Interview with Shoker Abobeker at Refugees First

After reading all that’s in the news about the goings-on in the Kurdish community in Plymouth, I decided to venture down there myself.  So last week I took the train into town and met up with Shoker Abobeker at his office in Anglia House.  We chatted for more than an hour there and then continued talking over a Kurdish lunch at the Nawroz restaurant.

Shoker, a Kurd from Iraqi Kurdistan, has been living in Plymouth for some nine years now and calls Plymouth a ‘very successful community’ in terms of how the Kurds have integrated and settled in.

Shoker Abobeker of Refugees First

Shoker Abobeker of Refugees First

The vast majority of the community began to arrive in Plymouth after 2000, says Shoker.  Community members for the most part come from the KRG region, particularly from Kirkuk and Mosul.  Too, he says, there are Kurds from Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Armenia.  Back in 2000 asylum seekers were assigned a to a location by the Home Office. So Kurds to Plymouth, Afghan refugees to Exeter, etc.   Today there are 2,000-3,000 Kurds in the Devon/Cornwall area.

At age 31, Shoker is pursuing a Masters in International Global Security and is also a tireless community organizer. He set up a local organization, Refugees First, which caters to the needs of the Devon/Cornwall immigrant community.  It is run by, and for, refugees in the area.  Over the years Shoker has come to be recognised as the ‘head’ of the Kurdish community in the area for all the work he is doing.

As part of the community integration Shoker spoke to me about, they are opening a weekend school for Kurdish children in the area.  By his accounts, there are about 250 children and young people.  A teacher is coming from Erbil (Hewlêr) for a 1st May start up and weekend instruction will be for Kurdish language and culture.  The local council is providing classroom space in the city centre.  The community is very enthusiastic about the opening of the school.

Shoker also runs a local youth football club, trying to use football as a tool for integration and community understanding.  Called Azadî (Freedom, in Kurdish) the team plays against other youth clubs in the area.  The club is a BME (Black Minority and Ethnic) team.   There is, however, still some blatant racism against BME members.  Parents of the children from other teams are often overhead saying to the Azadî team players, ‘why don’t you all go back home.’

So, he says, they’re fighting on two fronts.  One, to maintain their cultural identity and, two, to gain acceptance in the wider community.  Also he added that there is a need to educate the community about who they are.   As part of that broader community outreach Shoker gives presentations and works with other local organisations.  For example, he will soon give a presentation about Kurds to the Plymouth City Council and local MPs called ‘Understanding the Kurds and Kurdistan.’  Once a month he gives lectures to new police officers in the area.  He educates them about who the Kurds are and he also gets information from the police about their concerns. Finally, he is producing a documentary about Kurds in Devon and Cornwall, which he hopes will be completed by the end of May.  It will be educational, not political, in nature, he adds.

So I wanted to know why there had been a rash of detentions amongst the Kurds in Plymouth.  From the way Shoker describes the community, it certainly sounds as though it is an ideal one.

The Home Office has a backlog of asylum cases, which are termed ‘Legacy Cases.’  By Shoker’s estimate there are 400,000 of these open cases, yet to be decided.  According to a recent BBC report, this number has now dropped to 245,000.  Still overwhelming by any means.  The Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) says it hopes to have these backlogged cases cleared by September 2011.

He told me that he and a few other community members met with the UK Border Agency of the Home Office to discuss the recent detentions of several Kurds in Plymouth.  Following that meeting the BIA sent out a memo (05 March), in which they said:

“We do not target any particular nationality, only people who have been found to have no legal right to remain in the UK.”

It goes on to say that, “UK courts have found that an ordinary individual Iraqi civilian is not at serious risk from indiscriminate violence in any part of the country.”

The Kurdistan Regional Government says the Kurdistan region is safe.  This, in part, has prompted the Home Office to say that some of these Kurds should now go back.  After all, the logic goes, they only came to the UK because it was dangerous in their country of origin.  The problem is that many of these refugees are from Kurdish areas outside of KRG control.  Mainly Mosul and Kirkuk, located in the Ninaweh and Kirkuk provinces.  Mosul now is still one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq.

Of the Kurds in the Devon/Cornwall area between 300-500 have no status whatsoever.  Some 1,000 have been granted ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ (ILR) status.  With the ILR designation asylum seekers can bring spouse and family members to the UK and begin naturalisation procedures.

