Ever wondered what life must be like as a refugee? One brave woman shares her incredible story with us...
Today (28th July, 2016) marks the 65th birthday of the British Refugee Council. It also happens to be 65 years since the UN Refugee Convention was established, which is a treaty that guarantees refugees’ rights. In plain terms, it has saved countless lives over the years and, given the current, overwhelming number of people with refugee status (21.3 million worldwide) it is more important than ever.
To mark the occasion, the Refugee Council is sharing the stories of some inspiring refugee women like Emina. Emina was just four-years-old when she was evacuated from Sarajevo in the 1990s. Despite struggling through some of the most horrific and frightening circumstances, Emina arrived in the UK and has since completed a Masters degree at Oxford.
Here, she shares her incredible story with us…
“It was the 90’s in Sarajevo. I was four. War raged around us.
My baby sister was born with Down’s Syndrome, she desperately needed medical treatment. We were medically evacuated through my sister’s paediatrician.
My grandmother wasn’t supposed to be coming with us. She didn’t have any documents and wouldn’t be able to escape. She carried me to the coach which was bound for Croatia. But I wouldn’t stop wailing. She tried to calm me but I was bereft. The coach driver waved her on and she carried me in her arms all the way to Croatia. We arrived just before my fifth birthday.
As the war raged on, it was impossible in Croatia to get the medical assistance my sister urgently needed. We were given a chance – a boat headed for Britain. When we finally reached safety, we applied for asylum.
My first memory of Britain is being with dozens of other Bosnian families in Birmingham Central mosque where medical doctors checked everybody over. Then the two bedroom house we shared with three other families. By all means it was crowded, but we were safe. At last.
Life at first was a struggle. People around us did not understand where we had come from and many did not know where Bosnia even was. Some of the kids at school and even their parents said we were here to steal from their community. Others posted racist letters through our door.
School at first was tough. I remember just silently looking around at the other children, watching but not understanding a word. I was isolated inside my own mind. My school reports repeatedly said “Emina can usually be seen sitting in the library, flicking through books”. I guess that’s how I began to understand the world. As time went by I grew to love reading and creative writing.
I knew that I wanted to be someone. And that I was not here to take, but to give something back to the country that saved us.
At secondary school I started to get involved in the local community and in 2010 I started working for the Bosnia and Herzegovina support network, providing practical and psychological support to the community in the West Midlands, some of whom were rescued from concentration camps and many of whom still suffer from the effects of the war today.
“I knew that I wanted to be someone. And that I was not here to take, but to give something back to the country that saved us.”
After completing my Masters at Oxford University, I pursued a PhD in clinical psychology, looking at the psychological impact of war on Bosnian survivors. The Bosnian children I interviewed who fled to the UK are now architects, teachers and medical professionals in their adopted home.
My big interest is narrative exposure therapy which tackles trauma through story telling. The unique thing about this technique is that its effects can be seen in relatively few sessions making it a really cost effective means of addressing complex PTSD. It can also be taught to non-professionals. One day I’d like to train other refugees in this technique so the network of support continues to grow.
In 2013 I was awarded the honorary Young Woman of the Year award by the United Nations Refugee Agency and Migrants Organise, who each year celebrate the contributions of refugee and migrant women to British society. As I was researching abroad at the time, my parents went to the ceremony and accepted it for me. I have never seen them so proud.
The war will always be a part of me and my community but we are rebuilding our lives and I am proud to be supporting others to do so.
When I see what is happening in the news now I hope we can offer services that address trauma quickly. The effects of war can still be seen among so many in my community. I think therapy is an essential element in starting to rebuild lives.
I’m now a Senior Research Associate at Portsmouth University. I’m working with British army, navy, and air force veterans, assessing the support they receive when they have returned from service.
My dream is to work towards delivering a therapy that benefits both refugees and British veterans, combining my two biggest passions: psychology and storytelling. The effects of trauma can often have a devastating impact on the lives of both refugees and veterans so early intervention is really key.
I am so grateful to the UK for giving me the chance to achieve all I have.”