‘Thank you Britain. You saved my life.’
In 1989, Akoi Bazzie’s life changed forever when his home country Liberia was engulfed in a bloody civil war. Fifteen years later, Akoi’s life changed again when he became one of the first refugees to be resettled in Britain through the Gateway Protection Programme in 2004. We’re so proud that Akoi now works for the Refugee Council; helping newly arrived resettled refugees rebuild their lives in safety. Here, Akoi shares his incredible story with us.
Life before war
I was born in the late 70s. My mind was innocent. I could play in the field for hours, not having to worry of being attacked or abducted. We spent our days on the farm, at home or in church.
I came from a middle-class family; we could afford all of the basic things we needed to live and have fun. If life could be turned back, I would wish to live with my mum and dad in Liberia again.
When war came
In 1989 one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars broke out in Liberia. Many thousands were killed and a million others were forced to flee.
I was only 14 when the war turned my home into an unbelievable nightmare. Rebels killed my father. I was separated from my family. I spent two years on the run seeking safety in the jungle, scared of being captured by rebels who, if they found me, would turn me into a child soldier.
Life after the war
I wandered on the border between Liberia and Guinea with the echo of gunshots ringing in my head, matching the rhythm of my heart beat for beat. I could never have imagined my childhood would turn into such a battle for survival.
When I tried to cross the boarder to safety, the Guinean soldiers didn’t believe me when I said I was not a rebel. It was accepted that every Liberian boy from the age of 8 was a child soldier.
Life in the camp
Finally, one early morning in 1991, when the watery sun had just begun to tiptoe over the distant horizon, after walking along desolate jungle roads for hours, days, weeks, months, I entered Guinea.
I was very lucky to cross that border, where 30,000 refugees from Liberia, each with stories of hardship and suffering where all seeking to survive.
As an unaccompanied child in one the poorest countries in the world, with no local knowledge or language I was constantly insecure and fearful of cross border rebel attacks.
In the refugee camp school and work were never priorities. It was food, water and shelter that we desperately needed.
Resettlement to UK
I lived in the camp for 12 years before being resettled to the UK in 2004.
I was identified by the United Nations Refugee Agency as being at serious risk. In March 2004, I was one of the first group of Liberian refugees to be resettled in the UK.
I felt both happy and sad. How could I be happy? I was moving on without my parents, worried about my family and homesick. But how could I be sad? I was alive; I was not a child soldier. Coming to the UK would provide protection for me and my children including education, great health care, food, shelter. I could find employment to contribute to the society that welcomed me, and support my family both here and back home in Liberia and Guinea.
I had never been on an airplane before. I was worried about the very cold weather and cultural challenges, but I knew that the main barrier to full integration would be the language. How would I manage to be understood? However, I knew that if I worked as hard in England as I did in Guinea, I would be able to achieve full integration and independence.
Work with the Refugee Council
Arriving in Sheffield in 2004, I was determined to help others like me. With the support of the Refugee Council I was able to gain valuable work experience through volunteering.
In 2005, I landed my first paid job. I have gone from strength to strength and am now working full time for the Refugee Council in a job that I love.
Now my experience has led me to a position where I can give the kind of support I received to refugees in the UK – a perfect illustration of how people given help can contribute in return to the societies that protect them.
The achievements and milestones I have reached in my life would never have been possible without the Gateway Protection Programme. It’s an incredible opportunity for me to be here in the UK. I have travelled a long and sometimes lonely road, working very hard each day towards full integration in UK society. I’ve been working for the last 10 years in the UK and I have travelled across Europe promoting shared responsibility in protecting some of the most vulnerable refugees through Resettlement programmes.
I just want to say thank you to the UK. Your help saved me and gave me a new life.