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Podcast / January 22 2020

My Refugee Story: The Toughest Conversation I’ve Ever Had with My Mom

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Host Nelufar Hedayat’s family fled Afghanistan as refugees 25 years ago, when Nelufar was a young child. Nelufar’s mother tells her story for the first time in our first episode of Course Correction. Nelufar also talks with Gulwali Passarlay about what it’s like to seek asylum today in the UK, and how we can be more empathetic and supportive of our refugee neighbors.

Full transcript

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.

We have never had this conversation about how you brought us to England, to the U.K. About being a refugee. And what that’s like for you, and what it took. So I just want to hear your story.


Okay. Yes.


NELUFAR: I’m Nelufar Hedayat, and for the last 12 years, I’ve been making documentaries looking into the stories of people who have been through intense and life-changing situations.

From the Arab Spring to child trafficking, I’ve helped a lot of people tell their stories. But now, for the first time, I want to share mine.

This is “Course Correction”—a project of the Doha DebatesThe Doha Debatesexplores some of humanity’s toughest challenges by bringing people together, one urgent issue at a time.

This show — “Course Correction” — helps you understand these giant world issues through my eyesA journalist, a 30-something millennial women of color and a Muslim. Way too often I’ve seen and read stories by my fellow colleagues — other journalists — that leave out the people impacted the most — people, sometimes, just like me. That’s what got me into journalism in the first place. I got tired of being talked about.

In this episode, I want to talk about refugees. Because the global refugee crisis is one of those issues that feels too big — it’s hard to break through and make people care. I’ve dealt with that as a reporter covering the crisis from the vast camps in Thessaloniki, in Greece, and the Bakka Valley in Lebanon to El Salvador in Central America, talking to smugglers, asylum seekers and locals alike.

And — because it’s incredibly personal to me. Because I’m a refugee. My mum smuggled me and my sister out of war-torn Afghanistan 25 years ago when I was about 7. We were illegal immigrants trafficked into London.

So, today, I want to talk about what I really wish you non-refugees knew about our experience. I’m going to introduce you to another refugee like me: my friend Gulwali Passarlay, who fled Afghanistan at 12 years old.

But first, I need to look at my own journey from refugee to British citizen because — and here’s the thing — I’ve never openly talked about it with anyone in my family.

Whenever I’ve tried to ask my mum, I’d see the sadness seep into her eyes and her lips purse shut. So eventually, I stopped asking.

But now, it’s time. My need to know how I got here has got the better of my fear of asking. So I’m going to start and what better place than with the woman who did all this?


NELUFAR: For me?!

NELUFAR: My mum is a tiny round little thing. Like most South Asian mums, she insists on bringing me food whenever she comes to visit me in my house. I’m 31.

My mum’s a teaching assistant at a local school helping refugee kids adjust and learn English, but at home we speak in our native language, Farsi.

NELUFAR’S MUM: [Speaks Farsi]

NELUFAR: Speak English. What did you say?

NELUFAR’S MUM: I said we drink tea, not juice.

NELUFAR: So that’s my mum scolding me for not adhering to the strict hospitality rules of being an Afghan. But I can tell she’s nervous. All I’ve said to her is that for the first time ever, I want to know what it took for us as refugees fleeing war to get to the U.K.

We settle on the sofa in my living room and Patuni — that’s my mum’s name — she wouldn’t really look at me as she started to talk. But then the words just fell out of her. The thing my mum wanted to say first was the thing that’s always just below the surface for so many refugees.

People think — they are so — it is so easy for people who haven’t seen war in their lands and their homes just to talk about it, yeah? Just, “Refugees. Yeah, they are coming, they are —” What? What life do I have here? I was — I had my home. I had my family. I had my work, my status, my life, my pride. I lost it. I am nothing here.

Do you know that just — I survive and I live because of you guys? Because of — to help you, to support you, to be there for you. Yeah? You are just a chil- a baby. 


PATUNI: It was war. Yeah.

NELUFAR: This was in the late ’80s, when Afghanistan was embroiled in a brutal multifaceted war between factions.

PATUNI: The Soviet Union was supporting government of Afghanistan and the muhajideen were attacking them and they were attacking Kabul and other cities.

