We Breathe The Same Air

Meet Justin Kouame. Before coming to the UK he was an economics teacher in Ivory Coast.

As an asylum seeker he is unable to use these skills because he doesn’t have the right to work here. Asylum seekers don't. Instead, he uses his time to lead NICRAS (Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers) and has won three awards for his work.

'I would like people to know that I am a human being. I am no different from another human being. 

Maybe the difference is my colour, and my very soft voice, and my big structure, but apart from this... you know... I breathe the same air they breathe, we are all the same - I am a human being.

The biggest myth that needs to be challenged is that refugees and asylum seekers don’t understand anything. When people see you, especially when you say that you are an asylum seeker, they assume that you have no education. That you don’t know anything. That you have no education, no background.

When I tell people I was a teacher, people are shocked. They are surprised you have an education, because some people think that you are primitive and that you don’t know anything.

I am here alone. I have a wife, but she is not here. The tension of this distance is not easy. She is back home.

What makes me sad about refugees and asylum seekers, something that people don’t know, is that if something happens to your relatives at home, you can’t do anything. Your mother will die, your father will die, your sister will die and you can’t do anything. You can’t go back.

I have been here for seven years now, since 2009. When you are claiming asylum, you have nothing else to do. You are not allowed to work. You are waiting for a decision to be made, but you don’t know when your decision is going to come. In the morning I wake up, and my first reaction is to see if I have any post. This is how I live. I am always on edge. It will destroy me, this process of waiting.

But when I came here, I discovered something that I didn’t know I had.  I discovered that I could help people. It is something that I didn’t know I could do. I needed to do something, I could not just sit and wait, so I asked NICRAS if I could volunteer, and they said yes! I’ve discovered something about myself.  

It is not easy to be in this situation and to be able to come and help other people. It is difficult because the stress is still there and you are struggling with your own life. But at the same time, you can dedicate yourself to something and it gives you the strength to carry on. God is helping me, he is the one who gives me strength to achieve this. Because without him I would not be able to do it.  

Everyday, someone comes to me and they say, Justin I got my papers now! I got a paper, I got a flat, I got accommodation… it gives me hope, you know? In the community here people are making progress, children are growing, and it gives me hope that I am doing a good job.

People have been welcoming. Some churches are very welcoming. Northern Ireland could be my home – the people are nice to me. But until you can have your own home and you have a key, a proper place to sleep, a place to invite friends, a place to sit down and relax, it’s difficult to feel truly at home. I don’t know when that is going to happen. 

I think, one day my day will come.

NICRAS is the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers. Justin and a small team provide advice, food parcels, and outreach education to schools, churches and the community on asylum and refugee issues. Justin has won three awards for his work supporting others. Unbeknown to many, Justin is a volunteer. Despite his own personal struggles through the asylum process, he spends five days a week helping the many people who pass through his small office each day.