Interviews and Photographs by Melisa Numan
Great Britain has always welcomed refugees from all over the world. In February 2022, Ukrainian citizens became a target of a Russian invasion ordered by president Vladimir Putin, who sought the “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine. The conflict continues to record devastating casualties and forces the mass displacement of millions. Many had to flee their houses, careers, friends, and family. Iran has been suffering in the eye of extreme regimens and living conditions for several generations. Those people had to leave everything behind and begin a new life.
Many judge refugees, forgetting they’re still human, each with individually led lives, hopes, and dreams. I have met and spoken
with refugees living in Cardiff and have been overwhelmed by their resilience and will to adapt and fight for a better tomorrow. These four people have gone through tremendous hardship to be here today.
In the following few pages, the reader will see a close-up of their faith and an opportunity to understand the plight of those fleeing through their own words and most prized possessions.
I was wanted for spreading information on political leaflets about the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and its leader, who have been working for freedom for the last 75 years.
I became interested in politics when my best friend was killed. He was 18, the Iranian police thought he was going
to move to Iraq because his family lived close to the border. When it happened to him, I realized how shitty this country is. It was the first time I went on search for different parties. It’s not fair killing people for nothing! The government has to support the people, not threaten them. Enough is enough.
I voluntarily worked for a guy, who was helping me deliver the leaflets from Iraq to Iran, as he worked on the border inside the country. It was my responsibility to take it from my hometown to the city. If you delivered drugs, it would be easier than being involved with the politics in Iran.
It’s putting your life in danger for freedom. I don’t know how they caught him, but they found my number on his phone. On the same day, he called me and said:
‘’ Just go to a place and just stay there until I call you. Put your phone off and hide’’.
The year was 2019, I was 19. I left home without choice.
I couldn’t even go back and tell my family that I’m going to leave for a while for my own safety. Many people were killed in the same scenario, even for less. I had everything. I had a good life, we had a big farm, we were so busy with it. We had sheep, cows, land, apples, grapes, seems like a luxurious life now to me. Why would I leave everything behind?
When I moved to Cardiff and was shown my room, I thought ‘’Is this everything, is this for one person, that tiny room?’’ No, it was for three. But safety was the highest goal for me. I just wanted to be alive.
“If I hadn’t fled, I was going to get killed.”
It took me three weeks to escape the country. I didn’t have a map, but I know the geography of Iran. We went to a city close to the Turkish border and walked all the way through at night, along with 6 others. 5 hours by foot through the forest. I was in shock. They sent me to a petrol station, put me in the back of a lorry without any food or drink. I didn’t have a watch to check the time, or a phone to call someone.
When the lorry made it to the border,
I was arrested. I wasn’t able to pack, came with nothing, in my summery clothes, left without saying anything to any friend or family. I didn’t know the language, didn’t have any money, didn’t know anyone.
It was kind of a jail; you don’t have access to the outside. You have books and computers, but all filtered.
I checked the map and thought
‘’What the fuck, where am I?’’ The
map showed me Bradford, I was too
far from home. I cried, it’s a long destination, how could I visit my family? They moved me to a depot centre in London for a week, then in an asylum centre in Cardiff for 8 months. It was really hard to survive on 35£ a week.
When you are asylum, you are not allowed to work. When you’re not allowed to go outside, being in your room all day, not knowing anyone, not speaking to people, you are only left with your thoughts.
I was thinking about what I have done to my life, I was thinking of ending it. It seemed easy to me. I wouldn’t cause more problems. I wanted someone to help me. I started English classes in Oasis. Then I started college. Now I try to keep myself busy and not have time to replay the scenario over and over again. I started a new life on the 21st of August 2021 when I received the visa.
The first thing I did was find a job.
I worked full-time, saved up some money, applied for provisional license. But my English wasn’t good enough
to pass the test. But I tried again, got it and bought a car. I was active. I started living.
”I lived in Odessa, I was an entrepreneur, an interior designer and I was planning on expanding my company before my life was changed beyond recognition.
It was five o’clock am. Odessa was being bombed. I couldn’t realize it was bombs, I continued sleeping. At 7 o’clock my friend called me. She said ‘’Don’t worry, but the war started.’’
And I said, The War? Really?!
Will we move out to Izmail or stay here? Because we didn’t know what will come next.
It’s a long journey from Odessa
to Izmail. It’s 250km, three hours driving. I’d be safe there. After few hours there were more bombs, everything was shaking. It was this terrible sound, like shrilling.
