Q: Saif, you are dedicating your life to helping refugees in the UK and I think I’m right in saying you recently completed hosting the first ever of your innovative Integr8 courses, created by yourself, to enable refugees, often living rather frozen lives in a new country, to gather themselves and move forward in a positive and practical way. So, first of all, very very well done for achieving that! It’s a massive accomplishment. How do you feel after the huge amount of emotional and mental effort that must have been involved?
Saif Ali: Thank you Mark. I’m passionate about empowering people to unlock their true potential and discover the gifts they carry to the world. For me that is the key to building thriving communities. I decided to do this work with refugees and asylum seekers because of the great challenges they face. To attend to their vulnerability and address their life limitations I had to be even more thoughtful and sensitive to get them from where they are in life right now to a more positive and self-empowering place. But for them to thrive in their host community and start contributing to it, they need to feel safe enough and start integrating into that community.
For that I created my Integr8 community development 7-day training program. On the first 4 days they attend a very unique personal development program to help them unlock their true potential, re-ignite their ultimate life vision and feel empowered to start making a positive difference in their life and the world.
After that they attend a 3-day cross-cultural training residential and retreat at Dartington. Attended by other UK residents, this helps people establish social and cultural bridges, build intercultural communication skills and adapt to living and working in the UK.
There is a massive gap in doing personal development and integration work with refugees and asylum seekers, and I feel grateful that I’m able to fill that gap. It is totally worth putting all the hard work in.
Q: So, you have created the Integr8 program to help people from difficult often utterly catastrophic traumatic backgrounds to help them move forwards in their often stalled and isolated lives here. Before we hear in detail about how you do that, how exactly you help people, what about yourself Saif? You were a refugee when you first came to the UK I understand, right? Could you tell me a little about that – a little about your life before you came to the UK, and your initial experiences here.
Saif Ali: I was brought up in a high status political family in Iraq. My father’s cousin was the opposition leader to Saddam Hussein who was invited back to Iraq after the kidnap of Saddam to be the new president of Iraq before he too got assassinated in 2003. That status brought a big curse on the family. Over the years we lost over 128 members to execution by the Iraqi government. So we had to flee from Iraq. I personally had a journey of 18 years seeking asylum; 11 of them were in Jordan and an extra 7 years in the UK until I got my refugee status.
Q: You’ve been here 8 years now; and I understand for most of that time you weren’t allowed to earn money; can you explain a little about what that long period was like, how you managed, how you felt?
Saif Ali: That’s right. People think that leaving one’s own country is the end of their suffering, not knowing that in reality it is only the beginning of another version of it.
While waiting for their refugee status, asylum seekers will struggle from traumas, hopelessness, grief, loss, cultural shock, and mental and emotional distress.
They are not allowed to work or earn money. They have no income of any sort. If people are very lucky they will get an allowance of £35 per week and a temporary home. A great many experience homelessness in the UK and survive on next to nothing.
Because of the lack of resources, the majority of asylum seekers suffer from social isolation. They stay in their own rooms months after months. Their social circle is only limited to other asylum seekers who share similar challenges. That creates big social and cultural gaps between them and their host community, which results in a socially disintegrated community where these gaps are only filled with apprehension. This also contributes to a big cultural shock after they get their refugee status as soon as they start working where people feel alienated.
My 18 years journey of seeking asylum was a tough one. I survived on very little; at times there was nothing to survive on. I was homeless for 3 years and I suffered from severe depression, anxiety and chronic fatigue. That has also contributed to another chronic condition that I now suffer from, called Fibromyalgia.
Asylum seekers report regularly to a police station or immigration centres so that the government can keep track of them. With that, there has always been a risk of deportation. I had to learn the art of utter trust, embrace uncertainty and stay connected to my spirit and hope for a better future.
All this causes another kind of disintegration to asylum seekers’ lives, dreams and identity that drives them to losing hope and at times attempting or committing suicide. I personally have thought about it at some point when life became unbearable and surviving its challenges felt almost impossible. But my connection with my spirit carried me through. I was also lucky to have had other things in my life that added meaning to it. Things like friends, family and a belief that I’m destined to make a difference in this world. I decided not to let that struggle isolate me from being part of life. So I started creating a social life and got myself involved in learning and doing what I love through volunteering in local projects. That has enriched my life and made it feel much happier than what it was.
Q: How did you decide to and how did you manage to reach the point where you have the confidence and great skills to craft and run courses to help other people in that state of limbo in a foreign land?
Saif Ali: Choosing to look at this period as an opportunity to grow shifted my perception of my struggle and provided me with rich experiences to learn from and build inner strength. Even though I doubted my abilities to cope with the challenges that I faced, I always trusted the process. That got me to reinvent myself and get closer to who I really am and what I’m meant to do in the world.
I was eagerly looking for possibilities to learn and uncover my hidden potential by getting myself engaged in life, socially and professionally. I attended many trainings related to personal growth and I volunteered as a teaching assistant in one of the academies that I studied at. That gave me great experience and confidence.
In many ways my own journey was the inspiration behind creating the Integr8 project.
Q: So what do people learn by taking part in the Integr8 program?
Saif Ali: Integr8 is an asset-based community development project. That means it focuses on empowering individuals to learn and develop. That is the key element to create a lasting impact in any community.
By attending the Passion4Change personal development training, people learn how to be practical in creating a fulfilling future with purpose in mind. They discover their real passions, personal strengths and hidden abilities. They understand what holds them back from achieving their ultimate life vision and learn how to come up with practical solutions to help them get over those limitations. For that they learn tools like goal setting, planning, creative thinking, problem solving and how to build habits for resilience and success to flourish in life and at work. As a result they have a great deal of clarity and confidence to start taking the first steps towards a more promising future.
