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.
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.