NELUFAR: Everyone had to pick a side and pledge allegiance to survive. It was the government, the Communists, the Islamists or whatever group, depending on who was in charge of your block that day.

PATUNI: Every day there were hundreds and thousands of missiles and — we call it rockets — and the bombs would fire into us.

NELUFAR: Tens of thousands of people were fleeing, being disappeared or killed.

PATUNI: And as you see right now as a journalist around the world — and you have been in some war zones yourself — that we were running from one door to another from one place to another. Don’t — it is very hard to talk about, Nelufar. I can’t do it.

NELUFAR: The experience of war doesn’t convert to neat lines on a map, or even into words. Chaos. That’s it.

This is what my family lived through. Chaos so horrible that we had to leave.

This is the first thing that I wish people really understood. Chapter 1 of Nelufar’s “Guide to Refugees.” It’s so basic that when we hear it we just shrug it off, and I’m afraid it’s not getting through to people. Refugees are not immigrants. Refugees are not voluntarily leaving their homes. Why would we?

We don’t just leave everything we know or owned — we leave ourselves behind, too.

Pushed to the edge with my dad conscripted into the army, my mom made the extremely difficult decision to leave. Like 84 percent of refugees, we landed not in Europe, not in North America, but in a neighboring country. We landed in Pakistan.

PATUNI:When I went to Pakistan — we went to Pakistan — and I was alone with no home, no money, no food. There was no money to give, to pay the rent.

NELUFAR: Mum tells me that we stayed in Pakistan for five years. I remember little bits of that time — like images of myself in our home, wearing a polka-dot white dress. But after years of discrimination and difficulty, my mum knew we couldn’t build a life for ourselves. I wasn’t even allowed to go to school. She says that once again, we sold everything, and paid some smugglers to get us to Germany. This time, we only got as far as Saudi Arabia, where we were stopped by the police.

PATUNI: And policemen came to us, and they took your dad — they took our men from us.


PATUNI: And you know we — I don’t know the law and rules in Saudi. But we were told there is, you know —

NEFLUFAR: Death penalty?

PATUNI: Death penalty.

NELUFAR: You indicated chopping your head off.

PATUNI: And we were shouting, you were shouting — four children, two women were shouting. The whole, whole airport was full of our shouts and cries. And then the police came. “Quiet, quiet, quiet.” And they brought your dads. And they told us in three days, you need to leave. Leave Saudi Arabia.

NELUFAR: My mum tells me we were stuck. And we had no choice but to go back to Afghanistan.

But when we got there, the violence was still everywhere and getting worse. One day, when my family was traveling to a village in the north — back then, still one of the very few relatively safe places left in the entire country — mum says the bus driver suddenly stopped.

PATUNI: We were entrapped in a big road war.

NELUFAR: What — you mean a shootout?

PATUNI: A shootout between two mujahideen groups.

NELUFAR: We got caught in a shootout?

PATUNI: Yes. And I blocked your eyes because there was bodies without heads on the street. There was hands without body. There was turbans without with the head but no body. It was horrible.

NELUFAR: I have interviewed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people in my life. This is the hardest interview I have ever done.

PATUNI: Because you get emotional, too.


PATUNI: When I get emotion, you get emotion. That’s not easy for you, too. And you maybe remember some of —

NELUFAR: Yeah, I remember — I remember sounds. I remember, I remember sounds more than I remember anything else. I remembered the sound of the rockets. I remembered the feeling of shaking earth. I remember you always holding me very tight over my mouth.

PATUNI: Under the burqa.

NELUFAR: Under your burqa.

PATUNI: I sometimes had to put my hand in your mouth because of the bombs.

NELUFAR: Yeah, I remember that. I remember that. I remember.

NELUFAR: Talking about this with my mum, I vividly recalled the memory that my child-brain must have worked really hard to suppress all these years. For the first time since I can remember, I felt the feeling of helplessness, of my fear being magnified a thousandfold because of the look of total dread on her face. It was overwhelming for both of us.

After the shootout, my mum said she knew the war was never going to end. So she made the decision to seek asylum in Europe to start our newnew life. So again, she went to the smugglers.

PATUNI: We paid a Pakistani smuggler to take us to Germany. We end up here because the person said this plane is going here, and you need to get out of it.

