Norwich offers a safe haven away from the horrors of war
PUBLISHED: 09:00 03 November 2011
Archant © 2011
For five years Norwich has run the pioneering Gateway Protection Programme which welcomes refugees from some of the world's most dangerous places. KEIRON PIM, in the second of his two reports, speaks to Ali - a former translator for British forces in Baghdad - who has a new life in the city
When asked his view of the British opposition to the war in Iraq, Ali glares and replies with a traditional Arab proverb: “The person with his hands in the fire is not the person with his hands in the water.”
By this he means that people should try living in the midst of the heated affairs of the Middle East if they wish to offer an informed judgment. Ali had his hands in the fire for many years. As a Sunni Muslim who grew up in Kuwait, he knew the evils of Saddam Hussein’s Shi’ite regime. But as an interpreter for the British Army in the aftermath of Saddam’s defeat, Ali also knew all about the horrific chaos prompted by the Western allies’ lack of an exit strategy.
“Some interpreters did the job for civilian contractors who were rebuilding, and weren’t involved in frontline duties at all,” he says.
“But I was on the frontline. When I came to the British Army I had experience of using rifles because I had been a bodyguard. So if there was an ambush I knew what to do,” he explains.
“When the militias were shooting at us I heard them shouting to each other, and I could say to the British ‘This is what they are saying, they are moving to another corner, be ready’. So that gave a very good understanding of what the militias were doing.
“You have heard of the Mahdi army?” asks the 32-year-old who did not want to be pictured. “These people, led by religious leaders, were fighting against the American and British troops. They had a strong order from their leaders that anyone co-operating with the British Army should be killed.
“One day there was a minibus transporting interpreters from Shaibah camp [a major British Army base] to Basra city. It was stopped, they were kidnapped, tortured to death, and the only one left alive was my friend. They broke his elbows and knees to disable him. He was famous for his green eyes, lovely eyes. But they took his eyes out. They told him this is what will happen to anyone who co-operates, tell your friends.
“So we started changing our IDs, and changing our telephone numbers every two weeks.
“The British Army didn’t support me for a year. This [Gateway] programme started in 2008, early 2009, and 2007 was the worst year for us. We were hunted like flies. Every two days someone’s body was found, shot in the head and thrown on the rubbish. So I kept escaping,” Ali says.
“I heard about this programme and applied for it. It took seven months for them to reply and say ‘Yes, you have been accepted to go to Jordan’. There I had interviews with the UNHCR [the United Nations refugee agency]. Then I came to Norwich, two years and 45 days ago.”
Ali is one of about 40 Iraqis living in the city thanks to the Gateway programme. After months of volunteering he has a job as a support worker at Stonham Homestay, where he often helps interpret for fellow refugees. He has experienced some hostility from ignorant people but says “people who know who I am are very nice to me”.
“Some things are very different. Here you go to someone’s house and they ask if you would like tea or coffee. In Iraq it is a big insult for him to ask you that – he should just go and get you a drink, and you should drink it or you are insulting him!
“I can’t go back there until I am a British citizen, which will take six years. I want to, it’s my country and my friends and family are there. But the danger is still there, so it is difficult.”
But he does not regret his involvement in helping to bring about a change of regime in Iraq.
“The Iraqis now have their own freedom, they can say their own words. The only thing we knew to say before was ‘Yes, yes Saddam’. Otherwise only the guard knows what happens to you. Sometimes the guard didn’t even know.”