The Kurds in this southwest corner of the UK mostly work in factories, with computers, at various agencies, as housing officers, and with local businesses.  Some have opened restaurants and take aways, even a car wash.  All in all very different work from back in Kurdistan.

While the Kurds have done a remarkable job at community integration, there is still a lot of racism in the community directed at them.  It seems that it is xenophobic and not geared exclusively at the Kurdish community, but rather at anyone who might not ‘look British.’  Also with the naval base in town, military families take out their anger on anyone who they think looks ‘Middle Eastern.’  The British National Party (BNP) is also quite strong in the Plymouth area.  The BNP is a far-right party committed to stemming and reversing the tide of non-white immigration in the UK.

The plight of the Kurds in Plymouth and elsewhere is not over, says Shoker.  There is much work to do…education on both sides.  Kurds are upset with the way in which the Home Office is handling the situation and live in fear that they might be detained without warning at any time.  The BIA says it is only doing its job to enforce the immigration laws.  There needs to be more understanding and I applaud Shoker Abobeker and those who work with him in promoting intercultural understanding between the Kurds and the larger UK community.

As I write this Shoker is still awaiting his own decision.

International Conference

logo_exeterThe University of Exeter’s Centre for Kurdish Studies will be hosting an international conference on the Kurds.  ‘The Kurds and Kurdistan: History, Politics, Culture‘ will take place over a three-day period, beginning the evening of 01 April 2009.

Download the full conference programme here (.pdf).

update:

Here’s a photo of all the conference presenters.  Taken 03 April 2009.

Presenters at Kurdish Conference, University of Exeter

Presenters at Kurdish Conference, University of Exeter

Intimidation and Harrassment of UK Kurdish Community

Demonstration against Counter-Terror Bill (CAMPACC website)

Demonstration against Counter-Terror Bill (CAMPACC website)

I have been following the story of Plymouth’s Kurdish community for a while now and have a few blog postings on the topic.  But the story of intimidation and repression goes much deeper and well beyond the city limits of Plymouth…as we knew.

Today Hevallo posted a must-read article on the high-level government complicity (with Turkey) in the harrassment of the Kurdish community in the UK.  The incidents of harrassment and detention are on the rise in the Kurdish communities across the UK.  Read the article.

In Plymouth, another Kurd, Himen Abas, was given a (temporary) reprieve in his deportation struggle.  Abas was detained by police back in early February and was set to be deported earlier this week.

Plymouth Kurd given last minute reprieve

From today’s edition of the The Voice of Plymouth/The Herald we find out that perhaps the three Kurds who have been recently detained may be able to stay, depending on their appeals through the ECHR.  Kurdistan Commentary will be following the story.

Appeal earns Kurd reprieve
Friday, 06 March 2009

A Kurdish man detained in Plymouth has temporarily escaped being sent to Iraq after an 11th-hour legal bid succeeded.

Karwan Mahmood, aged 31, was due to fly from London on Tuesday but was given a Home Office reprieve at the last minute, his supporters in Plymouth said.

They say they expect him to be granted bail early next week and allowed to return to Plymouth, where he is in a relationship with city woman Katie Kellow.

His supporters said the failed asylum-seeker was reprieved because he is appealing to the European Court of Human Rights.  Two other Kurds, detained in Plymouth, are planning similar last-gasp appeals; otherwise Himen Abas, aged 33, will fly to Iraq on March 11, and Jizar Ahmad, aged 31, will leave on March 13.

However, a fourth Plymouth Kurd, 32-year-old Majid Ibrahim Amin, was put on a flight from Stansted to the city of Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, on February 16.

Rizgar Ali, chairman of Plymouth’s Kurdish Community Association, said everything possible was being done to support the detainees.

He said he was fearful Mr Abas and Mr Ahmad would not be flown to the Kurdish homeland in Northern Iraq but to British- controlled Basra in the south, something denied by the UK Border Agency.

“The northern Iraqi government is not accepting people forced to be taken back,” Mr Ali said, adding that Plymouth’s 2,000-strong Kurdish community now felt ‘threatened’ after learning Mr Ahmad and Mr Mahmood had been detained after they attended a police station to ‘sign’.

“People who have to sign every week or month at a police station are scared and don’t want to go,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear in the community.”

Mr Mahmood, detained on February 12, is being held at Tinsley House Immigration Removal Centre near Gatwick Airport.  “He’s in a very bad situation,” Mr Ali said.

Mr Abas and Mr Ahmad are at Campsfield House immigration removal centre, in Kidlington near Oxford.

Khasrow Mustafa, a leading member of Plymouth’s Kurdish community, said: “The solicitor is doing all the appeals, whatever he can do.  We have contacted the European Court of Human Rights and they are trying to cancel (Mr Abas’) ticket. We’re expecting the Home Office to stop it.”  He was hopeful the men would be released, he said. “Sometimes they just release people,” he said.  “I never understand immigration.”

A spokesman for the UK Border Agency stressed people with no legal right to remain in the UK were only removed ‘when we are satisfied it is safe to do so’.

“We do not target any particular nationality,” he said. “We only remove people whom the Agency and courts have found do not qualify for international protection or refugee status.”

He said each case was examined with ‘great care’ and no one was removed if they would be put at risk or had an outstanding application or appeal. The spokesman said people who faced removal ‘are always notified removal action is imminent’.

Fourth Kurd seized, one deported

The story continues to unfold in the south of England…

The Herald
17 February 2009

http://www.thisisplymouth.co.uk/news/KURDS-FEAR-SWOOP/article-706434-detail/article.html

THE city’s Kurdish community is on the brink of going into hiding after a fourth man was seized and another put on a flight to northern Iraq by British immigration officials.

The 2,000-strong Kurdish community was stunned when Jizar Ahmad was arrested yesterday morning as he attended Charles Cross police station to ‘sign on’.

Shoker Abobeker, of Plymouth’s Kurdish Community Association, said asylum-seekers were required to ‘sign on’ at a police station, but warned that many might now stop doing so after what had happened to Mr Ahmad.

He had already revealed that some Kurds were sleeping in cars because they were afraid to go to their homes in case they were raided by immigration officers.

“Lots of people are not going to sign now,” Mr Abobeker warned. “Everyone is scared.

“We are losing our friends.”

Mr Ahmad, aged 31, from the city centre, has lived in Plymouth for nine years, and has worked in a factory and the catering industry because he has a work permit.

Mr Abobeker said removing him from the country was “not fair and against human rights”.

“Jizar is a taxpayer,” he said.

Mr Ahmad is the fourth Kurd detained in Plymouth since February 6.

The Herald has been told that one of the others, 32-year-old Majid Ibrahim Amin, was put on a flight from Stansted to the city of Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, on Monday.

Meanwhile, 31-year-old Karwan Mahmood, detained on February 12, has been moved to Tinsley House Immigration Removal Centre near Gatwick Airport.

Khasrow Mustafa, a leading member of Plymouth’s Kurdish community, said: “Where Karwan has been taken is a bad place.

“That’s where they send people for imminent removal.”

Mr Mahmood’s girlfriend Katie Kellow, aged 25, of Southway, is expected to visit him today, along with others from Plymouth.

Another city delegation is expected to go to the Campsfield House immigration removal centre, in Kidlington near Oxford, to visit 33-year-old Himen Abas, from Keyham, detained on February 6.

Mr Mustafa, a close friend of Mr Abas, said supporters had found lawyers to work on behalf of him and Mr Mahmood.

Names are also being collected on a petition.

“We are doing out best and will see what’s going to happen,” Mr Mustafa said. “It’s not easy, but hopefully we will get them out of detention.”

He said Mr Amin had been “put on a plane with about 50 people”, only about a week after being detained in Plymouth.

“When he was in Campsfield House I got him a solicitor,” Mr Mustafa said. “Unfortunately they didn’t give him a chance; they took him immediately.”

Mr Abobeker said it was not safe to send asylum-seekers to Iraq despite claims that the country had been stabilised.

He said it was still split by political and tribal allegiances and that people who fled during the rule of Saddam Hussein found the same enemies in place today, adding that people “who have been here for nine or 10 years are now integrated here”.

“Iraq is not safe,” he continued, “it doesn’t matter that the Iraqi Government is dealing with the (UK) Government.”

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Anyone with no right to be here will be removed.

“If the appeal process is exhausted you will be removed from the country. That’s the way the immigration system works.”