NELUFAR: Stop, stop, you’re going too quickly. So the smugglers were supposed to take us from Dubai to Germany, but instead — and you didn’t know this — they decided to take us from Dubai to London?

PATUNI: Yeah. They lied to us, actually. They lied to us. They just took the money.

NELUFAR: So we came here by accident?

PATUNI: By accident.

NELUFAR: We came to England — my home — my- my- my- — I love this country very much. We came here by accident?

PATUNI: By accident.

NELUFAR: I didn’t know this!

PATUNI: It happens! Why you should know everything?

NELUFAR: Because it’s my story, mum!

NELUFAR: Listen. So much of my identity, from my taste in music to what I studied at university, was basically decided by the fact that I am British. Yet I’m British by total accident. I wasn’t supposed to end up here. It is really, really hard to process this.

At the same time, I’m reminded of so many of the stories I’ve heard in Greece, Lebanon, El Salvador. Stories from other refugees: When you leave a war zone, you can’t have a plan. You’re running for your life.

So this is the second thing I desperately wish people understood. Chapter 2 of “Nel’s Guide to Understanding Refugees.” If you’re like most of us, the people smuggling you out don’t tell you anything. You are at the mercy of every stage of the process, and that could mean you don’t have food or water. You don’t know where you’re going to be in the next day. You might be in one location for a month, two months, and then you’re making huge, huge strides in your journey. You think you’re going to Germany, and then you land in Heathrow. And even though you never intended it, your children grow up British.

Twenty-five years ago, when my family arrived, we were welcomed by our community. At least that’s my family’s experience.

PATUNI: We were supported in every ways. And I never faced any problem emotionally or socially. And my relationship with my neighbors was so good and they loved you.

NELUFAR: All I remember is that you would send me to every bloody neighbor’s house with a plate of food so they can eat Afghan food and every school fete I would have to take a giant bowl of —

PATUNI: Bulanee, mantoo.

NELUFAR: Bulanee, kabuli, mantoo. All of these, like, dishes.

PATUNI: Because, at that time —

NELUFAR: Because you were trying to play politics, that’s what you were trying to do! You were trying to make them love Afghanis, that’s what you were trying to do.

PATUNI: Of course, I wanted them to know who we are, because they didn’t know.

NELUFAR: The way people treated us when we got to the U.K. allowed us to thrive. To develop love for our communities and neighborhoods and become productive members of society. But that was 25 years ago.

Today, conditions are different.


Go home refugees! Go home refugees!

We need to protect our borders by working hand in glove with our —

— is under attack, the world is under attack. They need to cap immigration. They need to stop appeasing Islam. No more mosques, don’t allow it.

NELUFAR: I know from my work and from speaking to those that have arrived much more recently that things have changed — for the worse. I wanted to speak to someone who became a refugee more recently, and was actually able to talk about what it’s like now. Someone like my friend Gulwali Passarlay.

GULWALI: I left Afghanistan in 2006.

NELUFAR: Gulwali fled Afghanistan 12 years after my family arrived in Britain.

GULWALI: It was not a nice time that I remember that I kind of reflect on. A feeling of kind of believing in not knowing what’s going to happen. So the idea, the curiosity on one hand, but then feeling a sense of sadness and disappointment with what was happening in that we —

NELUFAR: How old were you?

GULWALI: I was 12.

NELUFAR: Gulwali’s journey took a year. And over the course of that year, the 12-year-old farm boy Gulwali was smuggled on trains and boats, spent time in hospitals and prisons, and spent more nights cold and hungry than warm and fed. On one leg of the journey, he had to take a train from Istanbul to Bulgaria. His travel companions warned him not to go on his own.

GULWALI: But the smuggler insisted, and he said it was a small space for you because I was so little. And we were on the train for about 10 hours or so. I was in a very small, dark space. And then when the train was actually either moving or stopped — but when it actually was moving, they brought me down and asked me to jump. I was like, “This is not funny. Look, I’m not jumping.” But, you know, there was no point arguing with the guy.

NELUFAR: The smuggler actually pushed Gulwali off the moving train.

GULWALI: And I managed to balance myself on the ground with some grass, but people were injured.

