Becoming a refugee: Rebeca from El Salvador’s story
This story begins almost a year ago when the insecurity in our country of origin (El Salvador) and realising that our lives were in danger in our own land made us take a decision, maybe the most important one in our lives, to leave everything…parents, grand parents, jobs, businesses, studies and friends and from that moment we set foot in the UK we turned into refugees or asylum seekers.
We’re a family of 5, with 2 adult children, who thank God are with us; a minor, my husband and I, a 47 year old mother who never at any point in her life thought she would have to start a new life in a far away and very different county than her own.
Our arrival to the UK
The plane trip to the UK was more than stressful, it was painful and surreal for us. We couldn’t believe everything achieved by each one of the family in all that time (titles, house, business, jobs) was all left behind.
When we got off the plane and we reached immigration, with our faces washed because of the crying, a British Officer greets us with a big smile. It was like relief for my soul to feel that much warmth in that welcoming.
After spending hours in the immigration area while our documents were reviewed, taking our fingerprints, checking our baggage, being interviewed etc, always accompanied by the airport officers, they took us into a room to wait. Meanwhile they were looking for a hotel to send us to. At one point of this process inside an elevator, one of the officers who had been with us through the whole process said something that even now I remember made my eyes tear up from excitement, he said “welcome to London”. My husband and I looked at each other and knew everything was going to be OK. That officer will never know what that meant to us.
Settling into hotel living
We got sent to this small hotel south of London. It was 1am when we arrived, completely exhausted but with hope. The hotel night manager coincidentally spoke our language and he was very nice, and didn’t take much time explaining things (I think he wanted to sleep as well).
The next day we woke up anguished thinking about our family, they didn’t know what had happened to us. My husband and daughter went out with one mission, to find a place where they could buy a sim card so we could talk with our relatives.
It was very hard for me to go out in the beginning. I thought people were going to look at me in a bad way because I don’t look like them.
I didn’t want to talk out loud so they wouldn’t realise I wasn’t speaking English. For a person my age it’s difficult when I can only speak the basics in English to adapt to a country like this without being afraid of anything.
At the beginning the hotel foot was “exotic” for us so we ate it really enjoying it, but then I suffered a colitis crisis and after 7 ½ months of the same menu, we ended up hating pasta with beans in red sauce, fish, dry fries, tasteless rice, too much spice and garlic smell filling the whole hotel. Who’s the chef? We would have liked to meet them to give some advice on cuisine.
Helped by angels
As I mentioned earlier we lived; 4 adults and one child in one bedroom of approximately 5×4 m and only one bathroom for 7 ½ months, but I can say I don’t wish we were in any other hotel, even after the terrible food and the small space, because we met amazing people there. We called them angels who completely changed our perspective on English people; before we got to this country I thought all British people were really cold and serious but it was a wonderful surprise to realise that they’re the opposite; amazing, full of life; people who donate their time and knowledge to help everyone who was at the hotel, no ethnic language or age distinction; people who cooked for us at least once a week to be able to eat something nice that reminded us of home, and at a table, because of the pandemic the hotel dining room was closed, so we had to eat in our rooms on our beds.
Angels who helped us get our children into the best school in the area, English teachers who have helped us learn the language, even on vacation when the church we went to was closed for the summer, they never abandoned us, and we would get together at a park near the hotel, so we could keep learning. Really great people who still, now we’re not at the hotel any more, are still keeping an eye on us.
Now we don’t call them angels any more, we call them family.
During that time we learned more English than in our whole lives and we found friendship that will last forever.
We also learned that need moves mountains, we had to lose all sorts of shame and pride and go to any food bank that people told us about to have other options of food. We were in long queues next to homeless or ill people (in a pandemic) with cold that reached our very bones, but it was worth it because we got something better to eat for our children. Thank God for those organisations that helped us with hunger many times. We lost a lot of weight those months, firstly due to bad diet, secondly, for the walks to the food banks. Personally I learnt the value of some good shoes for example, and that’s what matters, we’ve learned to value everything we have, from a spoon to a good coat, that’s one of the most important things from that experience.
On the move again
After 7 ½ months in the hotel finally we were moved. Thankfully the 5 of us are together (and I say this because my oldest two children are already grown up, so we could have been separated and sent to totally different locations, but God has been good with us and he didn’t allow that to happen.)
