Every 60 seconds, 20 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror. Whether refugees or asylum seekers, each and every one of these brave people are simply seeking safety and security.

The narrative often delivered by the mainstream media around refugees, strips them of their previous successes and their ambitions for the future. Portraying them as helpless; whilst, conversely, depicting the country that offers them a home as a charitable saviour.

In this short blog, Arete journalist and celebrated correspondent Jonathan Clayton shares a selection of his experiences gained from documenting refugee stories for over 30 years. Stories of the amazing people he has met and how, contrary to popular depiction, refugees very often enrich and add value to the countries and cultures they become a part of.

Jonathan Clayton
Jonathan Clayton is the former East Africa Bureau Chief of Reuters news agency and from 2002–14 was The Times Africa correspondent. He also covered the first-ever refugee Olympic team at the 2016 Rio games for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

“I first met *Halima in the early 1990s in the Juba Valley, Somalia — one of the many casualties of the brutal inter-clan warfare which was then tearing the country apart.

A few years later, I met her again in a refugee camp in Kenya. She was still not 30, but in her short life had suffered more pain and hardship than most people can ever possibly imagine.

Dreadful things had happened to her. However, she never lost hope. She was always cheerful and bubbling with energy.

A mother walks with her children through a dust storm to their newly erected tent in the new arrivals area of Dagehaley camp, one of three camps that make up the Dadaab refugee camp in Dadaab, northeastern Kenya. Photo: Kate Holt/ Arete.

Over a sweet tea, we quickly caught up. Again she surprised me. She excitedly told me she was off to Dallas, Texas, in a few months along with her four children. She had never slept on a bed, never used a flush toilet, nor a fridge, nor a washing machine. Pointing at the sky, she told me her greatest fear was flying. Instead, it turned out to be the airport elevator.

A year later, we met in Dallas — a surreal experience. She was working full-time as a cleaner at Wallmart and living in a very decent, if small, apartment — two bedrooms shared by the kids, her and her husband on a pull-out sofa bed. Juggling mobile phone calls from family and friends, she was the very image of a busy suburban American Mom.

The kids loved school. Her boys had excelled at basketball. Her daughter devoured her studies. All spoke near-perfect English already. Halima worked hard as ever. Life was not easy, but people were friendly — most of the time. But she was happy.

Crucially, she told me that for the first time in her life she felt SAFE. She had also discovered “law” and was becoming a powerful advocate of women’s rights. “You know here, you cannot hit a woman!”, she told me. “NO, NO, NO.” It was an amazing transformation from the terrified, beaten and battered, young woman I had first met in the badlands of the lower Shebelle river.

Halima’s embrace of her new life — so wildly different to anything she could have ever dreamed about — challenged my own view of refugees. Like many others, until then, I thought they needed near-constant help and support. In fact, the vast majority only need, and want, an opportunity free from persecution, violence and conflict.

Somali refugees returning from Dadaab in Kenya, at a transit camp. The WFP is providing provision of unconditional food assistance to help those suffering from severe drought. Photo: Karel Prinsloo/ WFP/ Arete.

In more than 30 years of reporting for Reuters and The Times, much of it in Africa and the Balkans, I went on to meet and befriend many other refugees. Most shared one characteristic — determination. If ever they would be given a second chance, they would grasp it and make the most of it.

One of the greatest misconceptions of refugees is that they are a burden on society. The reality is mostly the complete opposite. Overwhelmingly, they enrich and better the societies which adopt them. Be it Albert Einstein or Steve Job’s father, a migrant from Syria, the roll call of history is undeniable. Can anyone imagine today without Apple, let alone the theory of relativity?

Kakule, a refugee from Beni in the DR Congo, accepts payment from a customer in his small shop which is next to his garden, where he grows food for his family in Nakivale Refugee Camp, Uganda. Nakivale is home to over 120,000 refugees from Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo Burundi and Somalia. Photo: Kate Holt/ Opportunity International UK/ Arete.

More recently, I think of Yazidi women now running Middle East food deliveries in Antwerp, a tailor from Damascus stitching sails for wealthy yacht owners in Kiel, Germany, a Syrian architect now running a fashion business in Milan. Then there is Nakout, a Ugandan abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. She escaped after 14 years as a slave. She now lives in Finland, where she teaches English to other African refugees.

These are the faces behind the statistics. Their stories are powerful, their contributions to society immense. Unfortunately, the true picture is often obscured by right-wing and xenophobic narratives rooted in unfounded fear and propagated by fake news.

ARETE’s reporting of these issues offers a chance to redress that balance. Today, when figures show global displacement increasing for the 9th year in a row, this is more necessary than ever before.”

*Name changed for protection purposes