What it’s like to be brought into UK by people smugglers and get a second chance

So far this year, more than 4,800 migrants and refugees have crammed into small boats and crossed the English Channel. That figure is almost 3,000 people higher than the total boat crossings reported in 2019. The spike in boat crossings has been largely attributed to the reduced number of lorries stopping off in Calais due to the global pandemic. Earlier this week, a man was found dead after he disappeared at sea while travelling from Sudan to Calais. For many, like that man, the dangerous journey and risk of death was considered to be worth taking in the hope of securing a better future. Despite this, a recent YouGov poll found almost half of Brits have little to no sympathy for those trying to reach the UK. The Government has also pledged to take tougher measures in order to stop Channel crossings while also considering changing asylum laws to send people away.

The beach at Sangatte, near Calais, where the body of a teenage migrant was discovered
(Image: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Still, each person crossing the Channel has a story. Some are trying to avoid conflict and violence while others desperately want a better life for themselves and their families. Musaab Ali, 28, has been living in Manchester for the last five years after fleeing the conflict in his hometown of Darfur in western Sudan. At the age of 23, he had just finished studying African Literature at university and knew that staying in Darfur much longer was a dangerous prospect for him and his family. “If you’re a man aged 18-33 in Sudan, you have to take part in compulsory military service and fight for rebel tribal groups,” Musaab recalls. “I didn’t want to and I wasn’t even sure what most of those groups were fighting for. “After I finished university I knew I would be a target, like many other men my age.

Trainees at a military training center in Owiny Ki-Bul, Eastern Equatoria, South Sudan in June 2020
(Image: AP Photo/Maura Ajak)

“You’re suddenly not safe and you can be captured when you’re out shopping in the market or at home and forced to go to a training camp. “I knew the only way I could escape this was by fleeing my country.” In the middle of the night, Musaab’s dad arranged for him to meet a smuggler who sneaked him on a boat from Egypt to Italy. The operation was so secretive that he didn’t even get the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. When he arrived in Italy, he jumped on a train from Milan to Paris and hid in the toilet for the entire journey in order to avoid being caught. In Paris, Musaab travelled to a refugee camp in Calais in order to claim refugee status. “The camp was a very dangerous place to live,” Musaab said. “it was lawless and other refugees were physically fighting.”

Women walking through the refugee camp in Calais, France
(Image: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)

He stayed there for 90 days before he was able to register himself. When he left, Musaab had to risk his life again in order to get to the UK via a ferry to Dover. “I hid under a lorry for 40 minutes before we boarded,” he recalled. “I remember how my muscles ached as I grabbed onto the machinery above the wheel on the lorry. “I was so close to the road, it was the most frightening experience of my life.” When the ferry arrived in Dover, Musaab was taken in by UK authorities.

A ferry arriving at the Port of Dover in Kent
(Image: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)

He was sent to Skelmersdale where he was able to contact his family on Facebook and let them know he’d arrived safely. He was later granted refugee status for five years. 28 days after being granted, Musaab was left to find his own accommodation. “I spoke to every local council in the area from Manchester to Liverpool,” he said. “I was told that because I didn’t have a local connection I couldn’t secure any accommodation. “This was heartbreaking as everywhere I went I was told ‘no’ and had to prepare to live on the streets.” Read more of today’s stories here Musaab was soon introduced to Cornerstone, a day centre and emergency accommodation provider in Hulme run by the Caritas Diocese of Salford. He credits the Caritas with changing his life forever. “I presented myself and said I was homeless and was taken into emergency accommodation for a month.

Musaab found the Cornerstone Day Centre after learning about their emergency accommodation
(Image: Cornerstone)

“From there, the team at Caritas began supporting me in all aspects of my life and I was moved into a shared house in Fallowfield.” While living in Fallowfield, Musaab started taking English classes and also volunteered at Cornerstone by making hot drinks for service users. “This proved to be a great way for me to improve my spoken English and make friends,” he says. “As a stranger it’s good for you mentally to be in an engaged community environment where people are happy to chat to you.” A few months later, with the help of a Caritas volunteer, Musaab successfully applied for social housing in Moss Side through Manchester Move. After two years of studying, Musaab had gained the qualifications he needed to study accountancy at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). “It had always been my dream to study accountancy as I love working with numbers and analysing them,” Musaab said.

The Cornerstone centre in Hulme is run by Caritas Diocese of Salford.
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

“I’m back at uni for my third year in September and after I graduate I want to work in an accountancy firm. “I’m hoping, if my wife is able, she will join me and we can carry on our married life living in peace.” Alongside his studies, Musaab has continued to volunteer at Cornerstone and now helps to run their English classes. He organises lessons alongside enrolling students and helping them to sign up for finance and health services. “I wanted to give something back to Caritas after all the help I’d received from them,” Musaab adds. “So many refugees end up on the streets, drinking to get through and that could have been me if Cornerstone hadn’t existed. “Through Caritas, I’ve learnt English to the extent I now teach it. That sense of community and the dedication of all the staff is brilliant. “You get the opportunity to talk with teachers and volunteers while eating together after classes. “I’ve also met some of my best friends here, people who are also from Sudan and speak the same language, which helps me feel less homesick. “I went from being destitute and living in emergency accommodation to getting a qualification with Caritas and now succeeding on my university course. “I’m not sure I’d be in uni or in any kind of safe accommodation if I hadn’t found out about Cornerstone.”
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