Refugee Week 5: My story – from Sierra Leone to London – building a new life through resilience and strength

By Francis Haffner

WhatsApp Image 2018-06-21 at 17.36.15As a child, I was forced to leave my homeland due to conflict and build a new life in the UK. I have come through many struggles. Today I thank God for his blessings. Here’s a little of my story.

I grew up in Sierra Leone in West Africa with my mum and dad and the rest of my family. We lived a normal life, but when the civil war started in 1991 life became impossible. Rebel soldiers went door to door asking occupants whether they supported them. Thousands of people were being killed, and I saw things no child should ever witness. Friends of mine were victims, and some children were forced to become soldiers. By God’s grace, my family were spared death when we fled for our lives to the Gambia. At the age of 8, I became a refugee.

I lived there for a couple of years before my father arranged for me to come and stay with a family member in the UK. I can remember arriving in Britain. I hadn’t been to school for two years, and suddenly I was going to school in a new country, traumatised by my experiences, no knowledge of the place I was in and without knowing anyone except my grandmother with whom I lived. I would wake up shaking with nightmares, and I would jump at the sound of a door slamming or any loud noise. It was a challenging time.

As I matured, I was determined to find answers on how to build my life in this new country. I was aware of other family members in the UK, but each of us was trying to work through our issues. I knew this was something I was going to have to deal with by myself and with determination. While not everyone was welcoming to me, I soon discovered a few places where there was support. I went along to local youth clubs and received some 1-1 mentor support. I had to resist the temptation to get into trouble, there were gangs in my neighbourhood, but instead, I took advantage of all that was on offer – I loved singing and music and slowly but surely I learnt to live in this new world and society. I discovered kind people there to guide me. They gave me direction, and I made friends and worked for my GCSEs. I became an ambassador for The Prince’s Trust and would tell my story to encourage others who were going through similar experiences.

For years I felt like a stranger. Even after going through school, starting work at 16, paying my taxes, being a youth speaker, I didn’t have leave to remain in the UK. Every couple of years I’d have to make a new application to The Home Office costing hundreds of pounds and each time they’d only give me a temporary stay. It made the future so uncertain, as I could be asked to leave at any time, and I felt like an outsider. The state made me think I didn’t belong. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I finally got leave to remain. By that time I felt my contribution to this country was substantial – I’d worked hard, and like many new people into the country, I had done jobs that most British people didn’t want to do.

For a while, when I was 21, I became homeless and a young father. It made life difficult, and I struggled with everything. But things changed for me when I met Ana, who is now my wife. She became my best friend and introduced me to her church – The Salvation Army in Ilford. I had been very angry with God because my dad died before I got a chance to show him all that I had achieved. It made me resentful. But at church, God gave me new purpose and direction. They welcomed me with open arms and helped me to turn my life around. I built new friendships. It was as though I had found the missing piece. I handed everything over to God and turned over a new leaf. I now run my own chauffeuring business and am involved in church activities – I help out at the winter night shelter and do the sound engineering for the services as well as lead worship sometimes. I’ve learnt how it important it is not just to keep the blessings God gives you, but to give them back to God and to share them with others.

When I think about my own story of coming as a refugee to the UK, I realise how difficult it can be for others. Some of the politics today has made Britain a less welcoming place. For those with no support, English language or education, things seem to be even more difficult than it was for me. But refugees bring so much to this nation. They bring resilience and strength that people who haven’t experienced what they have can’t offer. God has taught me what it means to give and share myself and my resources – and that I think is a challenge for every single one of us.

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.’ Malachi 3:10

Francis Haffner lives in Greenwich with his wife Ana and their children. He is an adherent at Ilford Salvation Army Corps.