The Home Office would not confirm or deny the names or status of any of the detained Kurds nor discuss flights from the country.

Fear and Anger in Plymouth

The Kurds are fearful. The locals are angry. Plymouth, a town of 250,000 on the Devon coast, is home to more than 2,000 Kurds. About 1,000 from the Kurdish community come from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Last night immigration officials detained Karwan Mahmud, a 31-year-old

Charles Cross Station

Charles Cross Station

Kurd, living in Plymouth. He was being held at Charles Cross police station, awaiting transport to a ‘removal centre’ where police were to put him on a flight to Iraq.

Mahmud is the third Kurd seized in Plymouth in just over a week. Last week Himen Abas (33) and Majid Ibrahim Amin (32) were taken into custody in Plymouth and sent to immigration removal centres.

The UK Border Agency spokesperson said of the detentions, ‘Detention is necessary to ensure immigration offenders do not abscond while final stages of their removal are being arranged,’ and that they would eventually be put on a flight to the Kurdish Autonomous Zone.

Kurds in the community are now living in fear. Everyone is scared as they do not know what will happen next.

Why the sudden rash of Kurds taken into custody? It might be related to several issues, including last year’s botched suicide bomb attack in Exeter by Nicky Reilly, aka Mohammad Rashid Saeed-Alim. Additionally, Devon and Cornwall are awaiting funding for anti-terror operations.

Nicky Reilly, a Muslim convert from Plymouth with a long history of mental instability, tried to blow up the Giraffe restaurant at the Princesshay shopping centre in Exeter back in May 2008. He attempted to detonate several home-made explosive devices containing nails, which he had put in glass soft drink bottles. Last month he was sentenced to a minimum of 18 years after pleading guilty to attempted murder and preparing an act of terrorism.

Police outside a house in Plymouth as they investigate the Exeter bombing

Police outside the home of a Kurdish resident in Plymouth as they investigate the Exeter bombing

Plymouth’s Kurdish community spokesperson, Shoker Abobeker, said that because Reilly was associated with the Kurdish community there, his actions provoked a backlash against the community.

‘The media reported that Reilly was mixing with Kurdish people and that led to us being called extremists and people shouting that we were suicide bombers. We had worked really hard to be part of the Plymouth community and this had such a negative impact,’ said Abobeker.

The online comments [NOTE: online comments have been removed by The Herald staffers] by many residents in Plymouth in the past day or two show their anger and resentment directed at the Kurdish community there. It was hoped the Reilly guilty plea would help ease community tensions.

Anti-terrorism funding could be another possible factor in the recent arrests in Plymouth. With funding worth £1.7 million last year alone for anti-terrorism special operations, the local Devon and Cornwall police surely need to show their need for funding by stepping up arrests of ‘suspicious’ locals.

Conservative MP Geoffrey Cox said ‘You would have thought that after events in Exeter, which proved that terrorism can rear its ugly head anywhere, that the Home Office’s approach would have been different.’

The links between anti-terrorism funding, Nicky Reilly, Exeter, Plymouth, and the Kurdish community clearly exist. It is a shame that innocent immigrants are caught up in the state’s need to prove the need for terrorism funding. How many more Kurds will they have to arrest to satisfy the Home Office?

Sources:

Bomber’s action stuns community, BBC News, 15 October 2008
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/uk_news/england/devon/7672458.stm

Fresco, A. Nicky Reilly, Muslim convert, jailed for 18 years for Exeter bomb attack, Times Online, 31 January 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article5619151.ece

Funding delay hits anti-terror operations, Western Morning News, 10 February 2009 http://www.thisiswesternmorningnews.co.uk/news/Funding-delay-threat-anti-terror-operations/article-684102-detail/article.html

Nail bomb suspect released from hospital as police raid home of Kurdish men ‘linked’ to plot, Daily Mail, 27 May 2008, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1021897/Nail-bomb-suspect-released-hospital-police-raid-home-Kurdish-men-linked-plot.html

Popular Iraqi Kurd set to be deported, Peynamner News Agency, 07 February 2009. http://www.peyamner.com/details.aspx?l=4&id=108833

Third Kurd is taken by immigration, The Herald, 13 February 2009, http://www.thisisplymouth.co.uk/news/SECOND-IRAQI-KURD-FLOWN/article-693196-detail/article.html