I put a couple things in my suitcase. Computers, documents, clothes, main stuff.
It was 5pm when I left Odessa. This time it took 10 hours driving. Because everyone wanted to leave. The drive to the Moldovan border took me 8 hours. All men wanted to leave Ukraine and not go to army.
It was six lines of cars one way. You could see the road like a red snake. You-Tube channels reporting about how many people died, where the bombings were, cities that were being destroyed. We cried all the time because you know people died now, in your country, in your city. Very close to you. I have relatives in Nizhyn (North Ukraine),
where my biological dad lives. He volunteered to join the army on
the first days. Governance sent
him to the East parts, where it was very harsh. The Russian authorities thought it’ll be easy to take Ukraine down in two days. They were very wrong.
He was just a soldier; he didn’t have any experience. He was just a regular person. He was admitted in the hospital, because the troops were under poisonous phosphor bombing.
So, in Nizhyn (Нйежен) there
were many bombing attacks. All my relatives were in placements, hiding. We thought about going
to Bulgaria, because I have friends there and we thought it’s a good option. But on the morning that we had to leave, my mom said
‘’I’m not going anywhere. Here is my home, here is my apartment. And I’m going to stay here.’’
I told her I can’t leave without her, so I also stayed. I was there about 5 months until July.
I tried to find some work, but I couldn’t.
My godmother told me about the programmes for Ukrainians in Great Britain, which I wasn’t sure about. At that time, I had visited Bulgaria twice. I realised that I can’t live there I didn’t know the language, it’ll be hard to find work, I will be depending on my friends… it wasn’t an option. At home I will always have my apartment and family. But I had no work anymore, nowhere to go, I felt trapped in a vacuum, useless.
In June I joined an organization called The Sunflower Sisters, in just one week they found me a host family, so I was able to apply for a visa. I arrived here on August 2nd. Living with a host family was good, but the place was very rural. After 5 weeks I moved to Caerphilly.
Then I went home for 10 days in September. The psyche of the people was damaged, constantly talking about news, time, lost lives, weapons. There are sirens all the time. Even at night. Every time you hear them, you know something bad is going on nearby. People are dying and you’re just sitting.
You feel helpless. It’s hard being there, it destroys you on the inside.
Here, in Caerphilly, I can just sit at home, but I can always do better. I could no longer do what I loved so much because I had stopped believing that interior design is important to my fellow citizens right now. I’ve applied for two business grants in Wales. They help people open their own business. I want to launch a home cooked Ukrainian cuisine. I hope we go forward with it, but we’re going very slowly.
Folklore dancing is my hobby. In Izmail we have a huge dancing school. 140 children, 20 adults.
We would take part in competitions and festivals around Eastern Europe. I’m just very happy to share what I love with other people.”
”There I was attending, here I am teaching. It’s not a business idea. It’s not about money. It’s £3 per person, and free for Ukrainians. It is about the soul.”
” I was born in Luhansk, the city where I spent my completely carefree childhood. In 2014, everything changed.
On some abnormally sunny day, the whole family raised our heads up and saw a terrible thing: A burning plane with a crew in it fell on our house. They hid me in the turmoil, my mother covered me with herself, I seemed to have gone deaf. In a matter of days, my mother and I were already running away from Luhansk with a folder of documents, almost barefoot through paths unknown to me. By some miracle, on August 14, 2014, we ended up in a hostel in Kharkov, where we began a new life.
After seven years, we managed to achieve everything we could only dream of – a position at work, studying in college, a personal life full of happiness … In February 2022, there were fearful signs of a deterioration in the political situation, all of Ukraine was on the alert. Education was set to online learning. 10 days later, the Russian invasion began. We packed an emergency suitcase and waited for news. It seemed that this tragedy would pass by. I remember how I fell asleep on the night of February 23rd, as soon as I closed my eyes, I was up from the bombings at six in the morning. Mom’s words became an injection of adrenaline:
‘‘Dasha, the war has begun.”
All of my senses disappeared. I was empty, I did not feel thirst, hunger or any other needs.
And there was no fear. I called everyone that morning;
Instead of asking
“How are you?”,
I asked ‘‘Are you alive?’’
We stayed in Kharkov for 10 days, because my mother could not leave her workplace, but who could have known that enemy fighters would start attacking the city? This sound is like death. My body went numb, my ears were deaf, my head rang. We spent the night in the medical university bunker across from our apartment. I have never experienced such cold, the ceiling crumbled after shock waves from explosions, there was no communication, there was no bread, there was no sleep either. There was only growing anxiety for the life of my mother.
We spent another week in the hospital because it was scary at home. It became an island of illusory security for a while. I didn’t get out of bed until two days later, only to run to the evacuation train to western Ukraine. The military stuff us into the last carriage, where it is full. There was no place at all, everyone was lying on top of each other: children, old people, pregnant women, animals. Everyone was in a semi-conscious state, it lasted about 18 hours.
And we left for Lvov (Western Ukraine). There, for the first time, I slept for more than 4 hours, albeit on a concrete floor, but in relative safety. Few days later, my mother and I ended up in a village near Lvov, where we were sheltered by a large family. This week seemed like a salvation, but in the morning, there were explosions and we were on the road again. Another train, but to Poland. Repetition of sight.
Women with children, grandmothers, disabled people and animals – 12 hours of travel without water, food and toilets. I didn’t want to live, honestly, my body was turning off. My mother and I dragged through the Przemysl railway station (South-eastern Poland) to our father, who travelled three countries to pick us up and take us to Estonia where he works.
Two months passed, I didn’t remember anything, I started to feel good! I even started making friends in the new country. We found out about the possibility of coming to the UK and we made visas for the whole family. I turned 18, I did all the paperwork and re-registered for a visa. And everything worked out. To be honest, I didn’t expect it, that was a shock for me. Once again, I leave my friends, my place of residence and run. So, we arrived by bus travelling for 5 days, spent the night on the streets of Poland, Germany, Belgium, France, and finally – we got to Cardiff.
I still can’t believe that this happened to me, because this could only be seen in films. It’s unbelievable how much the psyche can handle at my age. At the moment, I have come to my senses, because in Britain there were people who could provide help and support.
Yes, every day I face many difficulties, but I’m alive. That’s what really matters. Awareness of the value of one’s life leaves no choice, because it is necessary to be happy – this is not in vain.
This postcard reminds me of the times Kharkov was peaceful. The residence is called ‘Slovo’, meaning word. There used to be meetings, like poetry dedicated evenings and the people who performed there are my friends, so it is just a memory of them. The ones who stayed in Ukraine.
The Ukrainians have the benefit of being given refugee status before they come, so they arrive by plane and are given accommodation immediately. On the other hand, Ali for example had to escape from Syria, narrowly escaped being killed by the army on his way out, travelled over Europe across land, including crawling on his stomach for 1km to get past a border. He tried the Mediterranean crossing twice. Thought they were going to drown the first time. Then made his way up through France and managed to hide really well in the back of a lorry. Others also in the lorry were found when it was searched. When they arrived in the UK the driver was really surprised to find him there. He then would have become an asylum seeker receiving around £35 per week and not able to work. Some people remain for years as asylum seekers.
When I think of the object most dear to me, I immediately remember the poems of Mahmoud Darwish, chapter 1-2 which was published by Dar Al-Hurriya (Freedom home) in Baghdad.
I travelled from my village to Damascus at the last day of an international book exhibition on the 11th of August 2007, where I bought this poem’s book with other ten books. In this particular one, there were a lot of stories. One of them attracted me while I was shifting the book’s papers. I remember this dry jasmine and where I took it from in 2009. It was my first winter in Lebanon and I was working at Concord Coolers. On the way to my work there was this Jasmine
tree which burst to life. I took one stem of flowers because at the time, I fell in love with a girl called Jasmine.
It was a one-sided love on my behalf as I was a poor naive villager. All the emotions that came when Jasmine crossed in front of my workplace at the evening, were enough for me to cope with all of my workload and lack of sleep. In my room, which was under the ground, I used to read Darwish poems by the candle’s light, chasing rats which were trying to get closer to my bed. I was dreaming about a miracle to get me out from all of that hell, which I’ve never experienced before. I sat in the evening in front of my workplace and inside me the voice of the Darwish poem sang:
“Don’t rush! If she came after her time then wait for her
And if she came on her time, wait for her
And if she came before her time, wait for her’’
Then she came and said Salam (greeting). The Anxiety was gone. Hope rose again like the moon on a stranger night. One day, I told her about my feelings. She became nervous and told me she respects me but she doesn’t think about these commitments. It was the first time I told any girl I love her. It was the last time too. Finding someone who respects your feelings, even if it’s naive, is rare and can only happen in this life once.”
Categories: Cardiff, international
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