'We Cannot Walk Alone': Refugee Week 2021

For Refugee Week 2021 we are celebrating the incredible resilience, achievements and contributions of a few of the 1,000+ refugees World Jewish Relief has supported on their journeys into work.

This year the theme of Refugee Week is 'We Cannot Walk Alone'. At the heart of our Specialist Training and Employment Programme (STEP) for refugees are our partnerships with NGOs, local and national authorities, who help deliver the programme.

Here are a few incredible stories of individuals who, with support from STEP, are navigating and rebuilding their lives.

Hafssa's Story

Hafssa is 22 years old and is from Baghdad, Iraq where she grew up. On her twelfth birthday, a close acquaintance of her family was killed, and overnight her family escaped to Jordan where they lived for nine years. Her father stayed in Baghdad to care for his mother, and Hafssa hasn’t seen him since. In 2018 Hafssa and her family moved to Coventry.  

She is now working at TK Maxx and studying Business and Accounting at Coventry University.

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Read Hafssa's full story here. 

AbdulKareem's Story

AbdulKareem is 29 years old and is from Syria. He lived in Turkey for six years before coming to Sheffield in February 2018 with his parents and two sisters.  

Last year he set up his own barbershop with support from STEP.

AbdulKareem

Read AbdulKareem's full story here.

Sam and Issac's Stories

Sam is 27 years old and he is from Syria. He left the country in 2013 and moved to Erbil, Iraq where he lived until he was resettled in Coventry in September 2019. He came alone, without any family.  

Sam

Isaac is 20, from Iraq, and lived in Lebanon for three years before coming to the UK in September 2017 with his family.  

Sam and Issac both successfully applied for jobs as Lateral Flow Testers in Coventry, with support from their STEP Employment Advisor Tom.

Issac

Read Sam and Eric's full stories here.

Yanal's Story

Yanal is 41. She is a single mother of four, and came to Coventry with her children in September 2019. Having never worked before arriving in the UK, with support from STEP she successfully secured a job in a primary school as a Lunchtime Supervisor.

Yanal

Read Yanal's full story here.

Eric's Story

Eric, aged 28, is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His father passed away when he was young, and when he was seven his family fled war and moved to Burundi, where they lived for 18 years.

In 2019 they moved to Sheffield through the UK and the UN’s joint Gateway Protection Programme. He secured a job as a Clinical Support Worker and is on his way to continuing his career in healthcare.

eric

Read Eric's full story here.

Ali's Story

Ali is 41 years old, from Aleppo, Syria, and arrived in Bristol with his wife and children in 2016. He ran a successful painting and decorating business for 20 years in Aleppo.

He has been supported by STEP to set up his own business, Pro Painting and Decorating.

Ali

Read Ali's full story here.

Tiya's Story

Tiya is 29. Her family is originally from Afghanistan but she was born in Iran, where she lived for 25 years before moving to Turkey. In 2018 she and her family moved to Bristol.  

She is studying Maths and English, and hopes to become a midwife.

Tiya

Read Tiya's full story here.

Hafssa's Story

Hafssa is 22 years old and is from Baghdad, Iraq where she grew up. On her twelfth birthday a close acquaintance of her family was killed, and overnight her family escaped to Jordan where they lived for nine years. Her father stayed in Baghdad to care for his mother, and Hafssa hasn’t seen him since. In 2018 Hafssa and her family moved to Coventry.  

“When we received the call to say we would be going to the UK we were so happy. We all cried. 

When we landed at Birmingham Airport we were nervous, but when the doors opened we saw that someone from Coventry City Council was there to welcome us. They took us for breakfast and then to our house, which was nice and contained everything we would need. We felt so lucky.” 

Almost immediately, Hafssa joined STEP. 

“When I met my STEP Employment Advisor he told me that he could help find me a job. I needed support from a local organisation because I didn’t know the country or anyone here, and I didn’t have a lot to write on my CV. I decided to start volunteering at the British Heart Foundation and the Central Library, and now also volunteer as an interpreter at classes for refugees.  

