openDemocracyUK

Yes, there is discrimination in Britain, that’s why I am leaving

Years of living in the UK has shown me that Britain is running with racism.

Hamid Alkifaey
5 November 2016
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Nigel Farage campaigning before the European referendum.

I came to Britain from Iraq 36 years ago. I was running away for my life, so it didn’t really matter which country I go to, most important for me then was to leave Iraq before I meet the same fate as many of my relatives, friends and colleagues who were murdered by the regime. I remember I visited almost every foreign embassy in Baghdad to get a visa, including the embassy of the Republic of Afghanistan which was at war with itself then, perhaps worse than it is now, but I knew there was less chance of me getting killed there. But if I stayed in Iraq, I would either be killed by the regime for being critical of the ‘leader necessity,’ his Excellency the President of the Republic of Iraq, Secretary General of the Ba’ath Party, Chairman of the Revolution Command Council and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Saddam Hussein, or get killed in the war with Iran which had just started. I needed to get away from danger, and get away I did.

The British embassy in Baghdad was welcoming all those who had money and wanted to study at their expense. I applied for a place at a British university and got accepted. I had to prove to the British and Iraqi authorities that I had enough money to pay for my studies and I provided the evidence, and within months of the beginning of this process, I managed to leave Iraq and come to London. It was a huge relief and I was, still am, and will always be, grateful to the British for allowing me into their beautiful country.

But Britain was never the land of milk and honey for me. Life was difficult. I had to get a visa to stay every year and for this purpose, I had to prove I was still studying at university and was successful the year before. For this I needed a letter from the university to say I have paid my fees and a statement from my bank to show I had enough money to live on for a year. In order to be able to do that, I needed to get all papers ratified by a solicitor and the Iraqi embassy and then send them to Baghdad to be approved by the Department of Foreign Studentships. Then a member of my family in Iraq would take them to the Iraqi Rafidain Bank in Baghdad where he could send me enough money for fees and living expenses. It was a long and tiring process that had to be done every single year. Even when all the papers were in order, it took some convincing for the British Home Office to grant the visa. They look at the student’s attendance records to see if he was really studying, not just living in the country and perhaps working illegally. They need to make sure his money has come from abroad, not from within the country and so on. The immigration officer in one year was not happy with my university attendance record since it was only 66%. I had to bring additional evidence; a certificate from the college to show that I had passed, for him to grant me the visa. I made sure the next year to attend all lectures and seminars, not in order to gain knowledge, but for fear of the Home Office immigration officers.

On the top of all this hassle, life in Britain was never easy for me. It was a new environment, culture, and language. Furthermore, it was too expensive for a poor person coming from a third world country. In fact you could live comfortably in Iraq, Egypt or Syria for 10% of what you would spend in Britain. The previous year, I had lived comfortably in a hotel in Iraq, since the school was far from home, eating out every day, but I spent a lot less. I felt lonely and depressed in London during the first year. I missed my family and friends in Iraq and had to live isolated in a small room in an old Camden Town house. I cried a few times at the beginning, and it took me a while to get used to life on my own, the rain and cold weather.

Still, the prize of being in Britain was huge. I was far away from danger, oppression and persecution, but not from fear. There were many agents working for the Iraqi intelligence who used to follow the activities of Iraqis abroad. I ran into a few of them at university and other places in London. They were very intimidating and gave the impression that they were powerful, even in this country. I was very fearful. I was still young and inexperienced. I remember I had to get a friend to go with me when I visited the Iraqi embassy and keep him waiting outside just in case something happens to me. I told him to inform the British police if I stayed longer than an hour. Many others did the same. In fact the same friend asked me to go with him and wait outside for the same reason when he visited the embassy. After being threatened by the obnoxious and intimidating agents of Saddam in London, I looked elsewhere in Britain for a safer place.

I went to Scotland and applied for a place at a college in Paisley. I presented my Iraqi papers to them but they said I needed to take a preparatory course in order to qualify for university. I tried to convince them that I had enough qualifications to go straight into the course, but they were not to be convinced. In the end, they softened their attitude a bit saying ‘You will have to study hard, though, as these Iraqi qualifications are not up to the required standard. We know them well. We have many Iraqi students here’! Alarm bells started ringing in my ears. I immediately withdrew my application to study there. I thought to myself studying here is really defeating the objective. I came here running away from Saddam’s agents in London and I am sure there will be a few of them among those students who will follow me and send reports back to Baghdad about me which will affect my family. I went to another college and studied a subject which not many Iraqis abroad would study: Economics.

After long and arduous years at different colleges and universities, I learnt the language, got used to the culture, attained some qualifications and got the right to work in the UK. I thought I was in a much better position now to have a happy stable life. I started the process of job hunting. I first began to look for office work since I had qualifications and spoke two languages fluently. But it wasn’t to be. I was so misguided. I got rejected everywhere I went. I was ridiculed, belittled and laughed at. In one interview, there were three young chaps who made fun of me all the time. They really had a good giggle at my expense. I didn’t know what they were laughing at. In the end, they said I was not suitable because they needed someone with a ‘strong English accent’. Funnily enough, when I was in the US, people thought I had a 'posh English accent' while when I was in Africa, people treated me as a 'white man' despite my dark complexion.

