Ahsanullah Ahsas, a shy, gaunt teenager from Afghanistan, told his traumatic life story ; how he fled his country after the Taliban shot his father in front of him, the terrifying journey across Europe to England where he sought refuge, and how the Children’s Society, one of our 2016 Christmas charities, helped him to assemble the basics of life here. The charity’s advocacy worker, Din Nazim, himself an Afghan refugee, had come across Ahsanullah in a house for adult asylum seekers in Leeds, enrolled him at college to learn English and found him both a local mentor and a youth group to make friends. Ahsanullah talked about his struggles in this country, having to survive on the £36.95-a-week allowance for asylum seekers. He feared deportation, after the Home Office disputed that he was under 18 or even from Afghanistan, and refused his asylum application. Ahsanullah told me about the horrors from which he’d fled. “When I go to bed, I can’t turn the light off,” he said, trembling. “When I do, I see my father being shot, the blood in his chest.”
Guardian and Observer 2016 charity appeal raises over £1.75m
A year on, arriving at the Children’s Society Leeds office, smart in a furry-hooded parka, Ahsanullah is smiling; he seems to be walking taller. His struggles are not over; he has still had no contact with his mother or two brothers, and sees in the news from Kabul only bombs and bloodshed. He has endured many days here without food on the government’s threadbare allowance, and his trauma was compounded by the battle with the Home Office. But then, in August, the judge at an asylum tribunal in Bradford ruled against the government, granting Ahsanullah leave to remain, validating that he is who he says he is. Ahsanullah, nerves raw, had called his solicitor’s office, to be given the news by the receptionist, who checked and told him his appeal had been allowed. “I didn’t know what ‘allowed’ meant,” he recalls, and he and Nazim laugh. “Then she told me, and I was very happy.”
Considering the obstacles and poverty imposed by the government’s policies towards asylum seekers, it is humbling to hear how relieved and grateful he is. “It brought a feeling that I am now part of this society, and nobody can send me home,” he says. “It was very difficult for me in those months, very tough to live on so little money, but when I got the news, it was a very good, happy feeling.”
Nazim, and Ahsanullah’s new Children’s Society key worker, Olivier Nkunzimana, caution that while asylum status is life-changing, the system’s bureaucracy opens up new dangers. “The approach now seems to cast doubt on people’s cases,” Nkunzimana says. “It seems they consider people guilty until proven innocent. When people win on appeal, there is no apology or welcoming letter, the Home Office writes formally to tell people they have the right to remain, then new challenges and anxieties start.”
Ahsanullah was deeply grateful to be found a room in a house. Even so, the place was grim, rundown and cold
Accommodation provided to asylum seekers is withdrawn 28 days after leave to remain is granted, so the new refugee has to move out and find somewhere else to live. No allowance is made if the letter is late arriving, as Ahsanullah’s was. The £36.95 ends, too. Although refugees gain the right to work – denied while they are seeking asylum – in the short term, they have to claim unemployment benefits, another drawn-out process. This first experience of British society can leave people vulnerable, even if the local council is supposed to find accommodation for them as a priority. With time running out for Ahsanullah, a local charity stepped in, offering a room in a house. He was deeply grateful, as he is for every sliver of kindness he has experienced here but, even so, the place was grim, rundown and cold.
His funding for a course learning English at Leeds College also lapsed, so Ahsanullah had to leave, and is now on a course with fewer hours provided for people on jobseeker’s allowance. He misses his previous course and friends, and says he hopes soon to work enough to pay the fees himself. He found a part-time, zero-hours job quite quickly, recommended by another young refugee: sorting vegetables for supermarkets. He likes it, he says, but all the other workers are from overseas and he would prefer to have some interaction with English people so that he can improve his language.
Nkunzimana says Ahsanullah’s talents would be better nurtured in college. Nkunzimana is himself a refugee, having fled Congo in 2006. A year after attaining leave to remain here, he enrolled on a degree course in peace studies and international development at Bradford University. Nazim arrived in 2008 having been targeted in due to his work for Unicef. He has attained a degree in youth work and community development from Leeds Beckett University, and an MA in peace and development.
The Children’s Society’s share of the £1.75m contributed by Guardian readers to last year’s Christmas appeal for three refugee charities has secured funding for Nazim and Nkunzimana’s work, further services in the north and Midlands where funding was running out, and for its plans to do more in London and Kent. Yet for all the vital work they do, it seems like an under-employment of their graduate skills and extraordinary resourcefulness to be so desperately engaged in ensuring young people like Ahsanullah can access the very basics of life.
