Latefa Narriman Guemar is an Academic at the University of East London Department of Social Sciences, Media & Cultural Studies. Originally from Algeria, she now lives and works in the United Kingdom.
I left Algeria with my two toddlers, pregnant with my third child, in 2003 to join my journalist husband who had claimed asylum in the United Kingdom following an assassination attempt. As a professional woman myself – a scientist – I had already witnessed the departure of hundreds of colleagues who had fled after the Algerian army cancelled the country’s first post-colonial election in 1992. What followed was a decade of violence, torture, mass murder and disappearances. The exodus of so many professionals was one of the many distressing events in Algeria at the time.
Once I arrived in the UK, I met two Algerian women who had also been ‘dispersed’ to South Wales under the asylum system. Unlike me, they both held PhDs from UK universities and had gone back to Algeria after finishing their studies, being later forced to return to the UK. Despite their prior experience, they were both struggling to adjust and rebuild their professional lives due to difficulties in the asylum process they were caught up in. I was luckier because I was recognised as a dependent of a political refugee.
For many of them, it was necessary to re-establish their academic or high-profile careers to regain their lost sense of identity
My husband and I finally gained refugee status in July 2004 – and I was finally able to think about how to rebuild my professional life. At first, I considered returning to my original field of non-destructive testing, but an old academic friend working at a UK university warned me that it would be impossible. My anger at the asylum process that I had experienced first-hand and had watched so many others struggle with, coupled with a feeling of compassion for other refugee women, particularly those who are subjected to the detention and removal process in the UK, motivated me to volunteer at the Swansea Bay Asylum-seekers Support Group and set up a refugee women’s support group in the Swansea area.
Using my knowledge in technology and computer science, I worked for the Adult Education Department at Swansea University teaching migrant women. To add theory to my activism and personal experience, I decided to take a master’s degree with a focus on gender and forced migration, and following this, with financial support from the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, I gained a PhD, including an investigation into the networks formed by professional Algerian women who fled the ‘Black Decade’.
The findings from my postgraduate research showed that once women have negotiated the gender-blind asylum system in Europe, many of them face yet further obstacles to rebuilding their lives and careers - although 78,5% of the participants in my study have now entered the labour market in their host countries. For many of them, it was necessary to re-establish their academic or high-profile careers to regain their lost sense of identity. The survey revealed that 65% of them had to re-qualify in order to enter the labour markets, while some wanted to perfect their knowledge, change careers or join professional networks. Those who now live in the US, Canada and the UK explained that their Algerian diplomas were not recognised, and as a result, many had to start their higher education from zero or re-qualify in another field.
It would have been easier for them, however, if their gender and cultural background had been taken into consideration by the relevant authorities.
As a result of the experiences in my own journey, and as a refugee academic who is actively involved in refugee and migrant issues, I understand the importance of access to further and higher education. I’m a leader of the Research for Action and Influence project at a London-based charity that consists of designing and delivering a course aimed at enabling refugees and migrants to gain the skills and confidence they need to research issues affecting their communities. This involves teaching research, presentation and advocacy skills. I also work as a visiting lecturer on the Open Learning Initiative course for newly arrived asylum-seekers that aims to introduce them to higher education in the UK. Both of these courses offer participants the opportunity to discover the skills and knowledge they need to negotiate the pathways to lifelong learning and adequate employment in their adopted countries.
According to established research, the mentally traumatising journey into asylum requires resilience and resourcefulness. And indeed, women participants in my own research demonstrated these personality traits. It would have been easier for them, however, if their gender and cultural background had been taken into consideration by the relevant authorities.
This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘Real people, true stories: refugees for more inclusive societies’, in which refugees past and present share their personal stories and offer forward-looking, experience-based recommendations for improving integration around the world.
IMAGE CREDIT: Diego Cervo/Bigstock