Egyptian asylum-seeker who fled massacres says Ipswich made him feel safe and welcome
PUBLISHED: 11:37 02 April 2019 | UPDATED: 10:56 04 April 2019
The latest feature in our series about multiculturalism in Ipswich, takes a look at the experiences of refugees and asylum-seekers in the town.
He took part in the Egyptian revolution that sparked the Arab Spring, saw friends gunned down at a funeral and became a campaigning journalist after being forced to flee his home.
Osama Gaweesh, a former dentist from Egypt, now seeking asylum in Ipswich, has paid a heavy price pursuing democracy for his people.
The 34-year-old father-of-two is one of around 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers thought to be living in Suffolk today.
They came seeking a better life, often after fleeing atrocities at home including conflict, human rights abuses and persecution.
Mr Gaweesh’s troubles began in Cairo in 2011 when he took part in demonstrations against President Mubarak’s regime, seeking an end to the corruption, inequality and poverty that were blighting his country.
Although the protests succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak, Egypt soon found itself in the grips of military coup – with those who took part in the revolution targeted as terrorists and traitors by the army.
“They carried out massacres in the street,” Mr Gaweesh said.
“When I was taking part in a demonstration, one of my friends died in my arms.
“The army released gas into the crowds; I started suffocating and had to spend a week in hospital for treatment.”
Mr Gaweesh was attending the funeral of a friend who had died in the 2013 Rabaa massacre, when he said the military started shooting at the mourners.
“It was horrible,” he said. “People here cannot imagine what happened. We were at a funeral and eight more of our friends were killed. It was inhumane.”
Fleeing bullets, Mr Gaweesh and his father were then attacked by a group of military “thugs” who smashed his car window. Later that day, more soldiers attacked his home and business.
“They sent a message saying we don’t want to arrest you, we want to kill you,” he said.
“They distributed an assassination list in my street with my name on it saying I was a terrorist who was against the country.”
Fleeing to Turkey, Mr Gaweeh said he was “frustrated” to be leaving but had no other option.
“Egypt is my homeland, the country doesn’t belong to the regime, it belongs to the people and one day I will return,” he said.
Unable to practise as a dentist or speak the language, Mr Gaweesh took menial work until he was invited to join a major broadcaster, based in Turkey but opposing the regime in Egypt, and before long was presenting his own daily news show.
While working for the station, Mr Gaweesh received leaked audio recordings, which revealed corruption within the Egyptian regime.
“This was the most important event of my life,” he said, “It was like Julian Assange’s Wikileaks; really explosive news and a disgrace for the regime.”
But his reports angered the Egyptian leadership, who sentenced him in his absence to five years in prison and prevented him renewing his passport.
Soldiers stormed his mother-in-law’s home in Egypt, saying they would seek him out in Turkey.
Soon after, he and his wife were flying from Istanbul to celebrate their anniversary in the UK when airport officials said he had been banned from Turkey, must leave immediately and could not return to be with his family.
Arriving at Gatwick airport, Mr Gaweesh sought legal advice and applied for asylum.
Although he believed his case warranted refugee status, he is still awaiting a decision almost two years later.
In that time he has been moved from London to Birmingham and more recently to Ipswich.
“The most difficult thing in your life, is waiting, especially when you seem to be waiting for nothing,” he said.
Since arriving in Ipswich, Mr Gaweesh has been helped by Suffolk Refugee Support, which provided advice and support for him and his parents.
“Suffolk Refugee Support has given me the most precious thing during this period of waiting and for that I am very appreciative,” he said.
“Having been a prominent speaker, with many followers and people writing about me in newspapers, to suddenly lose everything and to be separated from my wife and children was really terrible.
“So to then find an organisation like Suffolk Refugee Support, giving me a helping hand to make my life easier, that was exactly what I needed.”
Mr Gaweesh also thanked the people of Ipswich.
“The people here smile at you,” he said, “I didn’t see that in Birmingham or London.