Nor does it seem right that such crucial provision should be left to charities, as the British state has a legal duty under the 1951 UN convention to provide refuge to people fleeing persecution. Yet the government’s treatment of those who make it here appears part of the which Theresa May promised for illegal immigrants in 2012 when she was the Home Secretary. Now Ahsanullah has refugee status, asked to look back on what has been most difficult for him, he says it was traumatic to fight against the Home Office’s refusal of his application while living on £36.95 per week. “It is not enough, you cannot look after yourself properly,” he says. “Every week, if I had to buy clothes or something a little expensive, I had no money for the next day and nothing to eat. I love volleyball; I went to play it here in Leeds but did not have any money so I could not play.”
When I go to sleep I always think of my father. I remember it. They put 30 bullets in his chest
The Home Office defends £36.95 as adequate. It , compiled by the Office of National Statistics. It says £24.39 is enough for a week’s food and non-alcoholic drinks – £3.48 a day for all meals. The allowance for clothing is £2.60 a week; the Home Office actually itemises “a reasonable basic wardrobe”: three pairs of underpants, three pairs of socks, two tops or shirts, two sweatshirts or jumpers, two pairs of trousers or skirts, a coat and two pairs of shoes.
There is no money in the allowance for any social, cultural or sporting activities; Ahsanullah says he was stuck in his house, where friends were not allowed to visit, for months. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation . The Children’s Society says the allowance is “unacceptably low, and has been warning for years that asylum seekers are forced into .
Ahsanullah’s resilience is humbling. This young man who fled after his father was shot in front of him, and faced danger, hunger and imprisonment before hiding in the back of a lorry at Calais and jumping out in Kent, is making plans. Granted his refugee status, he says he feels a sense of belonging in Leeds. “When I was small, I wanted to be a nurse,” he says. “I need to find my family, continue my education, with part-time work, and quickly learn English, then I would like to study nursing. And learn to drive. I want to play some sport, too. Then life will be good.”
He still has the same night terrors, though. “I can’t turn the lights off when I go to sleep because I always think of my father; I remember it,” he says. “They put 30 bullets in his chest.”
Asked if he has had any help for this trauma, Ahsanullah speaks quietly, and Din Nazim, his Children’s Society mentor and advocate, translates: “I talk to my friends, and they say that everybody from Afghanistan has gone through this same experience. That is therapeutic for me; that helps me. My friends say that now I have my refugee status, I should not focus on the past any more; I should look to the future.”
The Guardian and Observer Christmas charity appeal
The 2016 Guardian and Observer charity appeal raised more than £1.75m for three charities working with refugees. This is how they spent the appeal money:
Donations funded ’ vital emergency aid work in Greece and Serbia, supplying insulated tents, warm winter clothes, hot food and fuel to thousands of refugees. It paid for midwives and health specialists to work in the camps and helped fund a centre for unaccompanied minors in Athens. More than 800 people from the camps have been moved into more permanent apartments, while hundreds of others have benefited from language and skills training. “Readers’ generosity saved lives and gave people a future,” says a spokesperson.
’s work to find safe, legal routes to sanctuary in the UK and Europe for unaccompanied child refugees was given a huge boost. As a result, it has been able to expand its operations in Italy, Greece and France, taking youngsters out of desperate situations to safety. Hundreds of vulnerable refugees are now safely reunited with family, rather than being at risk of trafficking and abuse in refugee camps. In addition, its work on advocacy, community organising, and litigation means it has managed to persuade governments to meet their legal obligations to help vulnerable refugees. George Gabriel, Safe Passage’s project lead, says, “We’re thankful to Guardian and Observer readers. We believe that no child should die trying to reach safety. We still have a lot of work to do, but your donations mean hundreds of children are now sleeping safely in warm beds.”
Readers’ donations helped keep open vital support and advocacy services for young refugees and asylum seekers in Greater Manchester, Yorkshire and the West Midlands. The services, which help often traumatised youngsters adapt to life in the UK, by providing support to access health, housing, education and legal advice, have been given “a new lease of life”. Appeal money also helped secure the future of two youth clubs for young refugees. The charity says: “Without this support we would not be able to continue to provide one-to-one and advocacy support to young people who may be fleeing war and persecution and may have experienced unimaginable horrors.”