He has the kind of face that always looks shocked. We sat over a coffee in the warm Sheffield sunshine. ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ he asks. ‘Did I kill someone?’ No, he didn’t. He just did what anyone might. He went to a friend’s house, he drank a little alcohol. He met a nice woman, they stayed the night together. And someone called the police.
The nice woman happened to be married. Alcohol happened to be illegal in that country. Hassan was given 74 lashes. It took over an hour of non-stop beating, then he set off home. Phoning his mum, he couldn’t understand at first why she kept saying that his aunty was waiting for him. Why would he visit his aunt now? Didn’t his mother know he was returning from the police station? Yes, she knew full well, but she was trying to warn him that the danger wasn’t over; that he shouldn’t come home. Thugs were waiting for him there to continue the beating. Religious violence in that society runs deep.
He paid the price, in a place where old-fashioned, woman-hating stepfather figures have taken over the country. ‘Don’t say the Iranians’ says Hassan. ‘The Iranian people are one thing, the Iranian government is another. It’s different. If we say anything we can be killed. It’s like the Taliban there.’ Even clothing must be government-approved. Having a relationship with someone who is married carries a death sentence for the older of the two; death by hanging. In a repressive atmosphere like that it’s easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hassan knows of a police chief who hanged a mother and her six sons because one of them stepped out of line. The police charged the family money to get the bodies back.
With the help of his father, Hassan fled his homeland, arriving as a young man in our land of freedom and opportunity. Twelve years later he’s still waiting to move on with his life. He was offered unpaid work as a security guard in return for accommodation in empty, unheated, insecure buildings. He spent two icy Sheffield winters sleeping in cellars on dirty, wet floors. His health still suffers from the experience. He was taken in by someone offering a place. It turned out the deal was accommodation in return for being subjected to daily sexual abuse.
Finally Hassan made contact with the small Sheffield charity ASSIST, which supports asylum seekers in desperate need. They helped him out with accommodation for two years until the courts finally agreed, after ten years of living in limbo, that forcing him to return home would be a death sentence.
Sheffield is his home now.
Our government gives only temporary accommodation to people in Hassan’s situation. He has no savings, no job, not even a TV. Dozens of job applications have produced no responses. His CV probably doesn’t fit the profile that employers have in mind.
Many companies are making money by exploiting asylum seekers, including landlords, and the government knows this, Hassan says. There are people sleeping two or three to a room, in this city, in damp rented properties. Even getting a full British passport has been turned into a money-spinning business for the UK government, at well over £1,000 to non-UK nationals.
Hassan is one of many people who form a hidden part of our community; a mixture of nationalities and ages. Some still live in fear of agents from their homeland, while others are wonderfully happy to be here. Many are educated, sensitive and interesting people, who have seen more of life than you would want to. If you have time, visit one of ASSIST’s conversation clubs. These are a chance for people to practice speaking English with volunteers and one another. They need more volunteers – could you do this? It helps to be involved in a positive, purposeful activity once or twice a week. Just being there is helping. Giving someone a smile can fill their heart again.
By the way, Hassan is not his real name. He gave me permission to use his name but I chose not to – in case you meet him one day. Meet him as a new start, as one human being to another. He may want to tell his story, or he may want to put his past behind him. Either way, why not give him a chance?