Academic | Posted 05.04.2014

Lenten Series: The Plight of Refugees

This year’s Lenten Series at Stonyhurst began on Thursday 27th February with a workshop exploring the Plight of Refugees in the UK, presented by Global Link from Lancaster. It was attended by sixth formers at Stonyhurst and pupils from St Cecilia’s School, Longridge

The workshop began with some facts about refugees: there are more displaced people within their own country than in countries other than their own; Africa is the continent which hosts most of the world’s refugees, and the UK hosts 3%. Pupils’ learned the legal definition of a refugee (a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution in his own country) and an asylum seeker (someone who has made an application for refugee status). A poignant photograph of a 4 year old boy fleeing Syria, alone in the desert with single bag illustrated the vulnerability of refugees.
Mukhtar Ghebirrebi, a former refugee, then spoke about his experience. He had been a teacher in Eritrea, a country which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after 30 years of war. Eritrea’s ambition to be a free and democratic country was forgotten when the president became a dictator. Mukhtar joined a political movement calling for change and was arrested and sent to prison in 2002 when he was caught distributing leaflets. On his release he crossed the border to Sudan and from there came to the UK, eventually claiming asylum in Croydon.
Mukhtar described the interview process which greeted his arrival; conducted in an unfamiliar language, by uniformed officials (he explained how uniforms are often associated with risk by those fleeing persecution) it felt like interrogation. His nervousness caused him to falter in his responses to questions; when he appeared to contradict himself, Mukhtar was called a liar.
Mukhtar pointed out that asylum seekers cannot work and do not have access to higher education. They receive a modest weekly allowance and basic accommodation, at a location chosen by the Home Office. Mukhtar was sent to Blackburn from London where he has lived ever since.

Over the last 10 years Mukhtar has done a great deal of voluntary work, for organisations such as Amnesty International and the British Red Cross. He has received awards for his extensive contributions, including an invitation to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace. In 2012 Mukhtar finally received British citizenship. He now works for the Children’s Society in Blackburn, supporting families in need. He ended his talk on a very positive note, describing his ‘second family’, a group of people in Blackburn who welcomed and befriended him.