I have also created an online personal development community page where I post personal growth and motivational material relevant to the struggles of refugees and asylum seekers. I encourage everyone to connect with it and share it with others.
Link here: https://www.facebook.com/WithSaifAli/
Then they attend the cross-cultural training with the aim to help them adapt positively to living and working in the UK. People learn about how culture affects the way we see the world, the visible and invisible aspects of culture which can lead to misunderstanding; that includes body language, greetings, eye contact, perceptions of time, space and values, gender, sex & personal boundaries. They explore cultural communication styles in the UK and around the world and learn how to avoid and manage misunderstandings. Other UK residents attend this training too. The residential and retreat format gives people the chance to relax and have more time to apply the learning and form strong social and cultural bridges with other people.
Below are a few quotes from the residential participants:
“I enjoyed sharing meals and discovering the similarities that we have between us.”
“Meeting people from different cultures and learning about the reality of refugees and asylum seekers. An opportunity to reach outside of the bubble”
“Kindness, friendship, respect, love and unity”
“I thought there is no more sympathy left in the world. But today I met many people who showed us love and compassion”
By the end of this program, refugees and asylum seekers feel empowered, clear and ready to get engaged with their host community and lead a more fulfilling life experience while doing what they love.
Q: How can learning those skills help someone move forward? Can you give any examples of real people, without mentioning names of course?
Saif Ali: Below are examples of how this work impacted the program participants:
“ I liked everything about the training; it is informative, easy to understand, great exercises, powerful and interesting topics. I learned that I can live a better life feeling happier and more confident. I also learned that I have the power and faith to change my life. It made my personality stronger and smarter. I am now more clear about my goals, strengths, limits and solutions to achieve my goals easier. I enjoyed the lunch and our conversations. I like the exercises we did to know about our values and personal strengths and how we can understand our personality and discover our talents. I liked the new way of understanding our self, the creative thinking exercises and the team work. I learned about the difference between the limitations and excuses, how I can ask questions and find solutions, how to understand my situation and how to draw a road or make a clear plan or vision.
I am completely confidant and I CAN MAKE THE CHANGE.”
“I learned to be positive in life and never give up no matter what. I met new friends and I enjoyed the training because it was helpful. I learned that I can live a better life and be a better version of myself and be useful to society. I feel great!”
“ This training was a very useful and understandable. It has a lot of impact on my personality and the way I relate to life. It shaped the way I deal with my daily life. I learned that I have passion for educating of women in my country and elsewhere. I know my self a bit more now and I have a clear vision of my future. Everything on this training was brilliant because everything was useful to me. I like the feeling that I’m learning something new. I learned how to find a solution for my problems and how to rise my voice to protect my thoughts and my beliefs. I have more positive thoughts and bout life. I know now that I’m stronger than I believe and I can change my life to the way I want”
Q: What message would you offer to people who see refugees coming here in a negative light?
Saif Ali: Britain has a history of anxiety when it comes to migration. Reporting and commentary about migration, asylum seekers and refugees is often unbalanced and factually incorrect. Hostile and misleading media coverage fosters and re-enforces public antagonism towards immigrants.
The UN report in 2015 shows that the immigrant population in the United Kingdom form only 11.3% of its national population. When it comes to refugees, an opinion poll in 2002 showed that the public thought the figure to be around 26%, but in reality the UK hosts less than 2% of the world’s refugees. I hope this puts things in perspective.
The internationally established definition of a refugee is someone who is at serious risk of harm in their home country and cannot rely upon the protection of their home state. Many flee persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group. Others flee wars or natural disasters.
No one chose to leave their family, friends, identity, home, job, neighbourhood and all that is familiar just for the sake of leaving that all behind. In reality, 98% of the refugees and asylum seekers I worked with are impatiently waiting for the time when things get better in their own country as they are struggling with starting a new life here with all the challenges they face.
It is crucial to remember to ask why people had to the leave their home countries in the first place instead of asking why they chose to come to the UK.
People think that refugees come to the UK to claim benefits, not knowing that they had better lives at home. They had jobs, status and qualifications that unfortunately aren’t recognised here.
Refugees have made a massive cultural, social and economic contribution to the life in the UK in the last 450 years. Many famous names are evidence of the presence of refugees, including: Camille Pisarro, Sigmund Freud, Frank Auerbach and Arthur Koestler.
A Home Office Study shows that people from outside the UK (including refugees and asylum seekers) are significant contributors to the economy. It is estimated that they pay 10 per cent more into the treasury coffers than they take out: around £2.6 billion in 2000.
The Home Office Workers Registration Scheme, for example, puts the contribution of migrants to the UK economy from May-December 2004 at approximately £240 million.
Although it is important not to validate a person only by what they do or bring to the community, there is no doubt that over the years the skills and experiences that many refugees have carried with them have enriched the British culture.
Q: Finally Saif, following your Integr8 approach can you describe briefly what a well-integrated individual and society look like
Saif Ali: My mission is to build thriving intercultural communities in South Devon. This can only happen if people discover the greatness they carry within and feel empowered to share that with a world where people embrace their individualities and celebrate other people’s differences. I’ll also be using our social media to post educational material to turn this vision to reality.
To learn more about our work or signup for our newsletter please visit our website www.integr8uk.org
(*) Facts and figures source: http://refugeeweek.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/HistoryofContributions.pdf