With support from STEP I applied for a three-week training at TK Maxx. At the end of the training they offered me a full-time job, and I have been there for two years now. It was hard at first because it was a new environment. My colleagues spoke fast, and I found it hard to keep up. But I stayed motivated, and now I have progressed – I work on the shop floor maintaining the clothes, opening and closing the store, doing everything.”  

Hafssa recently took part in a two-week work placement run by Grant Thornton UK LLP together with Business in the Community and World Jewish Relief, which provides insights for refugees into the business and helps develop skills and build confidence. She is still in contact with her mentor from the company, Karen, who said: 

“I had the pleasure of spending time with Hafssa to support her in thinking about her future. As well as being able to provide her with advice and guidance, I learned a lot about the challenges she has faced and continues to face. I am hugely inspired by her determination and resilience.”

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Hafssa said:  

“Every day I learned different stories of how employees went from zero to the top. This changed my perspective and helped me think ahead. I am studying Business and Accounting at Coventry University, and I hope to work in this area in future, although for now I am very happy with my job. I know that STEP will support me when the time comes."

AbdulKareem's Story

AbdulKareem is 29 years old and is from Syria. He lived in Turkey for six years before coming to Sheffield in February 2018 with his parents and two sisters.  

"When I arrived in Sheffield I felt very happy. This is a nice country; the people are helpful and friendly.  

In Turkey I wasn’t a barber, I worked as a Turkish-Arabic translator. But one day after I came to Sheffield I was getting my hair cut and I got chatting to the barber and I thought ‘I like this job, I want it.'

When I decided to open my own barbershop I worked with the Refugee Council, who put me in contact with the Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN). With support from TERN I made a business plan, found a shop, decorated it. It was a long journey.  

I opened my barbershop, Vegas Barber Classic, late last year. It was difficult starting during a pandemic. We opened for a week and then lockdown was announced so we had to close. My mentor from TERN helped me to apply for Government grants.   

AbdulKareem

We reopened on 12th April, and we are slowly building a reputation. We don’t just offer haircuts, we do head, back and neck massages in the classic Turkish style. I see barbering as a creative job; it is an art. I meet a lot of people through it so now I have a community, friends, and customers.  

My plan is to offer barber training to others. I want to help refugees and other people who are unemployed. Our door is going to be open for anyone who wants this job. I know how other refugees are feeling because when I came here, I didn’t know anyone. I left my whole life, moved everything to come here.  

If you want to get somewhere in the UK you have to work hard. That’s what I’ve done. I want other refugees to know that if you want to set up a business you shouldn’t be scared, because in this country there are opportunities, and if one thing doesn’t work you can try something else. Chase after your dreams."

Sam and Issac's Stories

Sam is 27 years old and he is from Syria. He left the country in 2013 and moved to Erbil, Iraq where he lived until he was resettled in Coventry in September 2019. He came alone, without any family.  

"When the UN called to say I would be moving to the UK, it was amazing. As with any place, arriving alone was difficult. I had to learn a new language and discover a new culture. Shortly after I arrived the pandemic started and we went into lockdown, so I didn’t get the chance to meet new people and make friends. Looking at the positives has helped me to survive.   

When I arrived in Coventry I knew I wanted to study again and find work. I am studying English and Maths GCSEs and will do an access course so that I can study Chemistry or Pharmacy at university. Chemistry is my passion. I had started a Chemistry degree in Syria but I couldn’t complete it because the war started.  

With help from my STEP Employment Advisor Tom, I am trying to improve my English, my professional skills and my communication skills. Tom helped me to apply for my current job at the Lateral Flow Test Centre, and I am grateful for that. 

It is challenging finding a job as a refugee because when you apply, they ask for experience working in this country, but you don’t know how to get that experience. The volunteering I have done through STEP really helped. I interpret for others on the programme who don’t speak English. This makes me feel proud of myself. Now I am working as a Lateral Flow Tester, so when I next apply for a job, employers will see I have worked in the UK.  

Since I’ve started working, I have met new people and made friends. This has made the city feel like a second home."

Isaac is 20, from Iraq, and lived in Lebanon for three years before coming to the UK in September 2017 with his family.  

"When we were told we would be resettled in the UK I knew this was good news, because it is a great place. Plus, I knew some English from watching modern classics like Ocean’s Eleven and Mission Impossible. 

