The following essay encourages the reader to imagine themselves in the shoes of a refugee. While it does not match all or even most refugee experiences, it is intended to give the reader a glimpse of the many challenges refugees face at every step of their journey.
Disaster strikes. Factions form among the public. The government falls, and civil war erupts.
Two months ago, you were living your life as normal. Now you watch as violence takes over your country. Thankfully, the worst of the fighting has stayed further away from your neighborhood... for now. Every day you wake up and hear about some new destruction that has unfolded. One day you hear that a former classmate got caught in the crossfire and has died. You didn't know him all that well, but he seemed nice enough. Soon you and your family realize that you must leave your country and home behind and flee to safety. What happened to him could just as easily happen to one of you, after all.
You start to make your preparations, packing your most important belongings. There is only so much you can take. At this stage, leaving for one of the wealthier developed countries isn’t a possibility—their entry requirements are stringent, the number of refugees they admit are few, and you don’t have time to lose. Instead, you plan to go with your family directly to the border with a neighboring country and seek refuge there. You call your aunt, who lives in a neighboring city with your grandparents. They plan to take their chances and stay. You say goodbye, not sure if you will see them again.
The border crossing is overrun, with so many people fleeing their homes. You and your family are processed and find yourselves in a refugee camp not far from the border. It is full, cramped, and with minimal facilities. But it is a relatively safe, if temporary solution.
You are extremely lucky, and not long after your arrival at the refugee camp, a humanitarian worker for an NGO visits the camp to help people sort visas into other countries. With her help, you examine your options. Most of the wealthiest countries do not consider fleeing war sufficient ground for asylum. Instead, they look for a demonstrated fear of persecution after returning to your home.
The humanitarian worker explains to you and your family that because you were fleeing indiscriminate violence, the asylum route is shut to you for most countries. She asks whether you have any family in any of these countries who could sponsor you for a visa.
Unlike many refugees there, you do. A distant uncle on your dad’s side, but luckily enough the country that he lives in has expanded visa eligibility to include even extended family ties in response to the unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The humanitarian worker helps you complete your application for settlement, and you go back to your shelter with the hope of a better life.
A couple of months pass as you wait to hear if your application has been approved. In the meantime, your whole family comes down with a nasty virus, as the sanitary conditions of the camp are poor. There is limited healthcare available and for a moment it seems that your younger sister might be taking a turn for the worse. She has a high fever and difficulty breathing. But over the next week her symptoms begin to improve. You breathe a sigh of relief.
One morning, the news comes. Your visa application has been accepted! You and your family start making preparations for your move, knowing that you are already much more fortunate than so many others in a similar situation.
When your flight touches down, you step out into a new and unfamiliar world. Those around you are speaking loudly and yet you understand nothing, as the language here is completely different to the one you speak at home. Luckily there’s a semi-familiar face waiting at the airport—that distant uncle. Together, you and your family head to your uncle's house. It is the only place you have to stay, and he is the only person you know in this new country.
Your uncle's apartment is small, and he already has his wife and children living with him. You never knew him that well but already you find yourself totally reliant on him. Your family packs the few belongings you have into the apartment and gets to work figuring out your new life.
Your first order of business is to apply for jobs. You don't have much with you, and even though both of your parents will be working full time, your family will need the support of another wage earner. You set aside any hopes and dreams of a professional education; if you're lucky and work hard enough, something like that could one day be possible for your younger siblings. But for now, survival is more important, and you know you need to give your family as good a shot as you can.
Not many employers are willing to hire people who don't speak their language, but you cast a wide net, and apply to any and all places that will. You eventually find minimum wage work doing manual labor. It is hard work, but you need the money. You put in extra hours and overtime to contribute to keeping your family afloat. Things seem to be going fine, although a coworker of yours does not seem to like you much. He shouts at you, things you don’t understand fully, but you gather that he does not want you here. You keep your head low and avoid him, not wanting to stir up any trouble that jeopardizes your situation.
As time passes, things begin to improve. Your family has moved out of your uncle's apartment, which certainly was never meant to be a permanent solution. You move to a different apartment not far away. It is admittedly not located in a great part of the neighborhood, but it is at least affordable and a space you can call home. Your younger siblings get enrolled in the local public school. They have become the new translators for the family, having soaked up the language quickly. Your mother gets promoted, significantly increasing the money you and your family have to work with. You continue at your old job, but reduce your hours a bit, and begin taking a few part-time classes. Your family also tries to send some money home to your aunt and grandparents, still facing the violence on the streets.
You still face struggles, of course. Miscommunications, angry glares from disapproving strangers on the street, and days full of hard work and difficult to understand classwork. But your family is surviving, at least. You’ve met new people, friends you can turn to in this new world, and you have hope for a good future.
Of course, this fictional scenario hinges on a great deal of luck. Many refugees never get this far, never being able to leave war-torn areas or living their whole lives in refugee camps. But even those who do make it to places like the UK face challenges adapting and building a foundation for their children. Yet it is these same refugees who often end up doing remarkable things with their lives. See https://www.arts4refugees.com/artyrefugees.html for just a few examples.
Hafeez is a first year Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University. He researched and wrote this article as part of his micro internship organised by Oxford University Career Services.