I finally got a job as a night shelf filler at a small supermarket in Notting Hill Gate.

After a few happy days, I was handed a notice one morning, along with a few other workers, saying we had only one week to work there. It was a shock to us all. I inquired for the reason. They said they took more than enough workers and they had to lay off some of them. Those kept in their jobs were all English while those laid off were all non-native. We all felt insulted and we guessed the reason for our dismissal. As I was working my week notice, I was approached by the supervisor and told I could stay in my job because I was ‘such a nice guy’! But I knew the real reason. One of the English workers didn’t like the job and decided to leave and they needed a replacement urgently. I was next best, so they decided to keep me.

I still had some pride left, so I declined the offer saying ‘I had a job offer somewhere else’. Aha… What is it? The supervisor asked. It’s a receptionist in a hotel! Part of me was saying: Why are you turning this valuable opportunity away? What are you going to do if you leave? It would be difficult to find another job. No one is going to take you. The other part was saying: No these people need to be taught a lesson that we are not so cheap to be treated in such a degrading way. The proud me triumphed and I left that job and started looking for another. Not only was it difficult but it was humiliating. I decided to lower my expectations and look for something less glamorous. I started looking for a job as a hotel porter. I found an ad at the local jobcentre for a hotel porter in central London. The jobcentre kindly arranged the time and date of the interview. I went there on time. An elegant English lady interviewed me in an open office where all other workers heard everything we said.

After a few minutes, she asked: What made you think you are suitable for this job? I said: I have qualifications, speak two languages, one of them is needed at your hotel because you have many clients who spoke my language, I am strong and I know London well. She wasn’t convinced. As I was still sitting in front of her desk, she lifted the phone and called the jobcentre. ‘You have sent us a guy with the name Hamid to apply for the job of porter. Couldn’t you have made sure he was suitable before you sent him? Why are you wasting our time and his?’ Then she turned to me and said: ‘I am sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude, but you are not suitable and the jobcentre has to be told off for doing this to us’.

I accepted the insult with an ‘open heart’. I went out of the hotel feeling so low. I thought to myself, I am no use then, I cannot do the simplest of jobs. Let me try something else. What about a driver? I have a license and know London well. I went to an agency and registered my name for a driver. I was called a few days later and was sent for a driver’s job. I arrived at the boss’s estate in North London. I waited for about five hours before I saw him, but I was told I was on duty so, the waiting was paid for. When he finally arrived I stood up and shook his hand. As he was holding my hand he asked: Why are you not wearing a suit? I explained I was never asked to wear a suit. ‘Have you driven a Rolls Royce before?’ I said: no. He went back to his palace and a guy came out a while later and told me to go back to see the agency which sent me. It was evening already, so I went to see the agency in the morning. The agent asked me: Have you shaken hand with the boss? I said yes, as I would do when I meet any normal human being. He said, well, he didn’t like it and he doesn’t want you back! I was relieved since I didn’t like the way he acted. It was out of Dickens times. To be fair, he wasn’t English nor white. But he was acting within the ‘norms’ of the country.

I found it difficult to find employment anywhere and the only way ahead for me was to have my own business. This way, I will get business if they need me. I went ahead and opened my own business, but I didn’t have enough capital to invest in it. To start with, I needed to pay rent for an office, phone line installation fee, and then also pay for phone, electric and council rate bills, at least. I gave up my accommodation in order to save money and lived in my office for the first year. Still, I needed more money to spend on office expenses; stationary, typewriter, post, fax, car, fuel, insurance and so on. I had to find another job to pay for that. I had exhausted all the possible jobs I could find, so I thought I might have some luck being a security guard. This will be convenient as it’s at night and I could be free to follow my business during the day. I applied for a few jobs and after strenuous checks; I was accepted as a security guard in a building just outside London. For almost a year, I was doing a night shift as a security guard while working in my office during the day. I only got a chance to sleep a few hours before my night shift begins at 11 pm.

I barely made ends meet and while I was working I was also studying part-time for an MA in order to improve my chances of getting a proper job. I had got my MA but it was still difficult to get a secure job immediately and only a few years later, till I got a job as a journalist at the BBC Arabic Service. I couldn’t get a stable job at the BBC English services, and if it wasn’t for the fact that my skill as Arabic speaker and writer was needed, I would not have got that job.

