Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Interview in an Instant: Marie Lyse Numuhoza

In the second of our “Interviews in an Instant” with keynote speakers from STAR’s 2007 Conference, testimonial speaker Marie Lyse Numuhoza shares her happiest moments, tips for STAR members, and her views on the future of asylum policy…

Marie Lyse Numuhoza came to the UK on 2000 as a young refugee from Rwanda. She set up a Rwandan youth group, which later changed to a Francophone youth group, with the aim of challenging perceptions and aiding intergration. In 2001-2002 she participated in STAR workshops to raise awareness on issues that affect young refugees. Marie now works as Project Manager/Grants Officer at the Scarman Trust managing a programme called the Big Boost aimed at young people aged 16-25. In July 2007 she graduated from the school of Oriental and African stuudies, having studied African and Development studies.

When were you happiest?

When I was reunited with my family. My mother, brothers and sisters, after four years of not being together after the war.

Which living person do you most admire, and why?

I would say my mother, because during our troubles she kept strong and kept us strong, and believed even though we were leaving home there was life beyond that. Both my sister and mother have been granted indefinite leave to remain now, that means that they are not recognized under the convention but due to the situation in our country we are allowed to stay.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Having been able to overcome my ordeal as a refugee and being able to integrate and share my refugee experiences with young people and refugees and act as a role model.

What first drew you to speaking/ writing about refugees and asylum seekers?

The biggest drive was for me to overcome the problems we had come through, and I realised the best way to overcome this was to talk about it and interact with other people and communities in the UK. You have to look ahead because that is where the life is. The reason I am still here is because I am here for a purpose, and I have to use that opportunity wisely and not waste it. I want to use it in two ways, Firstly, I want to open doors for other young refugees, show that there are opportunities here beyond your ordeals. Secondly, that other young people here in the UK, they need to hear from us that life is not always smooth but things are always better, so the best things are ahead and you have to work hard to get towards those achievements.

How do you think attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers have changed in the past 5 years?

When we arrived, people were not put in to detention centres; people were given temporary accommodation and would wait there until they were processed. At the moment what I hear is that people are being detained while their claim is being processed, and this is really sad because for someone who has fled persecution it is worsening their situation, and it is sending a negative message to the British people that these people are not human, even though they are refugees. It is really changing the whole picture of being a refugee, because being a refugee is being someone who fears persecution and is entitled to human rights, but when you put them in to detention you breach their human rights and compromise everything that Britain as a great sovereignty has agreed to and signed treaties to in the past.

What are the key challenges in securing a government asylum policy that is humane and treats refugees with respect?

The key point is to remain neutral and assess case by case, refugee cases are not a general issue. Every case is different. Every person must be listened to and the reasons why they fled must be listened to. Because it is very hard to believe that people go home one day and think oh, the UK is doing great, I am going to go to the UK and seek asylum. It is hard for anyone who loves their motherland to decide to leave just like that. You can’t give asylum to everybody, and not everyone is not entitled to asylum, but there must be some degree of understanding and humanity towards these people who decide to leave their homes.

In an ideal world, refugees would be able to live peacefully and harmoniously within UK communities, within an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect. If you had to sum up the key to achieving this in a sentence what would it be?

It would be mutual communication. The path towards refugees being fully integrated in communities is from both sides. British Society must enable them and give them a chance to participate fully. At the same time refugees need to open up and leave their pasts behind, and work hard to contribute as much as they would in their homeland to the new society that has welcomed them.

Drawing on your work and experiences, if you could make one thing known to the world about what it is like to be a refugee, what would it be?

One thing is leaving your home and everyone that you loved and moving to a new country and trying to start everything from zero. The intense loss and starting from the ground, doing everything from zero when you had established so much in your homeland.

What top tips would you give to STAR members attempting to improve the position of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK?

First, raise awareness of the lives of refugees and asylum seekers. Especially asylum seekers because they are the ones who are in much need, waiting for their claims to be processed. They are in the dark. They don’t know what the future holds. Find out if they are in your school, or community and approach them and help them.
Secondly, organise events that involve asylum seekers and refugees and recognises that they are there, something that recognises their skills and talents, and make them feel that the community, school or university has welcomed them and that they are part of it.
Third, help them integrate. Help them in a way that they can secure some jobs and an understanding of how the system works. It is about opening doors, because a lot of refugees stay in small groups and are afraid to approach people. But I believe that if you smile at somebody, no one is going to give you a nasty look if you smile. If you smile, you get a smile back.

If you could single handedly implement one change in UK Asylum Policy what would it be?

Start afresh! But one thing I would do is to lobby policy makers, because that is where it all goes wrong, up there people are making decisions without considering what is going on at ground level. People from STAR, and the Refugee council are aware of the situation of the refugees. If policy makers actually listened to people in the community we would not have detention centres and taking children out of school. Those sorts of things cannot be done by someone who believes in human rights and actually listens. Policy makers do not listen, they promise things they do not achieve, they have to open their ears and listen to the things that people, citizens, are telling them to do.

Posted by Russell Brooks on 18/12/2007 at 11:33 AM