A refugee activist turns challenges into opportunities for asylum seekers in the United Kingdom

07 November 2023

A detention centre in Europe. A refugee activist in the UK founded a refugee-led organisation to support asylum seekers confined in a detention camp.
A detention centre in Europe (Greg Constantine/Seven Doors).
I didn’t want to leave Syria, I didn’t want to be a refugee. But there was no other way to survive. I claimed asylum on arrival in the United Kingdom (UK) and I found myself in detention
Kjaled, a refugee activist living in the UK

Everyone knew Kjaled * in Penally Camp in Wales, he was a guide for new arrivals to help them navigate the new and disorienting reality of a detention camp.

“Seeing the confusion of the newly arrived, I had to help them, with simple things like Wi-Fi, medicines, directions to showers or dining rooms, as there was no signposting.” Initially organised in small groups on the mobile phones of people living in the camp, to facilitate the exchange of information, after a short time it became clear that part of the local community was interested in helping out. They started to get involved contributing in many ways, with food, medicine, English books, computers, and art workshops.

“This was growing rapidly. So, I finally called my lawyer and asked him if, as an asylum seeker, I had the right to form an association run and financed entirely by asylum seekers. He wanted to know why, and I explained to him that I wanted to improve the conditions and wellbeing of the people inside the camp. We created it and called ourselves: Camp Residents of Penally – CROP.”

The challenges faced by the association were many. From restrictions on the entry of people from outside the camp to demonstrations in front of the gate, which prevented people from leaving. However, Kjaled together with the other CROP members managed to turn these adversities into a fresh start.

“We decided to prioritise English classes and art workshops. Since we were not allowed to bring in teachers from outside, for the English classes we found residents who had the best command of the language and asked them to lead the course; one of them was even an English teacher by profession. While for the art workshops, we were helped by a local artist who taught the lessons online. People were so happy with these initiatives, that they had a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

Kjaled obtained settled status in the United Kingdom (UK) fairly quickly, which allowed him to get a job and support himself.

I could not forget my friends who were held in detention. We retained the CROP in action with other leaders inside the camp, expanding initiatives and allowing people to get out of the camp more and get to know the local people, through walks and short trips, volunteering for local shops and businesses
Kjaled, a refugee activist living in the UK

Penally camp closed in March 2021. However, Kjaled and his friends have never stopped advocating for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. The association has changed its name, it is now called “Life Seekers Aid”, and continues to help many people in Napier Barracks and other centres.

*name has been changed to protect the identity of the person.

*this story was originally published by JRS UK.