Exhibition explodes myth of sponging refugees

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One is a doctor who fled Saddam Hussein's Iraq and now runs a £1m felafel business. Another is a young Polish Roma woman who captains a boys' football team while another is a Kurdish separatist with a flourishing acting career.

The courage of Britain's refugees and their contribution to their adoptive nation were yesterday highlighted in a new exhibition designed to refute the image of asylum-seekers as a social and financial burden.

The show at the Museum of London, entitled Belonging, took two years to produce and is the first major exhibition in Britain focused on refugees. It tells the stories of 150 refugees who arrived in the UK in the past 50 years from countries including Germany, Bosnia, Chile and Eritrea.

Organisers said it was an attempt to redress the balance against the portrayal of refugees as "swamping" Britain in search of a lifestyle unavailable in their native countries.

The exhibition, which includes a display of alarmist headlines about asylum-seekers from newspapers including the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, was conceived by a refugee agency in London after it was inundated with complaints from clients that their image was being distorted.

Tzeggai Deres, the Eritrean director of the Evelyn Oldfield Unit and the creator of the exhibition, said: "A certain image has been created of refugees. Britain has a fine tradition of welcoming outsiders, reinforced by an inherent sense of justice and democracy. But the right-wing media has created confusion and frightened people who think their country is being invaded. In reality, refugees are people who have overcome adversity to come here and make a difference. It is time to make their stories better known."

The project recorded the oral history of each featured refugee, amassing tape recordings from 15 communities. The footage, which took two years to collect and has been stored in a sound archive, would take 400 hours to play back. Organisers said they wanted the recordings to be used to inform future generations of refugees and their children of the challenges and successes of their predecessors.

Nearly a quarter of refugees who arrive in Britain have a university degree from their native country, underlining the fact that many become successful professionals or entrepreneurs once settled in the UK. Among those featured in the exhibition are doctors, teachers, restaurateurs, scientists, a bus driver, a driving instructor and an engineer.

The stories range from Shabibi Shah, a poet who fled Afghanistan in 1984 to protect her teenage son from conscription and now works as a charity trustee, to Tesfay Sebhat, a blind Eritrean refugee and now a youth worker who arrived in Britain on Guy Fawkes' night and thought the explosions were fighting between the British authorities and the IRA.

Among the items on display are memorabilia, including a model of a refugee centre housed in a north London church, built by two women from Iran and Albania, and the Arsenal shirt worn by a Congolese teenager, Fabrice Muamba, in his first game for the club.

But with applications for asylum standing at 25,720 last year, compared to 6,156 in 1986, participants in the project said they were concerned that there has been a change in British attitudes towards refugees.

Mahdi Mahdi, who left Iraq in 1979 following intimidation from Saddam Hussein's Baathist movement and now employs 30 people in his Middle Eastern food company, said: "It worries me that the traditional culture of welcome is being eroded. It might not be obvious but it is easier to say something against asylum-seekers now than in sympathy for them. That is a big change since I arrived."

The exhibition, which is free, will run until 25 February.

Success stories

Tesfay Sebhat, 51, from Eritrea

Youth team leader in Lambeth, south London

"I lost my sight in 1978 during the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. I came to Britain under a special UN refugee project on 5 November 1980. I didn't go out for 40 days, then asked friends to go out to a pub. My achievements are to be here, earning my bread and butter, a refugee blind person managing a whole area."

Ilona Marjanska, 18, from Poland

A-level student and first team player for Leyton Orient Ladies

"My family left Poland in 1996 when I was six because of the hatred against the Roma. My father was beaten and we were getting so much abuse. Britain was different. I learnt English within three months and made friends. My greatest ambition is to play professionally for Leyton Orient and England or Poland."

Mahdi Mahdi, 57, from Iraq

Co-owner of Mediterranean Foods Ltd

"In 1979, I left Baghdad, where I was a doctor, for political reasons. I moved to Algeria but I had to move again in 1992 because of Islamic extremists. We came to Britain. I tried to requalify as a doctor but time ran out. By chance, our neighbours were Iraqi Jews and my wife began a little business selling felafels to local shops. Now we employ 30 people and have a turnover of £1m."

Paul Sathianesan, 46, from Sri Lanka

Labour councillor in Newham, east London

"I was manager of a printing firm in Colombo. During race riots in 1983, my home was raided by police and my father arrested. I had to get out, and sought asylum when I arrived at Gatwick airport in 1985. I got a job as a cashier in a petrol station. I decided to stand as a councillor. They gave me something and now it's my turn to return something."

Shabibi Shah, 49, from Afghanistan

Poet and trustee for charity helping refugees

"I was born in Kabul. My mother persuaded my father to send me to university and I got a degree in journalism. My husband was also a journalist and he was imprisoned after the Soviet invasion in 1984. We were put up in a hostel in Woking. My husband died and I did a course in interpreting and worked for Croydon council."