“Here I see people smiling every day and it makes me relieved.
“I’d heard about Islamophobia and racism through my work as a journalist but here in Ipswich we’ve not experienced any of that.
“We are a Muslim family, my mother wears and hijab and my father goes to the mosque to pray three times a day but none of us has been attacked or made to feel unwelcome. “Sometimes in London people would criticise my accent but here in Ipswich people give me attention and try to understand what I say and that makes me more confident that I can speak English in my accent without any criticism.”
He feels the freedoms that people enjoy in the UK are what he had been fighting for back in Egypt. “I want my children to experience that too; in Egypt there’s nothing like it,” he said.
Refugee to volunteer at hospital
A mother-of-four who fled Iraq after terrorists threatened her family is to volunteer helping Ipswich Hospital patients.
Zinah Alabboodi was pregnant at the time of the attack around five years ago and had complications because of the shock.
Her family fled first to relatives and then Lebanon. They came to Ipswich last summer as part of the nationwide refugee resettlement programme. Suffolk Refugee Support has provided the family emotional support.
Speaking through a translator, Mrs Alabboodi said the family felt safe in Ipswich. “People from Ipswich are friendly,” she said. “We like being here.”
Mrs Alabboodi said she had made many new friends in Ipswich, including people of different nationalities. Now she said she wanted to give back to the town by volunteering at Ipswich Hospital.
“Helping others makes me happy,” she said.
Refugees have fled global atrocities to find sanctuary in Ipswich
Ipswich’s refugee population has experienced some of the worst atrocities of recent history.
Suffolk Refugee Support’s Martin Simmonds said the people helped by the organisation during its 20 year history reflected the most terrible conflicts and disasters of the day.
Its initial work tended to focus on the Balkans War, helping Kosovans and Bosnians displaced by the conflict, as well as Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein’s genocide. SRS went on to work with Afghans fleeing the Taliban, Zimbabweans escaping Robert Mugabe’s human rights abuses through to Sudanese people escaping the killing in Darfur, as well as Sri Lankans, Eritreans and most recently, Syrians.
“It you mention any conflict or human rights disaster, there are probably people in Ipswich today because of that,” Mr Simmonds said.
Often the refugees have faced horrific hardships.
“We saw Iraqi Kurds who had been involved in Halabja, where Saddam Hussein infamously used chemical weapons,” Mr Simmonds said.
“These people had been left with terrible physical conditions, they’d lost family members in horrific circumstances, and others lost family members during the journey and then have had to try to rebuild their lives when they arrive here.”
Mr Simmonds said one of SRS’s clients whose family was killed in the Rwandan genocide lost his voice for many years.
“He was so shocked and traumatised that he just shut down,” he said,
“It was partly the support he got in Ipswich, including counselling through the health outreach, team that he was able to start to unlock that.
“There’s often some pretty deep seated trauma, even with people who are now in a place of safety, they’re still suffering the effect of displacement.
“They may have lost contact with family back home, who are still in danger, and they don’t know if or when they will see them again.
“We try to help with English language and other basics and show them a friendly face but under the surface the traumatic effects of displacement are still there.”
Mr Simmonds said Ipswich had taken more than 100 refugees as part of a nationwide resettlement programme.
“On the whole Ipswich has done a good job of absorbing people, allowing them to rebuild their lives and make contributions to the town,” he added.
“With Wilbury House in Norwich Road being an emergency accommodation centre, there have been times when the has been a significant number of asylum seekers, mainly young men, and in a different place that could have caused much more tension than it did in Ipswich.
“And in recently years, as part of the refugee resettlement programme, we’ve had a real outpouring of support for the Syrian refugees who have come to the town. We’ve been overwhelmed by some of the support.
“That’s not so say everyone has had a universally positive experience or that everyone has been welcoming, but on the whole I’ve heard some lovely examples of the help that has been offered to newly arrived people in the town.”