In 2008, Ahmed was shot while working as a paramedic in Lebanon during an internal conflict between Shia and Sunni. He arrived in the UK three years ago after a second shooting made him fear for his life. He has been seeking asylum ever since. While his case is still pending, he can’t work and is destitute. Last September he started teaching Lebanese cooking classes with ‘Migrateful’ and the charity has become ‘like a family’ to him.
“OK guys, we are going to start chopping onions, then carrots, then we add 500 grams of lentils and three liters of water ... no not like that, you need to chop like this” chides Ahmed, demonstrating deftly with a knife and a big smile on his face. Ahmed is teaching Lebanese cooking, on a warm July evening, to a group of about 13 people in east London.
Some of the group have been tasked with making a fragrant lentil soup spiced with cumin and turmeric. The other half are busy finely chopping parsley and tomatoes for tabbouleh and rice. Ahmed is a fun host explaining why things need to be done in a certain way and weaving in tips about Lebanese cooking and his personal story throughout the more practical instructions. Everyone is chatting and giggling while they work in the leafy co-working space and café set aside for the evening.
Ahmed nimbly glides between the cooking stations in his wheelchair like a conductor, orchestrating and imparting knowledge and keeping everyone’s spirits up. You can’t immediately see the sadness and struggle that has become enmeshed in his biography, but below the surface, it is there. In spite of that though, Ahmed’s motto is “never give up” and “there is nothing I can’t do.”
The cooking classes are run by the charity Migrateful, which aims to help refugees and migrants find purpose in a new country, often while they are unable to work because of asylum law. Jess Thompson set it up in 2017, “to empower and celebrate refugees and vulnerable migrants on their journey to integration by supporting them to run their own cooking classes.”
Ahmed is one of a growing group of cooks on their books. Despite his energy, he cannot work until his asylum status is resolved. As the facilitator Randa explains to the group, Ahmed is “destitute,” surviving on five pounds a day. He is not even allowed to receive money for the cooking classes he teaches. They nevertheless offer him a lifeline, a chance “to be part of a family and to feel useful and like a human being.”
University educated, Ahmed worked as a paramedic and a senior data analyst in Lebanon. Although he is sunny and friendly with the group, he seems more reticent when asked to explain, once again, his story to someone he has just met. He recounted more to Jess Thompson for the Migrateful blog in June. “I loved my life [in Lebanon],” he said back then.
Ahmed speaks French, English and Arabic fluently and studied at the US-American schools in Beirut. A sporty man, he volunteered for the Red Cross in Beirut. He started volunteering after his mother died when he was just 16. Ahmed felt responsible as he had been the one to give his mother her vital heart medication every evening, except that one time when he was at a concert, thinking his aunt was looking after her. “I will never forgive myself,” he explains on the blog, before adding that everything in life happens for a reason, even if that reason isn’t immediately apparent.
Shot at a road block
His Red Cross work meant that one night, when he was just 24 he was shot by a man at a road block during an internal conflict between Shia and Sunni in Lebanon. That conflict began in May 2008 after a 17-month long political crisis spiralled out of control. Fighting broke out in the country between the government and the Shia-backed Hezbollah organization which has ties to Iran and wields considerable power in certain parts of Lebanon. The fighting and road blocks nearly ended in a new civil war. Eventually a fragile peace was brokered but not before more than 30 people were wounded and at least 11 people lost their lives. “When I pulled the hairs on my thighs, I couldn’t feel them, that’s when I realized the shooting had paralyzed me,” he explains on the blog. He had identified himself as Red Cross but his surname is one of the big names in Lebanon, known to support the Sunni government. Eight years later, he encountered the same man at a road block. Later his boss reported that people had been asking about him at the office and he was followed and shot at by a gunman once again on a motorbike. On advice from the state intelligence services, who said he was being targeted, he fled the country.
That flight was three years ago and he has been trying to convince the UK authorities of his story ever since.
Ahmed says he has no idea why someone might be trying to kill him. The first shooting he says he was shot at from a distance of “less than seven meters and the bullets penetrated me from side to side.”