When we arrived I started Sixth Form, but because I had no GCSEs or A Levels it has taken me a while to complete my studies. I am now doing an access course in place of A Levels.  

I have done lots of work experience and volunteering. I volunteer for a charity that supports young people, organising events for the community. This has taught me so much, and it has given me connections, friendship, and helped me learn English. 

When I was ready to start work, Tom told me about this job as a Lateral Flow Tester and helped me to apply. Without Tom I would never have known about the job. I’ve been working here since March, and it’s a really amazing job. The people I work with are great, and I have made friends with everyone. I am a bit shy at first, but once I’ve known you for a few days I will never shut up!  

Sam and Issac

STEP is a great programme. I got lots of help at first, and now that I have a job they continue to be there when I need them. So many people have found jobs, work experience and other opportunities through STEP. 

My big dream is to be a pilot. I have applied for Aerospace Engineering at university, and I already have two offers. This is my passion."

STEP Employment Advisor, Tom, said: 

"It means a lot to see two young men doing such a great job for the community at a difficult time. You couldn’t ask for people who are more engaged, committed to what they do, open to learning, willing to have setbacks and if something doesn’t work out, to apply for something else.  

Coventry has its own history of being badly affected by war, and we are now a city of peace and reconciliation. It means a lot to have resettled refugees in the city, it’s a big part of what Coventry is trying to be today. I am glad these guys feel welcome in the city and that they feel part of it. I hope that continues."

Yanal's Story

Yanal is aged 41 and came to Coventry in September 2019. She said:  

“Before I came to the UK, I was afraid. I am a single mother with four children, I lost my husband eight years ago, and since then I have had to depend on myself. When I arrived, I wanted to integrate into society and find a job, having never worked in Syria. I knew that working would help me find myself, and would be more beneficial than staying at home.  

My STEP Employment Advisor helped me with my CV and cover letter, enrolled me on vocational training courses, and even provided me with a laptop to continue my studies during lockdown.”  

Yanal was enrolled in Careers Conversations, a programme run by STEP partner Business in the Community (BITC) promoting the use of English, self-confidence and interview skills to improve employability.  Yanal was matched with a volunteer working in business, who supported her through a series of Zoom sessions. Julie, an Employment Programme Manager for BITC, explained: 

“Careers Conversations is all about conversing, promoting the use of the English language to improve employability, confidence, and interview skills. The clients we support are great, and seeing clients like Yanal improving is amazing.”

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Yanal said: 

“In Careers Conversations I was taught to be confident in interviews, stay relaxed, and answer the questions. The interview for my job as a Lunchtime Supervisor at a primary school was my first ever interview, and I thought it would take me years to get a job. I was surprised when I got it! Starting work has made Coventry feel like my home, and I am happy here. The children teach me as much as I teach them; when they use a word that I don’t understand I ask them to write it down for me, and in the evening after my kids are in bed, I study the words for hours.  

When I arrived in Coventry I didn’t even know how to get around the city; everything is so different from Syria. It would have been impossible to achieve anything in the UK without STEP. They encouraged and supported me and enabled me to get a job. I would tell any refugee arriving in the UK to trust STEP, attend every course they are offered, and recognise how valuable this support will be for them.”

Eric's Story

Eric, aged 28, is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His father passed away when he was young, and when he was seven his family fled war and moved to Burundi, where they lived for 18 years. In 2019 they moved to Sheffield through the UK and the UN’s joint Gateway Protection Programme.  

“When we arrived in Sheffield I saw trees, nice buildings and big football stadiums. I felt fresh air and met kind people. I knew we would be okay here.” 

Eric was supported by STEP partner the Refugee Council:

“We didn’t know anything about the UK when we arrived. The Refugee Council supported us with housing, orientation and learning English. They helped me to play football, join the library, and meet new people. I even took part in Interplay, a music project for Refugee Week where I sang and played guitar.” 

Eric completed a Nursing Degree in Burundi, and had volunteered as a nurse in a hospital for six months before coming to the UK. 

“When I arrived, I hoped to continue this work, and maybe to resume my studies with the hope of one day becoming a doctor. I learned that first I needed GCSE English and Maths, and then I would have to do another Nursing Degree as my original one was not transferable.”  

