In this Together: Refugees in Lockdown

My earlier post looked at the immense challenges faced by asylum seekers during the pandemic. It would be wrong to leave it there. In communities across the UK, refugees are stepping forward to help, to offer their expertise and energy.

Four years ago I wrote a piece for Refugee Week, talking about what it is that refugees hope for when they arrive here.

We’d want to have a place where we can shut our door and hang up our hats, and sleep without fear, and be with the people we love.  We’d want the chance to work, to use our skills to earn enough to provide for ourselves and the people we love, to prepare healthy meals, to buy new shoes for the children as they grow, to be warm enough in winter.  We’d want the chance to learn, new languages and new skills, and we’d want our children to go to school and learn all that they need to make their way in the world, and to make friends and play.

We’d want to become part of a community.  Paying our way, making a contribution, chatting to our neighbours, free of the threat that there will be a knock on the door early one morning and we’ll be sent away, back where we came from, or just away, to anywhere that’s not here.

“Even in the dark grim days, we have a choice to make, and I have chosen to be kind and caring”. Refugee Week 2020 leader Md Mominul Hamid on the food bank he set up in response to Covid-19 and his vision for a fairer, kinder world

The Metro highlighted other examples. Majeda Khoury, a refugee from Syria, has used her catering company, The Syrian Sunflower, to provide at least 400 meals for struggling families during lockdown.

After the pandemic broke out, Majeda, 47, started cooking and dropping off meals to the residents of Ealing on her bike. The cook was forced to take two months off after falling ill with coronavirus but as soon as she was well again, she was back in the kitchen preparing 200 meals for families in need during Ramadan. She told ‘I believe that volunteer work is very important. Especially in times like this, I feel a responsibility to my community.’
The Syrian Sunflower
Picture: Majeda Khoury

Mazen Salmou, also from Syria,

Maz may have only been living in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, for less than two years, but in that short space of time he has already become a cherished member of the community. When the pandemic broke out, the 40-year-old, originally from Damascus, Syria, couldn’t sit back and watch people struggle. So, he decided to sign up as a volunteer with Bromsgrove Community Support Group, which provides essential help to the elderly and those shielding. Every day of the week, the broadcast journalist has been on his bike delivering pharmacy prescriptions and shopping to the doorsteps of vulnerable locals. Maz estimates he has dropped off essentials to around 300 households so far. He has also been volunteering with a local support helpline listening to residents who are struggling with their mental health during lockdown.

Broadcast journalist Mazen Salmou has been dropping prescriptions off in Worcestershire during the pandemic.
Picture: Mazen Salmou

Owner of Nigerian catering company Nana Nokki, Chineze has provided at least 200 healthy meals for struggling families during lockdown, and Maria Igwebuike, owner of lingerie brand Maria Callisto has put her seamstress skills to use, making face masks with a vintage twist. She sells her masks online, with a portion of funds going to charity.

Refugees are also on the frontline. Like Mohamad Kajouj, from Syria.

His expertise has been vital treating Covid-19 patients at York Hospital’s A&E ward – often working two weeks in a row when colleagues have fallen ill. But the exhausting, traumatic and challenging work has not fazed the doctor, who was forced to flee his war-torn home country and seek asylum in the UK.

Having worked in a warzone, Mohamad was prepared for the traumas of the Covid-19 ward. But when he arrived here, after time in a refugee camp and a perilous journey, he wasn’t initially able to put his medical training and experience to use. He focused on learning English to the necessary standard, so that he could pass his British medical training, and once he had requalified he began work at Salford Royal Hospital before moving to Yorkwhere he

But determined to get back to his work, Mohamad made learning English his ‘full-time job’ so he could pass his British medical training and join the NHS as soon as he could.  And the hard work paid off. In just seven months Mohamad passed his advanced English test – a process so difficult it often takes at least two years – and inspired other refugees at Reache with his determination. He regained his confidence, made friends, re-qualified and went on to work at Salford Royal Hospital for the next two years, before moving to York.

Doctor Mohamad Kajouj, from Syria, has been working on the coronavirus wards at York Hospital.
Picture: Mohamad Kajouj

Worldwide, many other medics are desperate to help, but unable to requalify to work in their new homes.

Refugees and immigrants trained in medicine represent a large untapped pool of talent in many countries with time-consuming or expensive re-certification procedures and regulations. Many arriving in a new country must find work right away to survive and cannot afford to repeat education and training. Some try but cannot land residencies – which are required by all states in the US – or clinical experience.

The result is that hundreds of thousands of skilled medical professionals around the world are working in jobs that have nothing to do with their training – often low level jobs that require barely more than a high school degree. In the United States alone, as many as 263,000 immigrants and refugees with health-related degrees are unemployed or under-employed, according to the Migration Policy Institute think-tank.
Iraqi refugee medic Lubab al-Quraishi pictured in New Jersey where she has been given a temporary license to pratice medicine.   © Courtesy of Lubab Al-Qurashi

Perhaps we can hope that the urgent need for medically trained staff will lead more governments to ease the path to requalification. And even that

now that refugees and immigrants who trained overseas are risking their lives, the countries they are supporting will support them – even after the emergency ends.

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