Living as a Refugee in Cornwall

Written by Annissa Warsame |

Illustration by Abbie Milnes

“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.”

Home by Warsan Shire (British-Somali Poet)

For a refugee, settling in the UK is far from the end of their long and perilous journey. Once settled, with one journey over, another begins. This journey of starting a life anew is, for many refugees, a far more difficult endeavour. Settling and starting again from scratch in a foreign country and learning a new language is all but a few reasons of why the life of a refugee can be so difficult.

Constantly feeling like a fish out of water, many try to seek comfort by moving to some of Britain’s more culturally diverse cities. But if you are resettled in a rural region like Cornwall – whilst you may be fortunate to reside in quaint and idyllic coastal towns – you also are more likely to be confronted with varying degrees of ignorance, due to a lack of diversity. According to a report commissioned by the government, there are more hate crimes recorded per head in Cornwall than in urban areas.

As such, I set out to see how life in Cornwall is like for refugees. And I had yet to realise I was about to embark on a sobering journey of my own.

I found there exists a Cornwall Faith Forum which seeks to support refugees through the issues they may face, as they resettle in Cornwall. They aim to “provide the day-to-day resources needed by refugees already resettled, from conversations to ironing boards.”

I arrive in Truro, greeted with a day overcast with clouds, to meet Rita Stephen, an Interfaith Development Worker, working with the Syrian refugee families that have been resettled in Cornwall.

The venue of the coffee morning

Stephen’s organisation- Cornwall Faith Forum- hosts weekly coffee mornings, to provide a safe, familiar, and comforting social space, for the refugee families who are settled around the whole of Cornwall.  The hall of a local church, an interesting choice of venue as the families are all Muslim, is decorated with religious iconography like ceramic ornaments of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus Christ.

Stephen comes bearing gifts and sprawls them across the kitchen counter. Her assortment of treats is very particular, specifically full-fat milk similar to the milk the ladies used to drink in Syria, cherry cake, chocolate digestives, Waitrose Essential tea bags, Kenco instant coffee and a variety of fruits to offset the sweet treats.

At first, I’m apprehensive, I wander around the hall deliberating on how best to approach the families, anxious not to ask anything that might retraumatise them. I kept thinking about what I had read in the news, the day before, on how the UN (rightfully) barred journalists from interviewing Rohingyan refugees, due to journalists yelling in camps “Has anybody in here been raped?” This callous and invasive questioning that was retraumatising refugees, led me to question my own ethics as a journalist.

From afar, the women strike me as remarkably sharp and articulate, with the little bits of Arabic I comprehend. When they use their limited English, it is pointed and well-considered.

I gather the courage to introduce myself.


The families have hugely diverse backgrounds. One family studied Law at Aleppo University before the war. Another had a husband who was a Chef abroad, in Egypt, whilst they lived in Syria and the family are now trying to set up a restaurant in Cornwall.

The woman who makes the biggest impression on me is Rufayda*, who at 20 years old is just a year older than me.

Rufayda arrived in Cornwall, March 2016.  She studies English three days a week, volunteers part-time, all whilst taking care of her family of three. And every day she drives herself to learn twenty new words. For Rufayda, education is twinned with any notion of success.

Back in her hometown Hama, a city just north of Damascus, she had her first child at 16. But her education was so crucial to her family that her mother would take care of her children so that she could attended school. The war put a stop to her education when she was forced to flee.

Rufayda tells me how Hama was largely a quiet suburban area, and how that has helped her adjust to life in Cornwall. She dislikes the cities because of how “busy and chaotic” they are. She longs for the quiet and measured pace of a town.

She hopes someday to go university – an opportunity which was robbed from her in Syria because of the conflict.

As the day progresses, I get stuck in, and I start to feel a part of this community created by Stephen and her colleagues. It is St. Piran’s day, and Lucy, a day-volunteer, is stuck with trying to get her MacBook to work. She asks me if I can to pull up a few videos and images of this regional holiday.

The women and children – the husbands absent, apart from one, due to their full-time work – ooh and aah at the material presented before them. Curious of this foreign culture and tradition one woman, Safiya*, remarks in her broken English, “Parade here… today?” And is overjoyed to find out that she can see the parade in 50 minutes from the high street.

Aside from the history lesson, Jenny – another day-volunteer – talks practicalities with one of the women: how are they finding getting to the doctor’s and can they make the appointments okay?

This work is crucial, Stephen tells me, because “as soon as you are confident enough to go to the doctor, you find yourself less vulnerable.” Now, a few women tell me, they can go by themselves to the GP or make doctor’s appointment or have mastered a task we take for granted, such as using public transport.

Illustration by Abbie Milnes

Later, I learn that some of the children are facing racial abuse in their schools. I cannot go into any detail as these are still ongoing incidents. But Stephen tells me that cultural ignorance is a problem because here in Cornwall, “what they [the community] learn about other cultures is from the TV.

“People can’t learn from their friends, because of how little diversity there is.” Stephen says diversity is “the best way to learn.”

Hence why these events hosted for the refugees are so necessary. All the families have generally been resettled in different towns, far from each other. There is little support network for them. When they arrive, the families are confronted with a completely different landscape and they are painfully conscious of their refugee status.


One woman, Sumaya* has chosen to stop attending her English language lessons, preferring instead to focus on her role as a housewife and mother. But her story strikes a chord with me. Often back home in Birmingham, many female refugees who abstain from taking their English lessons do so with a few underlying reasons.

Namely, the trauma of the fleeing one’s home due to civil war meant that their language and culture was the only thing they could cling onto. When you can’t take your home with you, language is something you can carry across borders. For many, settling in Britain is temporary, so they do not feel they need to learn the language.


One volunteer tells me of her motivations for volunteering: “to give back and do something useful.” But, later in conversation she also mentions that she is writing a research proposal on the benefits of play therapy for refugee children.

It dawns on me, that between the volunteer and myself, we are all trying to do some good. But neither of us are selfless. For instance, I am there in the capacity of a reporter to pen their stories for a piece I’ll soon publish online. I probably would not have come to Truro, had I not this piece to write.

And in the composition of this piece, I realise just what refugees have to deal with on a daily basis. Their identity as a refugee comes before their identity as a person. And, with this may come discrimination or an infantilisation of their character. People may flock to help or ridicule their plight. Either way, it is a world away from their past lives in Syria.


Towards the end of the Coffee Morning, I join Stephen on her outing to West Cornwall, dropping off Aaliyah* and her child four-year old Jasmine*.  Aaliyah loves Poundland, the “pound-shop” she calls it, and is keen to drop by there and pick up some milk to make cheese, and yoghurt to make Labneh, a middle-eastern soft cream cheese.

In the car, Aaliyah and I joke about the more practical struggles of living as a Muslim in Cornwall. We discuss the lack of halal meat, which has forced many (me) into pescatarianism. I learn that the families take turns to travel to Plymouth fortnightly for a huge Levantine food haul, for items such as Za’atar, Lebanese bread, and halal meat.

Apple crumble or fish pie doesn’t seem to cut it for them as they long for their Levantine favourites such as Labneh and Fattoush. “I love Fattoush”, Aaliyah exclaims, “For Iftaar** in Syria, we used to eat it every day.”

This is the sort of routine Aaliyah and the other families have become accustomed to. They navigate Cornish life, one day at a time.

And for now, as the clouds turn to rain, this cursory glance into their lives is suspended. We came together for this moment, over coffee and cake, and promise to meet another day.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed

**Iftaar, the evening meal that breaks one’s fast during the holy month of Ramadan