The long road from persecution: a refugee family’s story

Nursing a cup of tea with an umbrella by his side, Musa Koko may not yet feel acclimatised to the British weather but he has certainly found a home in Oundle where he and his family have found refuge.

After having been displaced from his home in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, expelled from Khartoum and victimised in Egypt, it has been a long journey to safety for Mr Koko and for his family. He is acutely aware about managing expectations about new places and is simply thankful that his prayers for security have finally been answered.

koko family

From the 1980s to 2005, the Nuba people were subject to the Khartoum government’s scorched earth policy during the Second North-South Sudanese War. When a jihad was declared in 1992 northern Arab forces decimated the population. Africa Watch likened the treatment of the Nuba people to genocide or ethnic cleansing.

Although ceasefires have been called and renewed since 2005, conflict still continues and more than three million people have been killed.

Journalists who have recently visited the area illegally (due to the government’s refusal to allow any humanitarian aid) have also reported that Russia’s involvement in the area with the use of Antonov bombers has resulted in vast numbers of casualties.

When Mr Koko fled the conflict to live in Khartoum, he said he was among those subjected to intense persecution.

As both a Christian and a black African, citizens like Mr Koko are viewed by the Khartoum government as lower forms of human life, worthy only of being “abid”: an Arabic word that is translated literally as slave but has come to be used as a more racially charged insult.

The brutality of the government forced Mr Koko to flee to Cairo in 1999. However, Egypt was to be neither accepting nor stable. Victimisation of refugees is institutionalised in Egypt, where discriminatory legislation both heavily restricts the legal influx of migrants into the country and legal employment is almost impossible to obtain.

Sudanese refugees have no right to own property and are not allowed to live in the camps. Forced to rent on the commercial market at inflated rents, they must illegally seek low wage work with no employment protections.

The history of violence against the refugees in Egypt instils a climate of fear. In 2005, Mr Koko joined 2000 other Sudanese refugees at the Mustafa Mahmoud square near the UNHCR offices to protest about conditions in Egypt and ask for resettlement, when Egyptian security forces opened fire. Official figures recorded 25 deaths.

Previously Human Rights Watch had reported disappearances and killings as part of an Egyptian police round-up known in a police document as “Operation Track Down Blacks”.

Mr Koko set up a bible school for displaced Sudanese children who were resorting to theft, and had around 150 children under his care.

He said he had been trying to teach them “right from wrong” through Christian teachings, but faced efforts from the Egyptian government to stop.

With numerous church bombings during the Easter period last year, Egypt has been named on Open Doors’ list as a dangerous country in which to be a practicing Christian: 128 Christians were killed in 2017.

It was because of these risks that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determined the Koko family were eligible for resettlement to the UK in 2016.

In 2015 the UK government announced that it would accept 20,000 refugees processed by the United Nations through the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme.

In 2017, the Home Secretary announced that the government would expand the programme to include other nationalities within the quota to address the global migration crisis.

By 2017, 235 local authorities across the UK had offered to provide places under the government’s refugee resettlement programmes.

Although the local council has not been involved, beginning in September 2016 the Oundle community mobilised to discuss ways to participate in the scheme and provide a home to resettle a refugee family.

The church-based Peterborough charity Hope into Action helped to find a house by identifying an investor who would lease it to the charity for at least five years.

Teams of volunteers in Oundle then went into action to get it ready. Wish lists were drawn up and residents and businesses have donated items to furnish the house.

Mr Koko, his wife Nagat and their three children arrived in Oundle in 2017. He has a daughter from a previous marriage who is also seeking resettlement.

They are grateful to the British Red Cross, which liaised with the UNHCR about their resettlement, and “greeted them like superstars” when they got off the plane from Egypt.

For Mr and Mrs Koko, language skills remain the biggest challenge to integration into UK life. They have been attending a language course at City College, Peterborough, and also receive weekly tuition from local volunteers.

The children attend local schools, have made friends and are joining in with new activities, including swimming and cricket.

While the use of an Arabic translator was necessary to conduct the interview, it was not difficult to interpret the Koko’s anger about the plight of the Sudanese, and the gratitude for the welcome they have received from the St Peter’s Church community.

Mr Koko said he hopes to be able to learn English quickly in order to give back to the community that has embraced him and his family.

Isabella Nieto
May 2018