The day we opened the dispersal letter was a bitter sweet sentiment, on one hand the excitement that we could finally have a better place. We were most excited for the kitchen in which we would be allowed to make our own food. On the other hand, the uncertainty of a new town with people we didn’t know and having to leave all the people who we had a very special bond with.
My youngest son had to leave a school he had already adapted to, and similarly we had to say goodbye to our great friends from the hotel, families that just like us had come to this country in need, escaping very difficult situations back in their countries.
For me it was very hard letting go of everything, to begin all over again. I cried a whole day of joy and sadness.
I remember the day we went to say goodbye to my son’s teachers. On the way there we ran into Rosie, one of our angels, and the woman who invited me to share this story. When we saw her we were filled with joy because we thought we weren’t going to be able to say goodbye to her and thank her for all the support she had given us. She told us something that reached my soul: “It was God”. It was God who put us in her way so we could say goodbye, and from there it was clearer that everything that had happened was because of Him, and that He is the one who guides our lives.
When we got to the school we first said goodbye to the principal and we thanked him for everything he had done for our son, then the Spanish teacher showed up, a young beautiful British woman crying like Mary Magdalene (an expression in our country which describes a person crying uncontrollably). It was such an astonishing experience for me and my husband that we couldn’t hold ourselves back either. She told my son he had been the bravest at the school and that she was sure he was going to do well at his new school and city. Then his year tutor comes in. She’s a bit less emotional but she ended up crying with all of us… For me that has been the biggest demonstration of love towards my son that someone outside the family has shown him and then once more I felt God’s love through those wonderful teachers.
The hardest thing I had to do was to say goodbye to my great friend, another beautiful British woman who has meant so much in my life, and has taught, taken care of and loved us despite being complete strangers. She’s so beautiful inside and outside, we have kept in touch and are hoping we’ll see each other soon.
The day of the move (first attempt) we got up very early, our belongings were packed from the day before. But they came for us in a small vehicle in which we didn’t all fit (a situation that happens often with the transport company) so it was only my adult children and husband who left in that vehicle, while me and my youngest waited for another car. After an hour we too were on the way to our new home, a city on the South Coast of England a couple of hours from the hotel.
We were on the outskirts of the city when I got a call from my husband saying that the person who has to hand us the house is not answering. There my anguish started, thinking it was all going to go wrong and sadly it did. We had to go back to the hotel because the place wasn’t ready. After all the suffering and with fear I felt completely devastated when the driver confirmed we were heading back. It was so frustrating. Fortunately the hotel manager had no problem taking us back and our room hadn’t been occupied yet.
Depressed, I spent a whole day not wanting to get out of bed, but after writing all the emails and doing everything necessary the next day we received at 10pm a confirmation that our move was now re-authorised, the same place and the whole family. I felt like I had come back to life! The next day they picked us up at almost 12 noon in one vehicle which fitted us all in. It’s always a bitter-sweet experience to leave the place that for 7 ½ months was our home and our family (the hotel staff, refugee families, British angels)
Now… Let’s embark on a new life in a new place.
Our new home
Fortunately the second journey was the definitive one and now we’re almost 4 months in our lovely house, with a kitchen and enough space for all the members of the family, our youngest son happy in a new school he likes. We’re always in touch with his former teachers who want to visit us in the Summer. We love the city, everything is pretty close, supermarkets, groceries, charities, food banks, churches and even parks. And best of all, we’re close to the beach! We’re still in the refugee/ asylum seeker process but even if the wait for a decision is long, we’re a lot more comfortable and grateful for every little or big thing that we have.
Here we have also found very good friends and angels that God puts in our way.
We’re happy with what we have and we trust our future in God hoping to be productive people for the country which we are really grateful to.
We’ve heard a lot more dramatic and negative stories about other refugee people, some who have come with only what they were wearing, families that have been in the middle of the ocean for hours with petrol leaking around them, single mothers running away from domestic abuse. It’s really hard listening to all these stories and we realise how lucky we are not to have lived that kind of situation, even though we also had to run away from our country to save our lives.
I just hope that by reading this article you understand a little bit more about the different situations of refugees and you value living in such a safe and beautiful country as the UK.
Written by Rebeca (not real name)
Refugee from El Salvador