Celebrating Friendship is our new series for Refugee Week 2021 showcasing bonds formed across borders, generations and cultures.
Celebrating Friendship tells the stories of friendships between people seeking safety in the UK, and those who’ve welcomed them.
It was inspired by this year’s Refugee Week theme, We Cannot Walk Alone, a line from Martin Luther King’s iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech referencing how we must continue to fight for each other’s freedoms.
From Grace and Sorrel, who supported each other as members of the LGBTQ+ community, to Stella and Yacine, who come from different countries and generations, these stories are a testament to the spirit of Martin Luther King’s message; that we walk together despite our differences.
Grace and Sorrel
Grace and Sorrel met at a fundraiser for the Lesbian Immigration Support Group (LISG) where they are both members. LISG supports lesbian and bisexual asylum seekers in Greater Manchester. Their new book Free To Be Me tells the stories of Sorrel and Grace, and many others.
‘I’m 71 and Grace is a bit older. I first met Grace when you [Grace] came to a fundraiser. You looked around and there were a lot of older lesbians, and you said, “All these lesbians.”
‘And then my partner and I were asked if we could give you more support because you were older. You came over to my house and we had lunch together, and you told me your story. And that was the reason I decided to join LISG as a volunteer – it was because of you, Grace.
‘The Home Office couldn’t believe that Grace could be a lesbian when she first applied for asylum because she was 70. It made me think of the parallels in our lives, but in Britain it was the 50s and 60s really.
‘We didn’t all face violence and death, but there were restrictions in this country; it wasn’t legal at the time. And the word ‘lesbian’ wasn’t around, so it took me ages to come out. We both married and had children. So there are lots of experiences we shared.
‘The best day was when Grace got her right to remain. It was in court. The judge said, “You have your right to remain.”
‘I have never heard that before. I thought, ‘At last, at last, at last.’
‘I first met Sorrel when we went to her house for a fundraiser. I was very happy because she was a nice lady who was giving me advice. 100 per cent I remember when you [Sorrel] came – I was happy because I hadn’t met older ladies like me before. When you’re happy you can forget most of the bad things.
‘I’m older than Sorrel, I’m 75. When I came to this country, I got so many diseases. Asthma, arthritis. That’s why I look older. People think I don’t know my age, but I know it.
‘I remember that day in court. I remember the judge. I looked at him when he spoke, and I was very happy.
‘It was a nice time. Now it’s different due to the pandemic. But Sorrel and her partner came to see me last week. They gave me flowers, some nice biscuits and we talked together. So we were happy.’
Usman and Emily
Emily works for Counterpoints Arts, where she coordinates Refugee Week. She met Usman in 2018 when he was interning under her, but their similar personalities and senses of humour meant they soon became friends.
‘I met Emily during my time at Counterpoints Arts, working as an internee in 2018 with Emily. This boss and employee relation soon turned into a friendship. Together we have worked on Refugee Weeks since 2018 on different projects, whether it be a podcast, hosting an event, or a promotional video.
‘Though I have loads of great memories with Emily, the one which stands out is our walk from London to St Albans, which was a great adventure.
‘We are very similar in many ways: in-depth thinking on any issue we both share, as well as a good sense of humour. We both had our share of tough lives and unfortunate happenings and we both came out of those issues by conquering them. We both enjoy meeting people and love cultural diversity, and yes we both can speak two languages.
‘However, we do have some differences. She is extremely well-managed and organised. I, however, not so much.
‘I absolutely cherish our friendship and it’s an honour to know her and call me her friend.’
‘Usman and I share a love of meeting new people, a tendency to laugh at things we probably shouldn’t laugh at and a deep passion for, or addiction to, coffee.
‘Usman moved here from Pakistan and has been through the asylum system, and I was born and grew up in the UK. He knows sides of this country I’ll never see, whether it’s friends working six days a week, or what it’s like to be held indefinitely without charge in immigration detention.
‘I’m grateful life has brought our paths together, and wish the UK was a kinder and fairer place for all of us who live here.’
Stella and Yacine
Stella, 80 and Yacine, 49 both live in Newcastle and forged a friendship when Stella became a volunteer for Action Foundation’s Hosting Scheme, bonding over their similarities and differences.
‘A few years ago, there was an ad in the Catholic paper that we get, asking for hosts to take someone in and I rang up. The next thing I went in with Dave my husband and it was sheer luck that Yacine came to stay with us. We couldn’t have had a better guest if we’d handpicked him ourselves.
‘He stayed with us for well over a year. He’s the kindest, most polite and nicest person you’ll ever meet. So considerate. We only had one bathroom and toilet in our house and he would always ask before using it because he didn’t want to inconvenience us.
‘He’s so friendly and interesting to talk to – we would always ask him lots of questions about the different countries he’s lived in. He also speaks three languages, which I think is wonderful.
‘We both love talking about our Christian faiths. He knows the Bible well, but interestingly his father was Muslim so Yacine also knows a lot about the Koran, doesn’t eat pork and sometimes goes to the mosque as well as to his church.
‘Yacine has a very spicy palate while I have got very bland tastes. When he lived with us I would spice up his food – and when he cooked for us, he made sure he toned it down!
‘It all worked out so well. I still meet him for coffee and keep in touch. I’m pleased he’s getting on so well and has got his own place now. ‘
‘We have a good relationship. We meet for coffee sometimes and talk about religion, life and culture.
‘Stella is so friendly and nice. If it wasn’t for Action Foundation I wouldn’t have met them. I had a hard life I was struggling – they came into my life at the right time. They made me feel like part of their family.’
Elena and Salma
Elena and Salma are both originally from Syria and met via Newcastle charity, West End Refugee Service (WERS) and their befriending scheme. It’s the only designated service in the city offering emotional support for refugees and asylum seekers.
‘I am a volunteer at the West End Refugee Service in Newcastle. I was matched with my befriendee to support her to get to know the area, help her settle in the city and also to support her with interpreting.
‘What we have in common is we both like Syrian food.
‘My befriender and her family are the closest I get to home – Syria. Even though we are both from different parts of Syria; one from the north and the other from the south.’
‘My children like my befriender; they love spending time in her garden and we all enjoy going on outings with her and getting to know the city.’