Nadine Tunasi has survived civil war, years as an asylum seeker, and studying for a law degree on just £10 a week. But she can’t get a job. Will a new housing project offer her the future she dreams of? Caroline Thorpe finds out.
Nadine Tunasi’s corkscrew curls are aquiver with disbelief. ‘He wees on the lady’s front door. He goes to wee on her front door! It’s nasty, isn’t it?’ she exclaims, head bobbing incredulously.
It’s the end of the ebullient Ms Tunasi’s first week in the legal department at Phoenix Community Housing. The past few days have provided a rude introduction to the housing association’s anti-social behaviour caseload. Even so, it’s a job that she is pleased to have: it was a chance email that began Ms Tunasi’s journey to the south London association and to today’s interview in its board room, stuffy with late summer air.
The message arrived when the Congolese refugee was in the midst of a fruitless job search, more than a year after graduating with a degree in law. ‘It was very hard. There’s not much confidence really because you don’t speak English as your first language,’ she recalls. ‘And then every time I applied for a job I was told I didn’t have much experience.’
The email from a friend mentioned a new scheme aimed at cutting the time it takes refugees, experiencing the same problems as Ms Tunasi, to find work. Run by charity Hact, the Reach In project offers refugees volunteering opportunities with housing associations, designed to boost their confidence and skills. At the same time it should increase housing providers’ recognition of the benefits of employing refugees. As Hact’s project director Sarfraz Hussain explains: ‘People have got skills, they just need an opportunity to put them into practice in a real environment.’
The scheme appealed to Ms Tunasi. She applied successfully for one of 30 places and joined Phoenix’s human resources department as an administrative assistant in April this year, ahead of her recent move to the legal team. Reach In participants also study towards a Chartered Institute of Housing qualification.
The programme is backed by £100,000 from the European Union’s European Refugee Fund, with more to come, plus £2,500 per placement from the 15 associations hosting volunteers. Besides Phoenix, these range from large associations like Great Places to smaller landlords such as St Vincent’s Housing Association in Manchester.
For Ms Tunasi, Reach In has broken her run of failed applications. And, she hopes, it is laying foundations for the fulfilment of the ambitious 31-year-old’s dreams to be a housing lawyer. ‘I think this is going to be really good because it means I have something to put on my CV,’ she says. ‘I have to do well in this country because this is where I am now.’
It’s how she came to be here that makes Ms Tunasi’s aspirations all the more extraordinary. She arrived in London almost nine years ago, driven from east Congo by civil war: a Congolese soldier shot and killed her father, a Tutsi, watched by Ms Tunasi and her family.
‘We try to forget,’ she says, simply, eyes suddenly pink. ‘It was very difficult. But that’s the system isn’t it? The system where there is no justice. In fact, the first reason to do law is the hunger for justice. You wonder why such things happen in some countries and nobody says anything.’
Her mother took her son and three daughters into hiding. In December 2000, a then 22-year-old Ms Tunasi escaped to London, seeking asylum.
Learning the hard way
Her ordeal had just begun. What happened next perfectly illustrates the challenging realities that the Reach In programme seeks to address. She was about to embark on a seven-year wait for her asylum application to be processed. ‘I used to live on £10 a week,’ she recalls of her years spent living in Home Office-sponsored hostels around London.
Unable to work while she remained an asylum seeker, Ms Tunasi took a series of short courses before a philanthropic organisation offered to sponsor her through university. London Metropolitan University awarded her law degree in 2007.
Meanwhile, she was having dreams. ‘My first year, the whole year, every time I slept I dreamed about home. I was always in the house having meals, cooking with the family. Every time I woke up I was so upset.’
Despite the remarkable warmth of the lady in front of me, Ms Tunasi says her experiences have dulled a formerly vivacious personality. ‘The whole experience of coming to a new place has changed me. I am not as outgoing a person as I used to be. ’
Now, a tenant of One Housing Group, she waits until her 21-month-old daughter Aaliyah and husband Iba are asleep, and spends the night hours writing stories and poems. She has just returned from the Edinburgh Literary Festival where she and fellow members of Write to Life, a London-based writing group for victims of oppression, had their work read by famous authors. ‘You need to be a bit of a loner to write,’ she reckons, though the person she presents is nothing of the sort.
Either way, she admits that Reach In has helped restore some of her pluck. ‘When I started I was like, oh my God, well it’s true I have a degree, but can I really demonstrate my knowledge?’ Volunteering in Phoenix’s HR department, where she updated personnel files and worked on disciplinary procedures, and now assisting the legal team have answered her question. ‘Knowing you can actually do something and be part of something as well, it’s a nice feeling,’ she says.
The landlords hosting Ms Tunasi and other refugees are equally pleased. Julia Glover, St Vincent’s community projects manager, hosted two Zimbabwean refugees earlier this year, both now keen to pursue housing careers.
She says her own staff have also benefitted: ‘They got to know how [the refugees] had experienced housing services from their end.’ St Vincent’s, which specialises in refugee services, plans to take two more Reach In volunteers when the second intake of the three year programme starts in January.
As for Ms Tunasi, she plans to apply for legal training contracts once her six-month stay at Phoenix ends this autumn. Even if it means more unsavoury acts of anti-social behaviour? She leans back, arms crossed, and laughs. ‘I just want to be rich and in law, you know what I mean?’
For more on Reach In contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Beach Girl by Nadine Tunasi
I am walking by the sea, not knowing where I am going,
even though the place looks very familiar to me.
I don’t know how I got there but I know that I am safe.
Whether I came by plane, car or train, I don’t know. Perhaps someone helped me to get here.
I can see blue sky, clouds and maybe the rain will soon fall.
Watching the sky reminds me that there is someone out here
watching everybody’s movements.
- 67 per cent of refugees were in work before arriving in the UK
- 29 per cent of refugees were in work after arriving in the UK*
- 10 per cent were students
- 42 per cent hold qualifications
- Zimbabweans are more likely to hold qualifications than any other group
- Migrants, including refugees, make up 35 per cent of the working age population in London