September 8, 2015 / 9:36 AM / 4 years ago

From Kurdistan to Wakefield - and home sweet home

WAKEFIELD, England (Reuters) - The gray streets of rainy Wakefield in northern England are not considered a paradise by many, but for one adopted son of Yorkshire they represent everything he dreamed about when he was growing up in Iraq.

Kurdish migrant Arkan Esmail poses for a photograph during an interview with Reuters at his home in Wakefield, northern England, September 4, 2015. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Arkan Esmail left Iraqi Kurdistan as a teenager in early 2002, set on making it to Britain. He was drawn by the language, the promise of security and the glory days of David Beckham’s soccer career.

A year later he reached his goal, one of close to 1,000 Iraqi Kurds granted asylum in Britain following the closure that year of the notorious Sangatte refugee camp in Calais, France, where thousands more refugees today live in ramshackle shelters in the hope of following in his footsteps.

“I don’t want to go anywhere, the UK is my home. I’ve got a job and I’m happy where I am,” he said, in a broad Yorkshire accent.

“You are safer here. Nothing can touch you”.

Now 32, he earns 300 pounds ($450) a week as a chef at an Italian restaurant in Wakefield where he has lived since 2004.

He credits his fluent English to working alongside Britons in the packaging factory where he started out and, as every good language student knows, to relationships. He has a five-year-old son, Kaiyan, with a British ex-girlfriend.

“I don’t feel like I’m a refugee now,” he said. “I’ve been here for a long time.”

He has watched Wakefield change from an “all English” town to a place where the streets echo with a myriad of foreign languages, but he is nervous about the surge of Britain’s anti-immigrant UK Independence Party.

“I’m just like you,” he said. “It’s not about I’m living here, taking people’s jobs or whatever ... I prefer to work, and pay tax, like everybody else.”

A study by University College London found immigrants in Britain, from within the EU and beyond, made a positive contribution to the public purse, and brought with them qualifications that would have cost nearly 7 billion pounds in education spending in Britain.

Aging European countries lack young, hard working people, Esmail said.

“In America, most of the people there are foreigners, and they make the country stronger, and that’s what Great Britain needs,” he added.

A FAMILIAR JOURNEY

Living in the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, Esmail borrowed the equivalent of 4,000 pounds ($6,000) from his father to pay traffickers to ship him across the Mediterranean to Italy.

For six days he sat on an overloaded fishing boat with little food and water trying to catch sight of the shore.

“I was scared to be honest, because I was young and you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Sometimes the sea can be crazy.”

Once on land, he hitched rides up to Calais where he sought asylum in Britain at the Red Cross run Sangatte camp, “a bloody prison” where people squabbled over filthy showers and beds.

After a month trying to sneak on to Britain-bound trucks and trains, he was granted a 4-year British work visa, which later became permanent, and he moved to Middlesbrough where he was given accommodation and enrolled in a college to learn English.

He is unsurprised that people continue to see the worth in putting their lives in the trust of the traffickers to flee from the Middle East, particularly from Syria, which has disgorged over 4 million refugees since 2012, according to the United Nations.

“European countries should help these people out, these people don’t want to die, they don’t want to come here for work, they want to come here because it’s safe ... It’s a risk but people have no choice,” he said.

Britain granted 11,600 people asylum in the year ending June 2015, but faced with what the United Nations calls the worst refugee crisis since World War Two, Prime Minister David Cameron is under pressure to accept more. Britain would resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, Cameron announced on Monday.

Esmail has not seen the rest of his family since he left, but he does not want them to try to follow him westwards, believing that the Mediterranean now poses too great a risk.

Over 2,300 migrants have died so far this year trying to reach Europe by boat, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Most of the people he met in Sangatte have stayed in Britain to work and raise families, but a few had sought out what they felt were greener pastures such as Sweden, which takes in more refugees per capita than any other nation in Europe and where his sister has also received asylum.

Slideshow (3 Images)

After years of failing the citizenship test due to “stupid history questions”, Esmail hopes to receive his British passport this year, allowing him to go abroad for the first time since he arrived.

However a return to Iraq, and to his family is not on the cards.

“I just want to settle down here and have a nice life. English people always say the weather’s no good, rain every day, but for me it’s great.”

Reporting by Angus Berwick; Editing by Giles Elgood

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