My name is Gona Saed. I’m from Iraqi Kurdistan and I came to the UK twenty-one years ago as a political refugee with my three-year-old son. My husband didn’t manage to flee with us at the time, but he joined us three months later.
Although I earned a degree in electrical engineering from Mosul University, I couldn’t find a job in my area of specialization. This was at the beginning of the 1990s, and I had to work in other fields in order to earn a living. I remember the first job I had was industrial training for women in Sulaymaniyah, but I had to stop when the first Gulf war broke out in 1991. I also worked as an assistant at some NGOs, and then in a number of small factories that made shoes and printed carrier bags during the years of the economic sanctions on Iraq. Most importantly, I was a political activist with a left-wing political party and a feminist organization.
I spent my first night in the UK in a huge refugee hostel near Heathrow airport, and it was absolutely terrifying. It looked like a massive prison, filled with different people from all parts of the world, people totally unfamiliar to me. The next day, my dear friend Samira arrived to rescue me, and I felt like the happiest person who ever lived, having such a good friend as her. An Iraqi, she’d been part of a group who’d come to the UK several years before. She assisted me greatly in beginning my life there, helping me apply for asylum and to receive housing benefits and social security. She was so helpful and I also learned a lot from her.
I obtained a work permit six months after my arrival. My son was in daycare then, and my husband had joined us, and we had a little apartment in one of London’s poorer neighborhoods. Our friends helped us furnish the place. I had a house suited to my little family, and I was surrounded by incredible friends, at whose houses we could eat our traditional dishes and listen to our music and have a social life, but to tell you the truth, I still wanted more! So, I decided to work.
My first job was as a waitress at a restaurant, where I worked for one year and four months. During this time, my English improved a lot and I became more adept. Before working there I’d never heard of the words for tuna, or shrimp, pork, cheddar, or the names for all the different kinds of cheese. I knew just the very basics: fish, meat, cheese. Everything else I learned there.
One day, an American family came into the place. They were joking around and laughing loudly and joyfully. The father asked for “Falafel, extra hot,” and I’d brought him some tabasco along with the order. He looked at me and said: “Yes, that’s indeed really hot.” I didn’t know back then that “hot,” which meant very warm, also meant “spicy.” I thought he was saying, it's too warm. So I said: “Should I put it in the fridge for a bit?” And they all burst into loud laughter. He said: “No, it’s good, would you like to taste it?” They thought I was joking around! It took a few years before the meaning of my “special joke” dawned on me and I realized why they’d laughed that day. I remember they’d already been totally caught up in waves of hysterical laughter and that’s also why they thought I was kidding when I mentioned the fridge. To this day no one but me knows that I was actually very serious.
I had an Iranian friend who was a translator for lawyers. I always saw translation as something amazing, because it provided excellent earnings and a good standard of living. One day my friend invited me to go translate in her stead. I was really nervous about it, but she thought I’d be able to do it perfectly. This was the beginning of my second career in the UK for the next three years.
In January 2003, I was a member of WASSR, an NGO working to ensure that the elderly have access to their rights and to the support services available to them. The organization realized that their outreach was exclusively to people who were white and British, and they needed to diversify and become more inclusive. They decided to try and target senior citizens from the BAME communities (that is, Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic). So, they were looking for someone who was fluent in languages other than English and who had good presentation skills. I fit the bill very well: I spoke both Arabic and Kurdish in addition to English. I got the job.
The next seven years during which I worked at WASSR were a real learning experience, increasing my maturity, reshaping my convictions and helping me grow as a person, as a refugee, as a member of British society, as a Kurd and an Iraqi. They raised my standards, I came to understand racism, discrimination, power dynamics within the workplace, as well as many other things besides.
Working for WASSR enabled me to comprehend payrolls and to pay taxes, which increased my confidence. As the years went on, it also helped me to offer support to elderly people who had lived their entire lives, or most of their lives in the UK. It increased my self-esteem, and transformed my self-perception from that of a victim receiving social support services to someone helping provide them to others, regardless of their race, culture, or gender. I felt dynamic, I felt a sense of belonging, I felt like a person with rights and duties, living in a country like the UK, which in turn made me feel like this was my home, my country, just as once Iraq and Kurdistan were my home and country.
Integration played a very important role in my life and career, especially when it came to women’s issues. I’ve spent the last ten years of my working life at KWEMO, the Kurdish and Middle Eastern Women’s Organization in the UK, which I helped found in 1999. I spent six years as the director of integrated programs for women and isolated women. I worked with some very closed-off groups of women, helping them learn English and acquire technical skills and knowledge. We’d visit museums and farms and local libraries, helping people get volunteer positions or jobs or begin their university studies. Now I’m working on funding, gathering donations for projects that help with integrating women into British society.
This was the story of my life’s journey in the UK, one I embarked on 21 years ago.