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Norwich schoolgirl to meet Home Secretary, as part of refugee week

Gervelie Kouloungou and her father Gervais at home in Norwich. Photo: Bill Smith

Gervelie Kouloungou and her father Gervais at home in Norwich. Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2011

A schoolgirl who fled with her father from war-torn Congo Brazzaville when she was just two, said today she felt privileged to have had the opportunity to come to Norwich.

Gervelie Kouloungou, 16, and her father Gervais are set to meet Home Secretary Theresa May today , after taking part in a photo exhibition for refugee week, which also starts today .

The Notre Dame pupil, who lives with her father in the centre of Norwich , cannot remember leaving her homeland, but said she was grateful for the chance to start afresh in a foreign country.

Her father, who is a Red Cross refugee worker in Norwich, and helps vulnerable asylum seekers adjust to life in a new country, said he fled Congo in fear of his life after war broke out, and then had to flee again when war erupted in the Ivory Coast, where they had moved.

Gervelie is now taking her GCSE exams and hopes to stay on at Notre Dome into the sixth form and become a barrister.

She said: “I feel privileged that I got the opportunity to come here. Everything happens for a reason. It’s all turned out well so I’m grateful.”

She said that at first she was the butt of a few comments, but she got through it, and has settled well in school.

They arrived in Norwich as some of the first asylum seekers to be dispersed to the city in 2003, and Gervelie could not speak English.

Later on she was chosen as one of six subjects for a photo exhibition mounted by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which resulted in their invitation to meet the Home Secretary.

She was only two when she and her father fled from the conflict in Brazzaville in 1997, where he had been a businessman and also involved in politics. He had to separate from his wife because of the war and has two other daughters living abroad, but hopes one day to bring the children over to the UK.

The 41-year-old said: “At the end of the war in Congo the new government was arresting everyone involved in the previous government, and people were disappearing, so my life was in danger. Troops came to my father’s house looking for me so I had to leave.”

They settled in the Ivory Coast until 2001, but were forced to leave when fighting broke out there.

On arrival in the UK they faced difficult experiences negotiating the asylum system and finding somewhere to settle, and a book ‘Gervelie’s Journey’, co-written by Anthony Robinson and Annemarie Young, was published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books in 2008.

To mark the 60th anniversary of the UN Convention on Refugees, the UNHCR and Magnum photo agency collaborated to produce a photographic exhibition celebrating the lives and contributions of refugees.

A team visited the family in Norwich and spent a day following Gervelie around at school and at home. The exhibition was launched in Glasgow and will come to London this winter and the Home Secretary is hosting a reception today for the subjects of the exhibition.

Gervelie has visited other schools in Norwich to talk about her experience and her father said: “We feel like ambassadors and will tell the Home Secretary how important it is for people to find sanctuary. Britain has given us a chance to start a new life. I believe claiming asylum is a human right that needs to be respected.”

The Red Cross is running a number of events in Norfolk to mark refugee week. For more information, visit: http://www.redcross.org.uk

The photo exhibition is online at http://www.60years60lives.org/#/en_GB/photograph/1/photo/3/0.

Have you been given the chance to start a new life in Norwich? Call reporter David Bale on 01603 772427 or email david.bale2@archant.co.uk.

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