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‘I didn’t come to the UK for some dream – leaving my country became the only option left’

A Turkish journalist who had to flee her country to escape the repressive government shares what her life in the UK is like as she waits for her asylum claim to be processed.

Illustration: Sophia Checkley

Voices

Shy yet engaging, Zhara* tells me of her escape from the repression of Turkey under its strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

The journalist fled a terrifying regime that’s seen hundreds of journalists jailed, and at least 180 media outlets forced to close. 

“Anything can happen to anyone who is not a supporter of power at any time,” she says. “People can be fired, or even arrested, simply because they do not support the policies of the current government. 

Leaving my country has become the only option left for me

“Like every person in the country who is not pro-government, I have experienced very bad things and had to leave the country.”

And now Zhara waits. Increased legal restrictions for asylum seekers mean she is one of thousands languishing in temporary accommodation or hotel rooms, waiting – sometimes years – for their applications to be processed. 

UNHCR statistics record that as of November 2022 there were 231,597 refugees and 127,421 pending asylum cases in the UK. And the war in Ukraine is fuelling a year-on-year increase. 

‘Some people will always be scapegoats’

The current asylum policy in the UK stipulates that applicants cannot work but are eligible for financial support and accommodation if destitute. Once granted asylum status, you are entitled to accommodation and £47.93 each week. As of spring 2023, asylum seekers were housed in 395 hotels across the UK – though plans to close 50 were recently announced.

Zahra, who has been awaiting an initial interview from the Home Office for almost two years, stays in a hotel in the centre and receives around £5.84 a day to live on.

Zhara graduated from Turkey’s best university, but she’s worried her qualifications and skills are becoming less relevant every day. Many asylum seekers are qualified professionals wasting what should be productive years with their skills left unused. Among those seeking refugee status are doctors, engineers, teachers, college professors and IT experts. For Zahra, a journalist trained to tell others’ stories, sitting and sharing her own must be particularly galling.

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“I didn’t come here because of some dream – I have never ever wanted to leave my country,” she says. She had refused an earlier opportunity to train in the UK as the idea of leaving her life in Turkey was scary. “But leaving has become the only option left,” she adds, breaking down in tears.

Zahra shares the social, economical and especially the political situation that had become too repressive. “It’s not just about the current government, but the whole state,” she says. “Because always some groups of people, regardless of which government, will always put a group of people as a scapegoat; sometimes they are based on ethnicity, sometimes religion.

“It just became a way of ruling by creating a common enemy within the people.” 

She breaks down again as she recounts the pain of leaving her family and not knowing where life will take her tomorrow. 

Thousands of miles separated from family and home, loneliness has become a familiar feeling. “Everything is harder alone – uncertainty makes everything hard. It’s difficult to be positive when this is your reality. But I need to accept this situation. I’m trying to study or read a book.” 

“I have been under threat for so many years in my country, before I fled, that even staying in a room with someone else is scary for me,” Zhara goes on. “It’s hard to be in a room alone but it is better than the future I had there – at least I’m not in a prison cell.”

‘The better of the evils’

Zhara feels deeply for her country and is critical of the way the government has polarised the people and created common enemies where none exist. 

“This enemy always changes – sometimes they are from a particular group of religion, sometimes it’s students.”

But she says that physical distance has given her greater perspective. “Now I’m out of the situation, I see the picture clearer. When it happens to you, initially you think it’s just you but now I realise it’s happening all over. Even in my own country there are millions of refugees who are seen as an enemy by the government.”

Though thankful to be alive and safe, she worries about her brother, and many friends who are imprisoned because they “just happened to hold a different opinion” to the government. 

“My family is happy that I am out, because even if I was home by now I wouldn’t be with them,” she says. “At least I’m safe. You sometimes have to choose the better of the evils.”

*Not her real name

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