NELUFAR: Gulwali and the other refugees in his group landed in a hospital for a few hours before being taken to a Bulgarian prison.

GULWALI: They put us in very small cells of prisons there. We were there for a week or so. Gave us not much food, and it was very cold conditions. And then deported us all the way back to Turkey in the middle of December of 2006 in the snow.

I was hoping in my head that Bulgaria was a European country —

NELUFAR: Well, yeah.

GULWALI: — where they would treat us with some sort of dignity and human rights would be respected and so on, but actually there was nothing European. There was nothing humane about the state or the authorities there. And so we lost the sense of humanness, or humanity.

NELUFAR: You lost the sense of humanity.

GULWALI: Indeed. And then, you know, I felt like they were the shepherds and we were the sheep, just following, literally. And so it was a very dehumanizing experience.

NELUFAR: When Gulwali finally arrived in the U.K., he had to go through gruelling interviews at the U.K. Home Office before he could be granted asylum status. And the process was terrible.

GULWALI: Even more so when I got to the U.K. — it was even more dehumanizing. The way the authority treated me, and the way the U.K. Home Office —

NELUFAR: That can’t have been worse than smugglers. The Home Office?

GULWALI: It wasindeed, yeah. Because the smugglers were just not challenging my — the essence of my life — my identity, and my — who I was.

NELUFAR: They accused him of lying about everything — his age, where he was coming from, whether he was a refugee at all. It was a lot for a 13-year-old who had gone through what he had.

GULWALI: And the Home Office literally said, “Look, you know, basically —” They treated me as a liar, as a suspect, as a criminal. In a sense, the smugglers and the traffickers — as bad as they were, they didn’t treat me as a criminal. They did not. Yes, they treat me as a commodity. But I had value, which was money. And even though I don’t recall the smugglers calling me by my name, but they never really put me in the situation that the Home Office and social service did. Even though they were trying to protect and help me, but at the same time making me feel guilty, making me feel it was my fault I was here. Somewhat — I was unwelcomed and unwanted and the best way I could describe it is that the system we have is: You are guilty. And you had to prove yourself innocent. And how do you do that?

NELUFAR: This is vastly different to the way the immigration officers treated me and my family at Heathrow Airport when we arrived. Me and my sister got a packet of crisps and a juice box, and my mum a cup of tea and an interpreter. She was able to call her sister to tell her she was safely in the U.K. I remember we were put in a shelter almost right away.

And this gets to the third thing I wish people would understand: Refugees aren’t there for a handout. It’s not how it works. And to be treated with contempt, fear — loathing, even — to be so stripped of your identity, and like Gulwali, made to fight tooth and nail for recognition and the right to make a life for themselves — tells me more about who the governments in these countries are then people like Gulwali.

Gulwali went on to do everything right. He’s carried the Olympic torch, he’s won countless awards and is a fixture in the U.K. Parliament and the European Union advising policymakers and politicians on immigrant and refugee issues. Extraordinary accomplishments, an exemplary member of civic society.

NELUFAR: I’ll be honest with you, Gulwali, you make, you make the rest of us look bad, OK? Listen, you’ve gone above and beyond. You are an example amongst examples —

GULWALI: I hope so.

NELUFAR: — of what it’s like to be a good refugee, but —

GULWALI: A good human being. A good citizen. I recognize there are this feeling amongst refugees that you had to somehow — there is a highest — this society holds you to a higher standards, and that’s not fair. Because I see a lot of people tell me when I do my talks, they say, “Gulwali, you don’t owe anything to anybody. Don’t be — why you are grateful? Why you feel a sense of gratitude?” Which is great, you know. After going through everything that I went through, I’ve done what I’ve done because I work hard, but I feel like there has been people who supported me and believed in me and encouraged me and motivated me to do so and to do well.

NELUFAR: But I react to this idea of the expectation on us as refugees differently, OK? I’m now a British citizen, so I can sort of like fade into the background. I can choose when to be a refugee and when not. It’s— it’s for me this expectation of having to be the perfect person — you have to be more than the general population than a normal citizen. You have to be hardworking, a better person. And for me, that — I find that really troubling. And I resent it. You’re grateful?

GULWALI: No, I believe you.

