The Fight for a Better Future
From refugee to activist, one man’s journey to freedom and his mission to help others.
When you speak with Asumani you realise the incredibly powerful gift of having gratitude in life; it helps us value what we do have, rather than focus on what is lost. It offers a perspective on life that reveals opportunities and gives contentment.
Asumani is an inspirational individual who has faced immense challenges in life. Where others may have crumbled or been defined by their experiences, Asumani has risen above them. The beauty in his story lies within his response to things outside his control, the sense of peace and quiet strength you get when speaking with him is all the more incredible when he shares his journey.
Asumani was raised in a small rural village called Kazimia on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the Congo. He was sixteen when civil war broke out. Factions were fighting over the rich natural resources of the country. Describing his last days in his homeland, he says, “When we heard that militia had reached the village closest to us and had buried people alive, we knew we would soon have to flee for our lives.”
The night before the shelling began, he’d slept over at his uncle’s house. “Our village was overflowing with people who had fled from surrounding villages and it was pure panic as I left. I don’t remember much but it was frightening so I just ran where other people were running. I found myself jumping into an overcrowded wooden boat with maybe two hundred people in it.”
He continues, “It took us about eight hours to cross the lake, others were canoeing which takes up to seven days. I was just thanking God when I arrived on the shores of Tanzania, because I knew others had drowned in the crossing. It was a really horrible situation.”
What he didn’t know was whether his parents and five other siblings were still alive. His father was a wanted target for being a Congolese peace activist, who spoke out often against the violence and killing, so to survive Asumani knew his family would have needed to escape.
For the next eighteen years, Asumani lived in refugee camps in Tanzania. He spent most of this time in the Nyarugusu camp, living there longer than he’d spent growing up in the Congo. “Life was very tough in the refugee camp because we were reliant on the UN for everything. They gave us the basics of flour and water, without the UNHCR there was no life in Tanzania.”
He continues to explain the situation people find themselves in. “When I arrived there were one hundred thousand refugees, and people are there because they have no alternative option. We couldn’t go back to the Congo and we couldn’t go into Tanzania. To this day, people are still not allowed outside of the refugee camp unless they have money to bribe officials.”
After completing his secondary education within the camp, Asumani realised that he needed to do something to change his situation in order to break free from hopelessness, and create happiness and joy in his life. He wasn’t content to let his future be determined by his circumstances. The International Rescue Committee were working in the camp to tackle gender-based violence caused by tribes, culture and people groups within the camp.
They offered students the opportunity to apply for a competitive program studying social care. After six hundred applicants were whittled down to just nine, Asumani was one of those who secured a place. After completing these studies, he worked for three years within the camp in preventative education, speaking to people about the consequences of gender-based violence.
“The situation was really awful, there was a lot of sexual assualt and rape,” says Asumani. “Also during secondary school around two thirds of girls dropped out. When you asked the simple question ‘Where are they?’ you find that families didn’t see the point in educating girls because when they’re fourteen they get married.”
At that time, people in the camps were talking about going back to the Congo. “If we didn’t educate people on the simple principles of basic human rights and the notion of peace, if they returned home the cycle of violence and unrest would just repeat itself.” Asumani says.
It was around this time that Asumani uncovered some incredible news. Prompted by some Congolese who’d resettled in South Africa that were reconnecting with their families, he decided to search Facebook for his family members. “We have a really common family name, so I had to see if I could recognise faces. And I found them, they were all alive and well. During the attack on our village they’d escaped south along the lakes shoreline and managed to make it to South Africa.”
This was a very significant time for Asumani, especially re-connecting with his Grandfather who he was particularly close to and who had a massive influence on his life. “He was everything to me. I used to have breakfast with him every morning and in the camp I really missed him. Christian values were really embedded in him, and he told me ‘don’t leave God wherever you go, whatever you do’ and encouraged me to build a life and learn to always seek peace, that was his advice to me. Some people were happy to stay in the camp, but I wanted the chance to build a new life, to fight for a better future.”
He credits his Grandfather’s advice for his perseverance in seeking a new life. Asumani found love in the camp, married and had two children and one day heard the news he’d been waiting for. “It was a big day when I got that letter from the UK Border Agency to say that I’ve been accepted to come to the United Kingdom. I couldn’t sleep that night, I was crying and had all the emotions.”
“As a refugee you are a stateless individual, you are not free, so it was like a celebration because I thought ‘now, I’m going to start my new life.” The letter arrived seven years after he first applied for resettlement.
Just two months later in 2012, Asumani, his wife and two young children arrived in their new home city of Bradford and were initially supported by Horton Housing. “There was this magnificent guy called Richard. I’d never had central heating or electricity before and he showed me everything: got me registered with a GP, took me to the Job Centre and helped me to find Bradford College so I could improve my english. I’m really grateful for him, he’s a great friend of mine now.”
Asumani’s strong desire to contribute to society and his previous work experience within the refugee camp soon led him into community work. First in a volunteering role supporting refugees, followed by his first paid job supporting young people on probation, and then into four years working with young asylum seekers. “And as a citizen you have a duty for your own country, to work for the benefit of your local community. Human rights is something that I love, it’s a priority to me. So if I have an opportunity to do it, I will.”
For many, arriving as a refugee in a foreign city can be really difficult. There’s often trauma linked with the past, uncertainty over the future and the huge obstacle of integrating into an unfamiliar culture. Asumani’s perspective is this: “Living in the refugee camp was like living in a cage. So arriving in Bradford was massive for me. I feel like I’ve been given the chance to do something better with my life. For me, it’s about being active, participating, contributing wherever there is an opportunity to enable others.”
Asumani is a man of action and not just words, and over the past four years has formed a small charity called Bradford African Community to help other refugees. “I am who I am because of the support I received. Do I just take advantage and move and go on? No, I want to help others like me. We have people from Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan, Somalia all who’ve been uprooted because of bad people in their home countries.”
To re-settle, the biggest challenge is overcoming the pain of the past in order to live in the present and move forward with life. Asumani explains his perspective. “Six million people have died in the conflict in the Congo, but a culture of blaming doesn’t help – you have to stop thinking about the past because it will not help. If you have a mindset of ‘we don’t belong here’ or ‘this is not ours’ then you will be stuck. You are a citizen here now so start fresh and move on with your life.”
He continues, “Let’s work together and we will have a chance to do something. If we’re patient, things will happen. Life is short, so let’s take advantage of the opportunities here.” His enthusiasm for life and people is contagious. “Bradford, oh this a wonderful city, I’m proud of this city, it’s my home now and I’m happy here.”
Continuing to look towards his future, he recently began a degree in Global Development at the University of Leeds. “I think there is much more we can do to engage in the community, especially helping people with refugee backgrounds to integrate. Some are fed up with life but just need someone to talk to them, to engage with them. I’m interested in International Relations, that is why I picked this course because I need to know how to help more people.”
Asumani has faced challenges in his life that most of us can’t even imagine, yet demonstrates astonishing levels of gratitude, empathy and a passion to create a brighter future for everyone.