“It was 34 degrees when I had left East Africa but when I landed here, it was minus 6I was freezing and wore as many layers as I could. 

Photo: © Teem


“It was 34 degrees when I had left East Africa but when I landed here, it was minus 6I was freezing and wore as many layers as I could. 

Photo: © Teem

Teem, an operations manager, shares his journey from East Africa to the UK, finding a new home while keeping his traditions alive.

I’m Teem. I have been in the UK for 21 years now.

There weren’t many difficulties when I first arrived here as a student. All of that was to change in the coming years, when I had to claim asylum in the UK.

I decided to come to England to study after I finished college, but my mum didn’t want it to happen. She said, “We need to wait for your brother and sister to be married; we don’t want you to go abroad.”

Within a few years, my siblings got married. I vividly remember, it was a warm day, and I was having my morning tea while my mum washed the dishes. I asked her, “Mum, do you think I should go?” I had already started the process a few months earlier, and everything was finalised.

She said, “You’ve waited for so many years and worked hard to save money to study in the UK. If you think you can do it, you should do it.”

My friend connected me with a travel agency to secure a ticket. Later that day, they called with a seat available on a flight that evening. With only a few hours to pack, everything happened at a whirlwind pace.

I flew that evening to a country where I knew no one.

“I was 20 and I left my country the same day the decision was made over a cup of tea. “

It was 34 degrees when I had left East Africa but when I landed here, it was minus 6.  I was freezing and wore as many layers as I could.

As I was self-sponsored, I had to work hard to survive. I had three jobs while I was studying.

A few years later, while working at a supermarket, I was offered a scholarship for a degree in retail management. However, as an international student, I had to pay international fees if I wanted to attend. I ended up dropping out of university and started working full-time.

By then, I didn’t want to go back to my country. One point I rarely cover is my sexuality; being gay is frowned upon there. I always knew I was different. I was bullied at school, by my family and by my cousins.

I visited my home country a couple of times, and on one visit, I was pressured into getting engaged to a girl. I returned to the UK two weeks later and broke off the engagement. Since then, I was unable to go back for 17 years.

I ended up overstaying my visa because I was very stressed and depressed about my life. I hired a lawyer to resolve my residency status. The lawyer suggested making a private life claim in the UK, so we proceeded with the application. Then, one morning, on April 24th, what I now call “Doomsday,” I was abruptly awoken by a police raid.

They arrested me, claiming my visa had been refused and I should have left the country, although I never received any notification. I was in a fragile state, battling severe depression.

I spent 42 days in B grade detention, with a deportation order and a set flight date. Every penny I saved went towards bail and legal fees, but bail was denied.

During my time in detention, I actively engaged in various activities, including painting and attending English classes. It was during this period that I crossed paths with Ahmed, an 18-year-old Afghan who recently arrived from France and spoke no English. We shared a cell and during the 12-hour lockdown at night, I would teach him English. This gave me a sense of purpose. I was eventually released, and though Ahmed was sent back, we stayed in touch. I then started teaching English to others in detention. 

I was then transferred to another detention center, where my mental state was eventually certified after two suicide attempts and consultations with a doctor. After enduring 42 days of lockdown for 12 hours a day, I was finally released and asked by the Home Office to claim asylum in the UK, which I did.

I exhausted my credit cards, anticipating a decision within six months. However, six months passed with no progress. I waited nearly two years. I had no money left. I was homeless, relying on the generosity of friends to couch surf. Eventually, I was kicked out on the street after opening up to them about my sexuality. 

I called the Home Office, depressed and in tears. The UK was my home, I had lived here for 15 years, I worked, paid all my taxes like every other citizen, and applied for an indefinite leave to remain. That’s when I was informed about my entitlement to accommodation.

After my call the next day I was picked up by Migrant Help and was taken to temporary accommodation.

Arriving there was shocking.

Sharing a room with four people in two bunk beds was overwhelming. Dealing with my own anxiety and depression, rooming with someone in a similar state only intensified the challenge.

I moved to an accommodation with 140 refugees and asylum-seekers, including kids and older people. I gathered them around a table to teach them words in English, took them to Dulwich Library to register and helped with their forms.

I started volunteering at various charities supporting refugees with learning new skills. Later, I had support from all the incredible people I had worked with who helped me to get my visa case appealed. We won that appeal.

“Despite the challenges, the UK has given me hope and shaped who I am today.”

Something that’s important to me is keeping my traditions and sharing my culture with friends. I maintain my home identity by celebrating home holidays, even taking time off work. I’m a good cook, so whenever I host, I serve food from my home country, especially biryani. I often cook for up to 15 people, not just two or three. This is how I share my culture and keep my traditions alive.

Tea has always been a significant part of my culture. I love tea. At home, we always had tea in the morning, after school with snacks, and sometimes before bed.  In my country, we use vanilla tea and don’t use tea bags. My mum would add cardamom to make it extra special.

Since being here, I’ve learned a lot about tea. In the UK, I discovered there are many types beyond what my mum made. Now, I enjoy hibiscus and berry, chamomile with extra honey, turmeric with ginger and lemon, and even peppermint. Each tea has its moment.

“The culture of tea is important – a cup of tea is like a cup of hope. It’s soothing and accessible regardless of your budget. “

A cup of tea and conversation are priceless, it makes you feel safe and allows you or others to open up, feel integrated and it’s a way that offers comfort.

Finally, I’d like to say that wishes can come true, but only with hard work, dedication, patience and a lot of hope.

To learn more about our Cuppa Hope Tea & Talks and to hear Teem’s story in-person, please visit Cuppa Hope website

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