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In Britain, refugees build a new life from on top

Refugees are often forced to start with nothing when they arrive in a new country. In the UK, a social enterprise is helping professionals to rebuild their lives by sharing their skills, reports Bethan Staton.

When Hekma Yagoub arrived in the UK two years ago, she didn't know where to begin.

In her home of Sudan she was a human rights lawyer, with a successful career working on challenging, political projects. It was partly down to this work that she was unable to return to Sudan. But as an asylum-seeker in Britain, she couldn't practice the profession that had once been her life.

"I felt really isolated. This was a new culture, a new city. It was scary," she said. "There's a language barrier, a culture barrier, and barriers with just understanding how things work. I started to work self-employed. But I realized, even if a British person wants to become self-employed, it's not easy. It's a lot of hard work."

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Fleeing one's country almost always means leaving everything behind: friends, family, a home and a community. But for many refugees more is lost. People who have spent years in fields like law, medicine or academia find a lifetime of success and achievement seems to suddenly count for nothing as they struggle, without a network, nationally accredited qualifications or recognizable experience, to find meaningful work.

It's a problem that Chatterbox, a new UK social enterprise, hopes to begin to tackle. It employs highly skilled refugees and asylum-seekers like Yagoub or her colleague Mais Khodaji, a pharmacist from Aleppo now living in Twickenham in suburban London, as language teachers.

Read more: Refugees crafting a new life in France

The project is simple. Chatterbox is building a network of universities - now chiefly the School of Oriental and African Studies in London - businesses and individuals who buy language lessons or conversation exchanges. Refugees are employed as paid teachers, while asylum-seekers, who can't legally work, are compensated with expenses and English-language training.

Tried and tested skills

Chatterbox's employees fit the teaching around their commitments and needs. For Khodaji, who needs to care for her children, teaching for a few hours a week is a lifeline socially as well as economically: "It's about going out and having a special time for me," she said. "When I'm with the students I feel happy."

Hekma Yagoub

Hekma Yagoub left behind a successful career when she fled Sudan

Hekma Yagoub, who now teaches as a main job, enjoys the classes, too. "It was a really great opportunity for me to start teaching Arabic," she explained, sitting in an outdoor cafe in east London, where she now lives. "I really love it. And it recognizes that we have something valuable, that we're here, doing something good, in the UK."

Read more: Iraqi refugee finds success as entrepreneur in Germany

The project is the brainchild of young social entrepreneur Mursal Hedayat (photo at top). She had the idea after visiting the notorious Calais refugee camp, but is more personally familiar with the challenges teachers face. As a child she arrived in the UK from Afghanistan with her mother, who'd had a high-flying career in international development, governance and academia in Kabul. Although Hedayat was too young to remember arriving in the UK, she does recall how difficult it was for her mother to use her skills, experience and potential when she claimed asylum.

"Losing everything doesn't just mean losing your possessions," she said. "It doesn't have to be this way, but unfortunately it means leaving behind everything you've built intellectually, socially as well as spiritually. You lose your networks. You lose your professional status. Your degree doesn't work anymore."

By employing them as language teachers, Chatterbox brings refugees out of that professional and social isolation. The refugees get to apply skills that are in demand and assume positions of responsibility and authority. Teaching allows them to connect with students and other professionals, too.

A Syrian dentist tutors a student in Arabic

Chatterbox offers instruction in Arabic, Korean, Persian and other languages

"You lose the authority that you had over your life and your wellbeing, and go to having none - being completely beholden to other people's sympathy, empathy, generosity. That's a really vulnerable position to be in," Hedayat said. "What language teaching does is invert that power dynamic. It says to the people who are doing the teaching that you have something we don't have, and that we want."

Being in the right place

That kind of response to refugees' needs is often absent from government programs. In the UK, highly qualified refugees like Yagoub and Khodaji can fall through the gaps in national programs, being offered work in menial tasks or one-size-fits-all support options. These don't make the most of their potential to contribute to society.

Read more: Berlin job portal specializes in refugees

Juggling family responsibilities and health demands can also be tough without a supportive circle, and Khodaji feels frustrated that qualified people with specialized and useful skills might see them go to waste. Back in Aleppo she ran her own pharmacy, a business that she'd devoted her whole life to building up, and the loss of that hurts.

"We had a very good life before we lost everything. We are hardworking people; we have degrees and skills which may be helpful," she said. "We want to work and find ourselves in this new country, but we just need care. Our skills will die if there's no one to help us be in the right place."

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