Whilst STEP helped him apply for jobs with the NHS Eric worked night shifts at a warehouse, which he describes as “difficult work which I never imagined doing”. Jack, a Programme Manager for STEP, describes how challenging the process of finding new employment can be: 

“After many years of uncertainty, and having put their lives on hold in many ways, when people arrive in the UK they expect to progress quickly. They have to find a new reserve of patience and take a deep breath, as they realise they must find learn the language, learn about the country and create a community network around them before anything can happen. That is hard to accept.” 

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Alongside the Refugee Council, Eric was supported by STEP partners the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and the local Job Centre Plus. Having applied twice himself unsuccessfully, on his third attempt with support from World Jewish Relief and the DWP, Eric successfully secured a job as a Clinical Support Worker with the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. He said:  

“I am working in a great ward, everyone is supporting me and helping me to feel comfortable as a new starter. This job is a good first step towards my long-term goal.

This career is important to me because my dad taught at a university, and I learned from him the importance of helping people. I realised that the best way for me to help people was by enabling them to have good health, because health is everything. One day I want to teach people like my dad did; perhaps I will train nurses, or something like that.” 

Ali's Story 

Ali is 41 years old, from Aleppo, Syria, and arrived in Bristol with his wife and children in 2016. He ran a successful painting and decorating business for 20 years in Aleppo. He said:  

“When I arrived in the UK I had the skills to be a painter-decorator, but whilst I hoped to have the same job here, this was difficult without speaking English. When I decided I wanted to set up my own business, having never worked in the UK, STEP partner The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN) helped me turn my skills and experience into something tangible.  

Saif, TERN Facilitator and Incubation Manager, met Ali for the first time on the day of the photo shoot, having supported him virtually for six months. Saif and Ali worked together to create a business plan, define a target audience, design a name and brand, and look at how to translate Ali’s skills to the local market. Ali is now ready to launch his business.

Saif said:  

“TERN’s mission is to help refugees thrive with their own ideas and to connect them with resources and support. One of the greatest honours of this role is to hold up a mirror so people can see what skills and potential they have, and what difference they can make to their lives and to the community around them. 

I work with established entrepreneurs who ran incredible businesses in Syria and help them start from zero here. During our work, there is a grief that resurfaces because every small step they take reminds them of every big step they took in the past. As a mentor I am not only supporting them to access resources and find their way, but also creating a compassionate place to hold all the frustration they are feeling. Because every time they achieve something small, it reminds them of the bigness of what they lost.” 

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Ali said:  

“In the last few months, I have begun to feel like I am part of a community here. I hope that my company will be successful and grow; perhaps one day I will employ others. But for now, I am very happy, and excited for the next phase in my business, in which I will be connecting with local opportunities and reaching clients. I have a focus and I feel I am going somewhere.” 

Tiya's Story

Tiya is 29. Her family is originally from Afghanistan but she was born in Iran, where she lived for 25 years before moving to Turkey. In 2018 she and her family moved to Bristol.  

“I have always dreamed of living in a country like the UK. I couldn’t sleep for three days before we came and when we arrived, I cried because I was so happy. People here are so kind, and I never feel like they see me as a refugee. Bristol now feels like home.  

I didn’t finish school because when I was 12 years old, I started working long days in a plastic factory to support my parents and two younger siblings. It was hard, heavy work which damaged my body.

But now, I want to study and become a midwife, because in many countries including Afghanistan, mothers and children are dying in childbirth with no one to look after them. I want to join the Red Cross and travel to other countries to help women. I could never just say ‘I have money, I have a home, I am satisfied’. I want to support others.  

Tiya

STEP partner Bristol City Council supported me from the moment I arrived. They gave my family a home, sent me to college, gave me my life. With support from STEP, I am studying Maths, and attend daily English language lessons. There are no words I can say to thank Bristol City Council; they have supported me, helped me to know myself, to have confidence and learn English. I now know that I need to continue my studies so I can become a midwife, and that I have so many options ahead of me. I can create my own future.” 

Click here to learn more about STEP, and donate here to support our work today.

Photography by Andy Aitchison

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