On arrival in the UK, Ahmed said he at first felt safe, “because I was away from danger.” He thought that British people were “mean and aggressive,” but found himself pleasantly surprised; “that was totally the wrong idea!” he smiles. “They are humble people who like to help others, they are just simply great people,” he concludes.
‘Waiting to live your life’
Ahmed’s enthusiasm has not even been dampened by the difficulties in obtaining asylum. He says, “actually I can understand what they are doing. They have thousands of immigrants every year. The problem is that good people are losing out to the bad people. They think that all asylum seekers are just lying and fabricating stories and that is the unfortunate part.”
Unfortunately, explains Ahmed, “claiming asylum [makes you feel] as if you are not a human. You cannot do anything. You cannot work, you cannot have a bank account, you are not stable, you never know when you may be relocated to another home; you cannot meet your family. You are just in a closed circle, waiting to live your life.”
The reason he hasn’t yet been granted asylum is, thinks Ahmed, “silly.” Silly because he gave them solid proof that his life is in danger and they don’t believe him. In the UK, he stays away from the wider Lebanese community and prefers not to speak about politics. “Everything they requested I gave them, I had solid proof and still no,” Ahmed shakes his head.
In Lebanon, Ahmed was highly qualified and senior in his job as a data analyst. Not being able to work now is “stressful, extremely stressful,” says Ahmed. “You wake up in the morning having nothing to do will make you so down. It will give you a nervous breakdown at some point. So I try to keep myself busy by joining several activities and organizations because I am sure if I just stay at home I would have a nervous breakdown.”
Although the beginning was difficult, Ahmed is now part of local welcome committees for asylum-seekers in addition to volunteering with Migrateful, the British Red Cross and playing wheelchair basketball in the British league. “I made a new connection,” he explains. As a result of his basketball, he was asked to be part of the refugee Olympic team, representing the UK. The first training camp will be in Germany in August he says with a bright smile, before adding that he doesn’t know if he will be able to join his team mates if his asylum status remains unresolved.
Ahmed joined Migrateful in September 2018 and says with a smile “I’m part of the team now, part of the family.” This summer his classes pop up regularly in London and he represented the charity at the world music festival, Womad, as well as helping train a new roster of chefs for Migrateful’s opening in Bristol in south-west England.
Migrateful’s moral support has been vital to Ahmed. He arrives a little late for the class because the legal aid center which was looking after his asylum claim closed down and he had to urgently try and find another solicitor to take on his case, as well as navigate the London underground with a wheelchair, finding a way around certain stations with no wheelchair access.
The people who attend the classes at Migrateful sometimes turn out to be helpful to the asylum-seeking chefs. A few have offered legal skills and contacts after they have heard the migrants’ stories. “It’s like a family,” explains Ahmed. This support makes Ahmed determined to “keep on fighting. I am not lying and that is a fact. Hopefully, eventually they will believe,” he says.
Asked to imagine his future, Ahmed explains that he has applied to study for a Masters degree in strategy, entrepreneurship and innovation. He has already been accepted and is waiting, and hoping, to hear that he is eligible for a scholarship. “So in a year, hopefully I will be finishing my Masters degree and I will have received my [refugee] papers,” says Ahmed. “That’s my target for the next year. My aim for a job is to work for an international fast moving consumer goods company; because I worked in that in Lebanon for 15 years. I know all about sales from A to Z. I’m hoping to work in such a company again.”
Ahmed feels that the authorities need to start to look at individual asylum cases a bit more closely. “Everyone is being put in the same category,” he thinks. “I am sure that I would be a huge benefit for the UK,” Ahmed says quietly. His work with Migrateful helps maintain his hope. “Teaching the class takes me away from what I am feeling. It takes me away from being an asylum-seeker. It puts me in a place where I can be helpful in society. It takes me away from being a person who is waiting for a status [in order to] live his life. At this point in class I feel I am a normal human who is contributing to society, and that is important, definitely.”