclusively according to race: East Asians are employed in service industries and as maids, construction workers are South Asian, lower middle-class jobs go to Arabs and managerial positions are the near-exclusive preserve of Westerners, leaving the friendly, languid Emiratis perched alone on top. You are free to live here and make your money however long you can, the Welcome Sign should say, but never fool yourself into thinking you'll ever remain. The PS should also read: if you don't like it, leave.

Despite the terrible odds presented by this game of roulette, there is no short supply of willing gamblers. For better or worse, the UAE remains a beacon of potential prosperity. It is the promised land to the Subcontinent's poor, a safe haven for the Arab world's elites and a tacky oddity ripe for the plucking to the West's middle classes. Precisely because of that, most of the aforementioned would happily accept Emirati citizenship in a heartbeat, and therein lies the problem. Rather than open the floodgates, the answer, it seems, is to make the process a near impossibility, no matter how long one has lived there.

A group of Filipino men take a selfie 

Abu Dhabi has certainly grown larger, denser and richer in recent years. It has also become visibly unhappier. For expatriates, visa restrictions are increasingly tough. A new law making “good conduct certificates” mandatory to get work permits came into effect on 4 February 2018. Meanwhile, despite the UAE government making no distinction between short-term opportunist and those whose families have made the UAE their home for decades, generations of residents now feel both estranged and at home. Many Abu Dhabians ejected at eighteen do, after all, come back. As the Abu Dhabian writer Deepak Unnikrishnan recently explained, his unexpected return to his city in 2015 led to a “difficult” re-adjustment: “Mentally, it was as though I couldn’t return to the city I had left, as though someone had changed the locks to my home without telling me.”

It is fittingly ironic, then, that the UAE's government newest obsession just so happens to be happiness. In February 2016, the UAE became only the fourth country in the world after Bhutan, Ecuador and Venezuela to appoint a Minister of State for Happiness. Dubai's PR-savvy ruler – and self-styled poet – Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum even went so far as to pen a slim tome entitled Reflections on Happiness & Positivity (Explorer, 2017). In it, he wrote: “What makes us proud of our United Arab Emirates is not the height of our buildings, the breadth or our streets or the magnitude of our shopping malls, but rather the openness and tolerance of our nation.” It is nevertheless unfortunate to see that Al-Maktoum's openness and tolerance does not stretch to include the millions of expatriate men and women who built his principality in the first place.

Emirati citizenship grants one instant access to a host of socio-economic privileges unavailable to the UAE's foreign-born inhabitants, and is granted solely by royal edict. The rationale for such exclusivity is simple. Citizens enjoy lavish benefits, including a college fund, free health care, a guaranteed job in government, and access to a government Marriage Fund. Open up citizenship, and the less than a million existing Emiratis would be politically overwhelmed overnight. While a provision exists in Emirati law which allows expatriates to apply for UAE citizenship after a 20 year period, it is almost never put to use. UAE society is thus bitterly divided. The expats resent the Emiratis' privileges, while Emiratis quietly worry about losing the reins of their own country. Mixed marriages between Emiratis and foreigners are actively discouraged, with Emirati women forbidden from marrying foreign men altogether.

Meanwhile, informal Emiratis have been there for decades longer than the actual country has existed. One of my father's oldest friends during his early years in Abu Dhabi was an engineer. He was both a third-generation expat Emirati and a Palestinian. His grandfather had left his village in Galilee in 1949 and had wound up in the northern emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, where he had started a chicken farm. By my early teenage years, this Emirati Palestinian clan counted over twenty individuals, who occupied various posts in both private businesses and government enterprises. Their story mirrored that of many Palestinians after the Nakba, who alongside the Lebanese, Egyptians, Iranians, Indians and Pakistanis, played a vital role in the building of the modern Gulf petrocracies. Unfortunately, the supply of willing workers long appeared inexhaustible. Each new conflagration in Israel-Palestine prompted a new flight of migration, and so the Palestinian immigrants in the Gulf were largely treated as expendable. While the UAE's government has always made a public show of its sizable contributions to Palestinian charities, it has never extended the warm hand of citizenship or long-term residency, which is precisely what the overwhelming majority of expat Emirati Palestinians both want and deserve.

A pragmatic solution to the woes of expatriate Abu Dhabians remains as distant now as it was when my family first moved to the UAE. However, their cause – and the overall issue of an individual's right to place – is nevertheless a global cause for concern. In his Reflections on Happiness & Positivity, Sheikh Mohammed claims to have taken cues from Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun and the US's Founding Fathers to reach his conclusion that “tolerance is no catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice” since “the government's job is to achieve happiness”. For the moment, however, the UAE's interpretation of happiness excludes almost 90 per cent of its people.

Whether the UAE survives as a functional state may well largely depend on its ability to retain and absorb its long-term expatriates. It is time for the country to attempt what Benedict Anderson called a “sophisticated and serious blending of the emancipatory possibilities of both nationalism and internationalism”. The UAE is no paradise for migrant workers, but meanwhile those nomads and their children have developed a culture the rest of the world should finally begin to contend with. Last year, the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale featured non-Emirati residents, such as Vikram Divecha and Lantian Xie. Deepak Unnikrishnan's novel Temporary People (Restless Books, 2017), which explored Abu Dhabi's hidden nuances through a sequence of interlinked stories tinged with magical realism, was recently published to highly-deserved acclaim. Dubai has even become home to exiled artists like Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian.

For all that the Western world likes to caricature the UAE, the question of citizenship is not one confined to the expatriates of Abu Dhabi. Los Angeles, the city where I currently reside, is presently home to thousands of “Dreamers”, beneficiaries of the Obama-era legislation that protected the children of people who entered the US illegally, many of whom now face a very uncertain future. As for me, the familiar sight of pump jacks and foreign migrants outside my window keeps my memories of home – and hopes for a better future there – alive. Impractical or not, Abu Dhabi is my home, and I don't need a passport to prove it.


This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue