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

Days without eating, shared beds and constant waiting – a torture survivor describes life as an asylum seeker in the UK.

Ahmed Zaha - [Illustration by Laura Callaghan]
[Illustration by Laura Callaghan]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asylum seeker essay
Graffiti is seen on a street in Croydon, London in 2017 [File: Reuters]

New language, new home

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

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

I knew nothing about the asylum system but I learned that we were not allowed to work.

After much searching for information, I was directed to my country’s expatriate community in London. I met someone at the mosque who I lived with for a while, and he became a supporter and friend.

Six months later I found out I was meant to get an asylum allowance from the UK Home Office. I began receiving £36 ($45) each week and lived in a room provided by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS).

But the first payment did not arrive until four days after I moved there so I had nothing to eat and no money for food during that time. When the allowance did arrive, because the place had no pots I could use to cook, I had to spend the money on that – instead of on food to eat. That meant another week with no money for food.

Even once my asylum allowance began to arrive regularly, surviving for a week on that money was a full-time job. Knowing that it was not enough to live on, I looked for organisations that could help me.

A job with no pay

If you see the situation of an asylum seeker as a job, those organisations are like your employer. Your first responsibility is to go there and register yourself, and your duties are to present yourself there once every week or two, to receive whatever they can give you.

The first place I went to was the Notre Dame Refugee Centre in Trafalgar Square. I arrived at five in the morning to give myself more than enough time for when it opened at 8.30am. But there were already more than 40 people ahead of me. By now it was winter, and freezing cold. My friend had lent me a jacket but it was not warm enough.

Asylum seeker essay
Asylum seekers queue outside a charity awaiting food distribution [File: Reuters]

Once inside, we were given breakfast and then waited again until 11am, when they started seeing people to try to find them solicitors or help them out in other ways.

On that first day, a Thursday, they did not get to me so I returned the following Monday when they opened next. I got there at 3am and was the second person in the queue. This time, I was seen, and they managed to find me a solicitor.

In some of these places, you have to eat the food they provide there and then, and it is only available on a particular day, once a week. Others give you the ingredients – pasta, beans, tuna, chicken or cream of tomato soup, biscuits, apples; I had never seen some of these things before.

Days with nothing

If and when your asylum claim fails – in my case, after six months – it is devastating.

The UK Home Office is known to have a “refuse asylum first, ask questions later” approach. Poor decision-making means that you have to keep putting in fresh claims until a fair one is reached. 

In the meantime, your asylum support ends, so the job gets even more demanding. For a short while, you may get emergency support from an organisation like Freedom from Torture, but it is less than what NASS provided – barely £30 ($37) a week, and only for six weeks.

So then you are reduced to travelling further, to places where they feed you on site, and for less food. And whether you are sick or well, you have to go – because that is the only way you can eat. Now, because of coronavirus, food is more expensive than ever.

Most destitute asylum seekers eat only once a day; the idea of breakfast, lunch and dinner is impossible. I normally eat in the middle of the day; you have to accustom your body to this rhythm, because if you spend all your money in one day, you will go another six days without anything. You cannot afford to buy what is healthy; you have to buy what is cheap. Two pounds of potatoes, fried with ketchup – it is not healthy, but it is filling.

And when your asylum support ends, with it you lose the home provided by NASS.

Asylum seeker essay
An asylum seeker inside his single room accommodation in Longford, England [File: Getty Images]

So a new element of the asylum seeker’s job becomes finding shelter for the night. If you are lucky, you may have a friend who can take you in, but not for long. The kinds of friends you are likely to make in these circumstances probably have very little themselves – often just their own bed, which you may have to share, either in turn or at the same time as them.

I have now been in the UK for almost four years, and am currently staying with a friend of a friend of a friend in his South London flat; I am grateful for his sofa.

Putting clothes on your back, with no money, is not easy. Not all organisations have second-hand clothes to give you. Jackets are not so difficult but because of my height – I’m 6′ 3″ (1.9m) with long legs – trousers are impossible to find. Sometimes I look in the windows of charity shops and see something I like. But if it is at all smart or nice, I know I will not be able to afford it. So I do not even go in there. And as for new clothes from the shop – well, filling my stomach has to come first.

Still hoping

But through all of this, you still hope that eventually you will be able to stay in this country, because the alternative is too terrifying.

You try to learn English. I found a course but it required money to travel. So you think, “I need to study, I need to learn English, so I have to get there, one way or another”.

But with all of this, the money you had for food becomes less and less. So if you want to pursue your hopes, you may not eat at all for a day or even two. So you choose: sometimes you eat, sometimes you study.

All these places give us different things, but most of all they give us hope to continue and a brief respite from the stress of the situation.


The biggest element of my job intrudes into all these categories: it is called waiting.

Wherever I go, whatever I am there for, somebody else is always there before me. Sometimes, by the time I get to the front of the queue, they are closing and I have to come back another day.

This is how we live.

But I am not complaining; all these places give us different things, but most of all they give us hope to continue and a brief respite from the stress of the situation.

As an asylum seeker in Britain, just staying alive is a full-time job. It is just not one I applied for.

Source: Al Jazeera