refugees With further waves of people fleeing their homelands in response to man-made and natural calamities around the globe, Joanna Lyall speaks to five former refugees working in health-related jobs in the UK about their memories of exile, loss and sta

Published: 20/12/2001, Volume III, No.5786 Page 28 29

Dubravka Janekovic, aged 53, a single parent with six children, was a TV presenter in Croatia, but resigned in 1991 when President Tudgman came to power. She left for the UK in 1994, after her children had been threatened, claimed asylum and was granted refugee status in 1999. In September 2001, she was given leave to remain indefinitely. She now lives in London and is a freelance translator, working with GPs, hospitals and refugee groups.

It is hard to start life all over again when you are in your 40s. In Croatia, I was a household name so the authorities couldn't attack me directly - so they did it through my children. At first, I thought it was paranoia. Then my youngest son was hit by a car that drove up on to the pavement. I knew I had to leave.

The early days here were difficult as I wasn't aware of any of the procedures. I waited three-and-a-half years for an interview with the Home Office, though when I finally got it, it was very straightforward. I spoke English, but not well enough to work as a journalist. I got into as many English classes as possible, including creative writing, and that helped.My lowest point was eight months in bed and breakfast, sharing a room with my children. There was no privacy at all. But we have always had friends and have been invited out every Christmas We have been here.

We have never been attacked, but my children were bullied in their early days at school, and I found accessing the NHS very difficult initially. I still find a reluctance to use interpreters, and GPs, especially, rely on children, which is not appropriate in many cases.

Rudolf Klein, aged 71, was professor of social policy, Bath University 197898, and is now visiting professor at the London School of Economics.He began his career as a leader writer on the Evening Standard and The Observer before moving into research into public policy.He is author of several books, including four editions of The New Politics of the NHS .

'I was born in Prague and arrived in England in 1939 - April I think - with my parents, who were both Jewish.My last memory of Prague was German tanks rolling down Wenceslas Square. One of my first English memories is of tomato soup in the boarding house in Birmingham.

My father was a psychiatrist and had published quite widely, so he was able to get a visa and a job as a scientist in a lab.My mother was a dentist and worked in schools during the war. She had a mobile drill you pumped with your foot. She and I had some English lessons before leaving Prague, but the only word I remembered was 'ash-tray'.When we arrived here, we always spoke English at home.

I went to a small private school and picked up English very quickly. I got teased quite a lot about my accent but never felt discriminated against. I was naturally highly competitive and expected to do well.

Afterwards, my father got jobs in mental hospitals in Haywards Heath and Bristol and we lived in. I remember being slightly embarrassed at school about giving my address.

Our main contacts were with the refugee community and medical people. At that time, psychiatry was very much a dead-end profession.

My parents were unworldly about money and making contacts for advancement - something I both admire and regret.

My father never got a merit award, though scientifically I think his work deserved it.He was fortunate to have a medical degree, though the medical establishment was pretty niggardly in its recognition of foreign qualifications for a long time and he had to study for the UK exams at night.

I have always felt fully integrated and never discriminated against.Yet I think I have maintained a slightly outsider view. I like to challenge the conventional wisdom and my attitude to research is about 'showing the buggers'.

I think the immigrant has two options - total assimilation like Leslie Howard, another Czech, or a slight detachment. But self-examination was not encouraged in my family.

My mother lost her parents and both her sisters in concentration camps and my parents did not talk about the past, or go back to Prague.

When I finally did go, I felt like a tourist because I had lost all my Czech.

'Yohannes Fassil, aged 46, who is Eritrean, trained as a pharmacist.He sought asylum in the UK in 1982 when he was doing a postgraduate course at Reading University.He started a UK charity to support Eritrean refugees in the Sudan, worked as a policy adviser for the Refugee Council and joined the NHS in 1991.He is now head of diversity and community development strategy at Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster health authority.

'I thought Britain would provide a safe haven - and it has. But as a refugee you always think you will go home one day and that makes for a sort of temporariness. Now I call myself an exile. I have never had employment problems, but you do face racism every day in various ways, and my work is about challenging that.

Kensington Chelsea and Westminster HA has started a scheme to enable four refugee doctors to become GPs, and I think generally the NHS needs to do more to make use of the skills of refugees.

'Jack Shieh OBE, aged 50, is manager of Vietnamese mental health services, London.He was stranded in Taiwan on business when Saigon fell to the communists in April 1975.He lost his export business and did not see his wife and parents, who were trapped in Saigon, for a further five years.He worked in Japan and Taiwan, latterly for a US company, but the authorities turned down four applications for his family to join him. In 1978, his wife and parents-in-law escaped from Vietnam in a small boat.They were picked up by a British cargo ship. It docked at Taiwan, but he was not allowed on the boat and his family were not permitted to land.They were accepted by the UK and he joined them in August 1980.

I spoke good English but knew little about England apart from fog and Big Ben. I went to Peterborough, where my family had been resettled, and applied for my parents to come from Vietnam. I was told I had to own a house and have a good job. I was offered a job for£120 a week in a Chinese supermarket in Birmingham. But someone suggested I would be in a better position to get my parents in if I worked for a refugee agency, so I accepted a job with the British Council for Aid to Refugees, though it paid less.

I worked at a reception centre near Portsmouth, and my wife stayed in Peterborough. I spent my first English Christmas there with 800 Vietnamese people.

My parents came to England in June 1981. I hadn't seen them for six years, but the nightmare was over.

After six months' social work training, I returned to Peterborough as a resettlement worker for BCAR covering East Anglia. I tried to get back into business, but nowhere would have me, so I decided that the voluntary sector would be my career.

The hardest part of being a refugee is adjusting to a new life in a different environment.When I first came, I couldn't get over how everything shut at five.

Communication difficulties can cause problems.

In Vietnam, the eldest in the family has the power, but here that often shifts to the children because they have the best English.

'Professor Peter Lachmann, aged 69, is head of microbial immunology group, centre for veterinary science, Cambridge University.He fled Berlin with his parents and sister in December 1938 after his father had been in a German concentration camp.They flew into Croydon before his seventh birthday.

We came with no money.My father, a lawyer, worked as an articled clerk while he retrained and my mother did several jobs.My father was interned on the Isle of Man for a few months. I had no doubt about why we were leaving Germany and do not remember any difficulties about integrating here.

But the Nazi experience has been seminal to my thinking and attitude to world affairs.Our standard of living was different, but my father believed economic success should not be the primary focus of one's life. That is something I have inherited.

I decided to be a doctor quite early on. I think it is important not to be seduced by ambition into being quiet or uncritical. There was a lack of civil courage in Germany before the war, and the people in universities who should have been influential and spoken out did not do so because they were worried about promotions and civil honours. So they failed their country and their consciences.