Redefining refugees and asylum seekers: Leila’s story

Leila Zadeh speaking in Brighton at a demonstration against the Rwanda refugee policy. Photo credit: Mo Kanjilal.

When Leila Zadeh was growing up, she did not realise that she was a refugee. The daughter of political activists from Iran who were forced to flee their country, Leila was only a year old when her family left Iran. It was as an 18-year-old student that she realised she and her family were refugees and that they were once asylum seekers, words which are weaponised in this country and used to demonise people. She was shocked to realise those words applied to her. This realisation helped Leila to figure out her identity, her future and how she wanted to find purpose in her life. 

The journey

Leila’s parents are human rights campaigners who were activists in Iran. Their work meant they had to flee the country when Leila was only a year old. The family travelled a dangerous journey. Her mother took Leila and her sisters out of Iran, hiding the children under sheets. She was terrified that baby Leila might cry or make a noise, so she covered her mouth at checkpoints. They attempted to cross a border after dark into Turkey. It was during this crossing that one of Leila’s sisters was captured by the revolutionary guards, aged 9. It was two years before they saw her again. 

The family did reach the UK and safety here. Eventually her father was granted indefinite leave to remain, but the family would never be able to return to Iran.

As a very young child Leila was largely unaware of the dangers her parents had faced. But a fundraising event aged six, and volunteering at a day centre aged 13, made her want to do something to help people in her life. 

Life choices

At university, Leila got involved in lots of charitable societies. It was when she found a society to help refugees that she got really involved and became its vice-chair.

This was when she came to the stark realisation that she was a refugee herself. That took some reflection and processing. She realised not only was she a refugee, but that her family had been asylum seekers, words which were associated with being ‘bad’ in so much of the mainstream press. 

This really hit her. She knew that her family had not come here to claim benefits. She knew they had fled danger and worked hard to live their lives in the UK. Leila explained: “I’d grown up knowing about the series of events that led them here, but not what that really meant.” Understanding all of this lit in her a spark to fight against the labels that are placed on people to divide them and reduce people to one characteristic. 

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Leila took a break from university and got a job in a local authority working with people seeking asylum. She worked in both public and private sectors, but it was the charity sector that Leila felt was her natural home. She told me: “I felt I could speak in Farsi on the phone and talk about my life in a way I couldn’t comfortably do in other jobs.”  All of this inspired her to want to work on things that would mean people do not have to flee their homes in the first place. 

After returning to university and obtaining a first-class degree, Leila then began to work overseas: Latin America, Chile, Peru and Uganda. These experiences showed her that the best people to develop solutions to local challenges are local people, in their communities. Well-intentioned people travelling from the UK and other countries were not achieving things that local people couldn’t do. “What people need are the resources; they already have the skills.” So, Leila decided to focus on her own government in the UK, to convince them to change policies that impacted the lives of communities around the world.

Leila Zadeh speaking at a Brighton Chamber breakfast. Photo credit Mo Kanjilal.

Career journey

After a Masters in International Development, Leila started to work for the International HIV/AIDS Alliance (now Frontline Aids) in Brighton in an admin role. “It taught me a lot about how organisations are run”, she told me. “I learnt about negotiating with unions, about leadership, and how a CEO works.” 

She then moved to Oxfam and started campaigning. Returning to a policy role at Frontline AIDS, she learnt about LGBTQI+ rights internationally, how parliament works and how to influence people. Her work cemented her knowledge and understanding of building power locally, and being led by local people.

With the experienced she gained from Frontline AIDS, Leila went on to become executive director at UK lesbian and gay immigration group (UKLGIG) in 2017, later rebranded as Rainbow Migration. This is a charity focused on supporting LGBTQI+ people through the asylum and immigration system in the UK. Leila understood the situations people flee, which has helped her drive the work of the charity. She has grown the income from £200k a year to over £600k projected next year. 

Despite this success, Leila reflects pragmatically. She acknowledges her own privilege in being able to drop out of or switch jobs and university when she wanted to, knowing that she always had the family home and her parents to go back to. As executive director, she was not at all sure how she would be received: she was not in the same circles as her predecessor. 

Leila has had to build her own connections and realised she needed to use her own story which she had spent her life hiding from people. She said: “Before this role, I used to tell stories to cover up the truth.” She would give various reasons why her parents left Iran, knowing it might not be safe to tell the truth publicly. 

Leila drew inspiration from the LGBTQI+ and HIV movements: “It took brave individuals speaking out to break down stigma and prejudice. Lived experience and real stories convince people.” What she wants to see eventually is for someone who is LGBTQI+ and has been through the asylum system leading the charity. 

Migration, refugees and the future

Leila’s work, and the work of other charities for refugees, is all against the backdrop of a UK government with increasingly hostile policies towards refugees. She has felt something similar to the ‘survivor’s guilt’ of ladders being pulled up on other people. Leila told me: “My work shows me how much needs to be done. I cried when the last person was pulled off the recent flight to Rwanda.” 

The ‘hostile environment’, started under Home Secretary Theresa May, has become increasingly and terrifyingly more hostile and aggressive. LGBTQI+ people fleeing their countries do not have a choice: they are fleeing for their lives.  And when they do arrive here, they often do not know their rights, what they can do and what help is available. Rainbow Migration helps these people, and Leila is driven by the need to help them. 

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