After the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein, I left the BBC and went back to Iraq. But I did come back three years later and started job hunting again. From my past experience, I found it very difficult to find a job at a British institution. There was an obvious bias against non-English and perhaps non-whites. I started applying for ordinary jobs at international companies. I was called once for an interview and I went. After the interview, the fair lady said, you are overqualified for this job, Hamid. I advise you to apply for the job of head of department which is also vacant. I am going to recommend you to top management. Then she asked: Why didn’t you apply for it in the first place? I had my reasons, but I didn’t want to declare them since she was very nice to me. She recommended me to the director and I was called for another interview with the General Director present. Before that I had to take a knowledge test which I passed easily since the job was related to journalism and PR which I know well. At the interview, all board members, bar one, were foreigners. They were all, bar one, happy with my answers and the knowledge test result. The director, a pleasant American guy in his mid sixties, was so pleasant, but the English member, who was most junior, was rude and condescending; his questions were designed to belittle my past experience and prove my unsuitability for the job. He highlighted a couple of spelling mistakes, saying my English wasn’t good enough. Then he asked me questions such as: What did you do at the BBC? I answered I compiled news stories and reports, conducted interviews, published stories online and reported on events locally and abroad. He said, ya, but they were all in Arabic, your English is no good. I told him that was not true since everything was in English and we had to translate news items from English into Arabic. Aha, so you were a translator! I replied, no I was a journalist not a translator, although I am a good translator if you must know. Other members of the board turned to him and said, his English is good and he hasn’t made any mistake and he was recommended by another head of department for this job.

He went again and again highlighting the spelling mistakes in the test which was done within half an hour. After the interview, the director apologized to me for the conduct of the English member of the board. In the end I didn’t get the job due to the arrogance and intransigence of a ‘fellow’ British member of the board. I started applying for jobs outside the UK. I was successful in that effort. I got a job in the US as managing director of a TV channel, then a job at the UN as head of a section in a radio station, then another job as director and magazine editor. The only jobs I got in Britain are either manual jobs that English people didn’t want or jobs connected to my skills as Arabic speaker and writer which English people couldn’t do.

Yes, Britain is a hostile environment for non-natives. It was never a happy place for me, although it was safe and familiar. I faced all sorts of discrimination, not just at the work place but even out and about in shops, trains and buses. I was called a monkey, savage, and foreigner who should go back home. I was a victim of racist violence twice; in one incident I was taken to hospital for treatment of my head injuries. I was involved in two car accidents. In one of them, my car was hit from behind by a drunken English driver. He refused to be breathalysed because he knew he would be found above the alcohol level. Yet the court found me, the sober driver whose car was hit from behind by a car driven by a drunken driver, guilty for ‘obstructing his way’ since I was turning right when the accident happened.

The other accident was a reverse scenario of the first one, except for the fact I was sober. I hit a car driven by a tourist from Canada who was not familiar with the roads since they drove on the other side of the road over there, and he stopped at a roundabout where no driver is expected to stop, but the insurance company thought it was my fault since I hit his car from behind, which was fair enough. But why was I found guilty when a drunken driver hit my car from behind a few years back? I could only guess. I went on a holiday once with a British tour operator. The standard of the hotel and food was not as we were told in the brochure and some of us decided to complain. My English colleagues’ complaint was accepted and they got a refund while my complaint was rejected. When I raised the issue that the tribunal has actually acknowledged that the specific holiday was below the standard and awarded compensation to an English couple who were with me in the same holiday, I was threatened with a lawsuit for defamation. I didn’t pursue the case which I knew I would lose although it would have been winnable under normal circumstances. I had neither the time nor the money for such disputes.

Even the union, of which I was a paid member, sold me off to the employer and negotiated my departure of a secure job without even consulting me. Again, I didn’t pursue this matter with the union’s senior management because I had neither the time nor the money, plus I wasn’t sure I would be successful.

I came to Britain seeking a safe place to study and live. It was safe, well almost, and I studied, worked and lived, but I was never happy. Britain is not a fair place to be in for a foreigner, even after he/she gets the UK nationality. He/she will still be foreigner. My children who were born in London and speak with an English accent, are always asked the question: Where are you from? Although they know they are British and legally they have equal rights, but deep down they know they are discriminated against because of their different colour, name and perhaps perceived religion.

The current Iraqi prime minster, Dr Haider Al-Abadi, worked with me at the BBC. He was a lift engineer.

Most of those with foreign origin cannot compete equally in the job market and they get a job only if there is no native competition. Yes, there are many foreign doctors working in Britain. They are badly needed and if you ask them, they would tell you they only get the job if no English person is competing with them. The current Iraqi Prime Minster, Dr Haider Al-Abadi, worked with me at the BBC. He was a lift engineer. But he didn’t get even this specialised job as a direct staff employment, but as a contractor who would get paid only when he carried out specific jobs. His job wasn’t guaranteed and he had to leave it at some point.

Many talented people with high qualifications were doing manual jobs outside their specialities, working for foreign companies, have their own businesses, or getting social security assistance. They were not able to get jobs due to discrimination. My daughter graduated from a London university with a good grade in journalism, but she remained unemployed for over a year before she got a job. She refused to claim social security benefit which she was entitled to because she didn’t want to be humiliated. In the end she got a job with an international company which needed her skill as Arabic speaker! I have lived for 36 years, on and off, in Britain, I hold British nationality and high qualifications, but I do not intend to stay in Britain one day longer than I have to. I really hope to find a place somewhere in the world where I won’t be asked ‘when are you going back home’.

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