NELUFAR: I’m resentful. I think, I think it’s lunacy.


NELUFAR:After everything you’ve been through, and people like you have been through, and people like me have been through — what, you know, “How dare they?” is my reaction, and your reaction is, “Let’s form a committee and start talking about it.”

GULWALI: Yeah, let’s have a dialogue. Let’s have a dialogue.

NELUFAR: I can’t deal. I can’t deal!

GULWALI:But then, to be honest, it’s not like the feeling is like — it’s not fair to have those expectations on us and refugees because again, as I said, we are held to higher standards. We had to prove and we had to show that we deserved to be here. And, you know, we are good people, we are good refugees — I don’t like those narratives. But at the same time, we’ve got to be, we’ve got to show that we are good human beings and we need to be good examples. And I think the reason I have been able to to achieve what I have achieved and have been successful to some extent is because I got the right help and support from people. And there are a lot of other asylum-seekers and refugees who doesn’t get the help and the mentoring and the friendship and befriending and so on. And it helps. It definitely — having that support and guidance gets you through difficult times.

NELUFAR: Gulwali has absolutely made something good out of a terrible situation. He reminds me of this saying I keep thinking about: “stuck between a rock and a hard place.” Refugees turn that place into home. We can’t go back. We sometimes struggle to go forward or even stay where we bloody well are. This is something we experience physically — so many of us, we can’t go back to our homeland.

But it’s also something we experience emotionally. We carry the burden of horrific experiences and traumatic memories. But they are our stories. That’s why I wanted my mum to tell me all the details she’d never shared before. I wanted to know why she kept them from me for so long. So I asked her.

PATUNI: You don’t need to know.

NELUFAR: What? Why are you so —

PATUNI: Because you get upset. You get sad. Why?

NELUFAR: It’s my story. Why should I hide from being a refugee? I’m proud to be a refugee. I —

PATUNI: I don’t say that. Just —

NELUFAR: No, I’m telling you.

PATUNI: You might get upset.

NELUFAR: Of course I get upset! Because we have been through horrific trauma. Mum. [Speaks Farsi].

PATUNI: [Speaks Farsi.]

NELUFAR: Of course it’s hard to hear. But I have waited 31 years to hear this story now.

PATUNI: [Speaks Farsi.]

NELUFAR: No, it’s not the same! You telling me little bits is not the same as hearing this. This is different. And you know it’s different, that’s why you’re so nervous. There’s nothing to be afraid of. There’s nothing you can say to me that would make me angry or sad. I’m — for me, what you and Dad have done, I can never pay this back. There’s no amount of love or money in the universe that I can pay you back for what you did for me. What you had to do.

PATUNI: Do you know — I don’t think about my past or present or future now because I know, alhamdulillah, you are safe, you’re educated, you can have a job, you can have a food, you can have a life. The thing that I am thinking right now is other people, other refugees. You tell me — you are asking me the question that a hundred thousand peoples have the same story that you asked me to tell you from past. They are in the present. They have these stories in the present. They don’t have their dads. Their dads are in jail. Children like you — 1 year, 2 years, 4 years. Woman like me is struggling to protect and feed their children to safety, to take them to safety. Hundreds of womans like me — and the boats. Why it happens, Nelufar? The first thing that I’m asking you, and the media, and the politicians. Why people have to leave their countries. Why?


NELUFAR: The tumult of being a refugee. The way we are received in the countries we seek asylum in, this will continue to shape and change. Emotions, government policies, the way people react to us will also change over time. Things that Gulwali and so many refugee families like mine have experienced shock and horrify me. But they are the norm these days.

So let’s make this better. The first step is understanding what refugees are up against. Because we can’t find solutions until we understand the problem.

This season, I’m going to talk to some of the people who are working to make things better: The activists working to improve conditions for refugees, the policymakers devoted to finding solutions in their communities. And we’re also going to be tackling other big issues facing our world, to understand the problems so we can start talking about the solutions.


We want to hear from you. Tweet us at @DohaDebates. “Course Correction” is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. Special thanks to our team at Doha Debates: Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. This episode was mixed by Ben Chesneau. If you like what you hear, rate and review the show. It helps other people find us. Join us for the next episode of “Course Correction” wherever you get your podcasts.