Everyone deserves freedom and safety

Holly Branson smiling with Nawal and Mariam on World Refugee Day
Kami White
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 5 July 2023

At our Virgin office in London, we recently spoke with two incredibly inspiring refugees. Hearing Mariam Tahir and Nawal Mohamed’s stories reinforced my certainty that refugees contribute so much to society, and everybody deserves freedom and safety. 

Holly Branson chats to two refugees: Mariam and Nawal

Mariam is an entrepreneur, a mother of three, and a student studying for a master’s degree in Biology.  Mariam is from Chad, and came to the UK via Saudi Arabia while pregnant with her youngest child. I can’t imagine how difficult this must have been, and when I mentioned that to Mariam, she smiled graciously, but admitted:

There are a lot of challenges. The biggest one could be the social isolation. Being isolated when you don’t know the language, you don’t have a social network; and barriers like not being able to work or get childcare are all big challenges when you come to the UK.

Two years later, Mariam received refugee status. However, during this two-year process, Mariam (like so many other asylum seekers) was in limbo. She wasn’t allowed to work or study, but had to find ways to support her three children. When she was finally granted asylum, the next challenge was childcare. Instead of losing hope, Mariam decided to open a community café called Coffee with Kids, which became a place where refugees (or anyone) could work, join workshops, receive childcare, and make friends. Just incredible.

To bring her business to life, Mariam received support from TERN -The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network, which is a wonderful social enterprise that enable refugees to thrive through the power of their own ideas. We’ve been proud to work with TERN for a number of years at Virgin, and it’s always incredible to hear the stories of refugees pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams and paving their own paths. As an OECD report found, refugees bring diverse perspectives and experiences - which helps to spark new ideas and technologies. It’s also important to remember that refugees and migrants tend to be net contributors to the economy, and provide debt dividends. From ‘technologically illiterate’ to being a ‘burden’, here’s five busted myths about the impact of refugees on economies. 

Holly Branson chatting to Nawal and Mariam on World Refugee Day
Kami White

Nawal also joined us in the office, and shared her experiences as a refugee from Somalia, who had found refuge in Syria before the civil war broke out. When the situation in Syria worsened, Nawal was fortunate to find asylum in the UK. Just 19 years old, she is now studying and hopes to work for an international organisation working in conflict zones, with the help of Breaking Barriers – a brilliant organisation that helps refugees find meaningful employment. In Nawal’s own words: “I want to complete my education and to give back to the community I left behind. I want to go back and help any country facing war, unfairness, and disaster.” 

Breaking Barriers film

There are so many headlines and statistics about refugees and asylum seekers, but Nawal and Mariam remind us that behind every figure there is a real person with their own life, their own story, and their own very real reasons for fleeing the place they call home. As the poet Warsan Shire said: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark… No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” 

Warsan Shire poem

During our conversation, I asked Nawal and Mariam what they wish people knew about refugees, and what we can do to help. Nawal eloquently replied: “Refugees are normal people who have faced unimaginable challenges, and they just need a second chance to rebuild their lives.” She added:

We need to treat refugees fairly, like a person. With dignity, like a friend.

“A lot of people think refugees choose to come here to the UK, but they had to flee their country. They have very good education, and experiences, and things to give to the UK,” said Mariam. She also made a powerful point about misleading language, the media, and politics of fear when she said: “Governments don’t talk about the reasons people are fleeing their countries, they just talk about the issue. They don’t mention the contributions refugees make to society. There is a need to raise awareness, open up opportunities, and keep sharing human stories.”

Holly Branson and Mariam Tahir - a refugee entrepreneur
Kami White

Thank you so much Mariam and Nawal for sharing your stories with us and reminding us of the need to stretch out our hands to refugees and rise above the rhetoric. If you want to learn more and refugees and asylums seekers, Dad has shared an insightful blog. If you want to help, check out Mariam’s brilliant business, Coffee with Kids, and the brilliant organisations below: