Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Refugees

The refugee camp is notorious for its overcrowding, fires and riots. But for the people who live there, life goes on and every day brings new stories of resilience, bravery and compassion

It is not easy to find the library at Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos. Before reaching the refugee camps main entrance, you turn off the road where the police bus is always parked, then walk up the track that runs beside the perimeter fence. You walk past the military post and the hawkers selling fruit and veg, trainers, cooking utensils, cigarettes, electrical equipment pretty much everything; past huge stinking mountains of bagged-up rubbish so much rubbish; and past the worst toilets in the world, overflowing with excrement and plastic.

Then, opposite the hole in the fence where people who dont want to use the main gate come and go, you turn right, into what they call the Jungle, the olive groves into which the camp has exploded, because it was meant for 3,000 people and now has 20,000. Continue along the winding path, watching out for low-slung washing lines, past the burnt-out olive tree and the tiny tent with the family who always say hello, then turn left up the steep hill that becomes a muddy slide after rain. And there it is, on the right: Morias new library.

From the outside, it looks like all the other structures in this part of the camp a shack cobbled together from bits of wood and tarpaulins. But inside there are shelves and books. And, standing behind a counter, wearing a New York Yankees beanie, a librarian Zekria, from Afghanistan.

He runs a school, too that is how the library started. Zekria, 40, his wife and their five children arrived on the island a year ago in the usual perilous way, in a small boat at night across the 12-mile strait from Turkey. He tried to register the kids at one of the NGO-run schools that provide some educational activities, but they were all full; the waiting list could have been a month, two months, three months.

So Zekria, who used to teach law at a university in Kabul, decided to start his own class. I bought a whiteboard and some markers. It started in an open area under an olive tree last March, teaching English, he says. English is the most important, because, even though people get stuck here for a year, two years, more even, no one wants to live here for ever. He speaks excellent English, softly.

Everyone especially children needs hope … young refugees on the outskirts of Moria. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

More and more people mostly Afghans, but also Syrians, Iraqis and members of other nationalities wanted classes. Zekria was invited to peoples tents and containers to teach; soon he had more potential students than he could cope with. So he set up a team and they built a classroom. Registration opened one Friday morning. When I came here at 7.30am, more than 600 people were in the line.

They scheduled lessons for everyone: no one gets turned away, even if it means 50 to a class. We cannot say no, says Zekria. As if to prove it, 14-year-old Somahya shows up to register for German lessons (her family is trying to get to Germany) and is told there will be a class available by next week.

Now there are three classrooms and the teaching team numbers 30, with more than 1,000 students learning English, German, French and Greek, guitar and art. In the room next to the library, a class mostly of teenagers is painting designs on T-shirts on the floor. Its very important for people living in this stressful place, says Zekria. They come here, paint or listen to music, they learn something, theyre busy, they forget the other traumatic stuff they suffer in this camp. Psychology starts in action. Doctors will advise, but we are doing it in action.

The library is the latest project. Zekria hasnt quite worked out the system yet. It doesnt officially open until tomorrow. He thinks it is going to be one book borrowed at a time, maybe two if users travel a long distance within the camp. They will be able to keep items for a week, maybe 10 days. So far, books have mostly been donated by aid workers and NGOs, some possibly more pertinent (Catch-22) than others (the Lonely Planet guide to China). Zekria would like more books in Farsi and Arabic. I have only one book with me, a new one by the film-maker Chris Atkins about his time banged up in Wandsworth prison in London. That could be relevant, I guess. Anyway, it is there now, in the library at Moria.

Humanity survives in hell … South Sudanese migrants outside Moria. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

Zekrias own sentence and his familys is further uncertainty. Their asylum application has been rejected. He doesnt know why, but suspects it may have something to do with this educational activity. The authorities dont like it, he says.


I have come to Moria on the hunt for hope. It began with a letter to the Guardian from an aid worker there. He was concerned that the notorious camps portrayal in the media was relentlessly negative. But working there, he said, was an amazing experience; every day, he witnessed acts of kindness by extraordinary people. It gave him faith in humanity.

You will have heard about the desperate conditions, the overcrowding, the fires, the riots, the unaccompanied minors, the trauma, sexual exploitation, rape and murder. I am here to see if there is another, more positive side to Moria.

Bloody hell, that looks unlikely. Moria no good, is the chorus to my time at the camp. The same issues come up again and again: the fear and the cold at night, freezing showers, the unreliable supply of water, no electricity, queueing for hours for food, for months, years or for ever for permission to leave the island. Then there are the fights that break out among the frustrated, angry, bored young men who make up a high proportion of those living here. Just before my arrival, a 20-year-old Yemeni man was fatally stabbed, the second death this year. No one came here for this.

Moria is hell, a stain on 21st-century Europe, where bureaucracy, politics and simply not caring enough have left tens of thousands in limbo people fleeing war and danger, looking for a future for themselves and their children and not finding it. Morias existence is a disgrace, a failure of morality.

Yet, somehow, a sort of life goes on; humanity survives in hell. I am here for three days two alone, then another with the photographer Byron Smith and experience so much goodwill and humour.

I am offered warm flatbread fresh from one of Morias many ovens, sunflower seeds from kids, shisha from a bunch of Iraqi lads standing around a fire. Language is sometimes a problem, but it turns out it is possible to discuss the demise of Manchester United through sign language. There are more people here from Afghanistan than from any other country and I end up talking to more Afghans than anyone else, but I also meet people from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, South Sudan, Nigeria, Burundi, Zimbabwe and even Myanmar.

Abdullah Najafi (second left), from Afghanistan, and two of his children Mohammad (left), 14, and Meraj, five show photos and share tea with Sam Wollaston inside their tent. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

There is no power to make coffee or tea in Wahid Aminis store today, but he has cold drinks. A cameraman back in Kabul, Wahid, 20, is trying to join his family in France, but his application has been rejected. He is hopeful that, with legal help and more documentation, he might get there one day. The shop, next to a busy barbers, is a new enterprise, to try to make a bit of money. He sells shampoo, rice, spaghetti, washing-up liquid, disposable razors, etc, which he buys outside the camp. He is open 24 hours.

The Najafi family Abdullah and Gulbdan, plus their sons Ali Reza (15), Mohammad (14) and Meraj (five) invite us into their homemade tent. It is tiny for five people six, actually; their 16-year-old daughter, Faezh, has gone to queue for a cold shower. But it is spotless and tidy blankets have been folded and piled up for the day and we leave our muddy shoes at the entrance. The familys belongings hang in rucksacks from the wall, next to the Afghan flag and a couple of soft toys, one of which looks like a Kevin the Carrot from Aldi. I really hope it is one of the Kevins I recently sneaked into the charity-shop bag at home.

Gulbdan must know of a secret power source, as she conjures up an electric kettle and hot water to make tea, served in cracked cups with almonds and biscuits. Touching hospitality in any circumstance; properly moving in Moria.

Mohammad shows me footage on his dads phone of him taking part in a karate tournament in Iran. Abdullah and Gulbdan left Afghanistan 20 years ago; the kids have been brought up in Iran until now. Mohammad, already a black belt, won his bout. There is no karate in Moria, just actual fighting. The Najafi family keep to their tent after dark.

They show us pictures on Faezhs camera of some of their journey. Playing on a beach in Turkey, rock pools, jellyfish. She didnt take pictures of the crossing it was too dark and too scary but there is a little video of them on the beach where they landed in the north of Lesbos, looking tired but happy, in Europe at last. They never imagined they would end up like this.

There is plenty of humanity on show from the aid workers. Kind Danish women distribute clothes; a group of Dutch Christians hand out boxes of toys; a middle-aged British man with a background in water engineering leads a team to maintain the camps showers, toilets and sewers. There are hundreds of mostly young volunteers, who consider Moria unacceptable and Europes shame. They are not indifferent: they want to make a difference. I meet many who came for a few weeks and ended up staying for a year, sometimes two.

One Happy Family is, as you might expect from its name, good news. A community centre a few miles from the camp, run by various organisations along with many refugee volunteers, it has a medical centre, a playground, a gym, a womens space, a cafe, board games, a phone-charging station and an electrical repair shop. There is also a garden, where refugee volunteers including Sima Mohammedi and Reza Rezaie show me the beetroot, spinach, turnips, chard, beans and herbs they are growing. Covering the compost heap is a big piece of black rubber, just recognisable as part of one of the dinghies that bring refugees from Turkey and then get abandoned. Recycling.

The vegetables contribute to the OHF kitchen, where they cook lunch for up to 1,200 people every day. Todays chefs are Fifie from Zimbabwe and Mohammed from Myanmar. They are cooking vegetables, lentils, chickpeas and flatbread. Once a week they do chicken and the queues get really long.

Back at Moria, it is hard not to meet Ali Shama Eddin. He must be the most famous and is certainly the tallest person here. Ali, 23, from Damascus in Syria, arrived in Moria in 2016. He was alone: his parents had already reached Germany but that helps your case only if you are a minor. He started helping, volunteering with the Dutch organisation Movement on the Ground, and learned English from hanging out with the Europeans he worked with.

It took Ali almost two years, but he got his travel documents eventually and went to Germany to join his family. But my heart, my mind, my feelings were here, so I decided to come back, he says. Now he works here, as the general manager for the same NGO, Movement on the Ground. He strides about the place in his bright yellow jacket, greeting everyone in several languages, trying to sort out peoples problems, finding room in a tent for a new arrival. I understand Im a refugee as well, he says.

I understand Im a refugee as well … Ali Shama Eddin, from the charity Movement on the Ground, mediates a dispute in the camp. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

When there is a dispute between two men, one of whom says the other owes him money, Ali sits them down to try to sort it out. I want to hear from both of you to understand how we can solve this problem, he tells them. This one doesnt end in a fight for now.

There is love and communication between people from different countries we can all be together, share a meal, discuss something. We can learn from each other, inspire each other, support each other. This is amazing, says Ali, who is very much on board with the NGOs ethos, which is all about treating people with dignity and respect and empowering them.

Who is this European woman, who looks a bit like Johan Cruyff and smokes like him, too? Ah, Susila Cruyff, the daughter of the footballer. She is here with the Cruyff Foundation, which develops sports activities for children in need around the world. Nowhere are kids more in need than here. The foundation is going to build a football pitch a Cruyff court in the camp and Susila is here to look for a suitable site. At the moment, there is nowhere flat in camp to kick a ball. My father used to think that sport is more than sport, she says. Its good for your health, but also for your mental health, she says.

The foundation will build two pitches: one here, one somewhere else on the island for the locals the hope being that it will encourage competitions and build bridges between refugees and residents. The relationship between the two has been far from easy.


They steal, they fight, they dont respect us, says Sofia, my taxi driver from the airport. Tourists no longer come; Lesbos is now an Islamic place, she says.

There are about 25,000 refugees on an island with a permanent population of 86,000. That is an increase of almost 30% (think of 19 million people suddenly showing up in the UK). It has put a massive strain on the islands resources: water, services, the hospital. Ambulances are frequent visitors to Morias main gate; I see a woman in labour and obvious pain being lifted into one. She will be back within a couple of days with Morias youngest resident.

Close the borders … a woman holding a Greek flag protests against the countrys refugee camps. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

There is a one-day general strike on the island while I am here; everything is shut down. Hundreds of protesters gather in the capital, Mytilini, waving Greek flags, demanding the closure of the camp and the removal of refugees from the island. We want our islands back, we want our lives back, is the main slogan of the protests, which are taking place on the islands of Samos and Chios at the same time.

A few miles from Mytilini, in a tiny hamlet on the Gulf of Giera, a very different scene is playing out. In what used to be a restaurant, a cosy dining room with a woodburner, four Afghan teenagers are playing with a kitten. One of them puts on some music from home and they dance.

They are unaccompanied minors from Moria, children lost in a world that isnt fair, but brought here today for something a bit like a home. They are accompanied by Eleni Dimou, who works for the government, looking after boys at Moria. Some have psychological problems; some self-harm, she says. It is hard enough being a teenager anywhere, but it is really hard at Moria.

Some call her Mother, says Eleni, whose own children are grown up. Because they need a mother, they need someone.

It is a really hard job, but not a thankless one. I get a lot of love from them, says Eleni, who is learning Farsi. On Christmas Day, one boy gave me a pair of socks. I said: Why did you do that? It costs money. He said: Because I know in your country, on Christmas, you give presents to the people that you love.

This place was set up by a lovely local couple, Nikos Katsouris and Katerina Koveou. They turn up later and tell me how it came about. In 2014, Nikos, then a fisherman, was driving around with a van of fish to sell when he came across a group of refugees from Syria who had just landed. They were wet, tired and hungry; there was a pregnant woman and a boy of about 10, who was on his own. Shocked by what he saw, Nikos used the money he got from the fish to buy them food and gave the boy his jacket. When he got home and told Katerina, she got to work immediately, cooking for them. Then they set off to find them, with 40 homecooked meals and all the blankets and clothes they could lay their hands on.

We try to give back what others took from the people … Home for All founders Nikos Katsouris and Katerina Koveou (left) say goodbye to Zakira Naderi, an Afghan asylum seeker. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

That first lot never got their dinner: they were detained by the police before Nikos and Katerina found them. But the couple found another boatload of arrivals to give it to. Ever since, they have been helping refugees, adapting to the changing needs of the situation. When Moria opened, they took sardines, bread, rice and vegetables to the camp and they fed hungry volunteers in their restaurant. Then they started to bring families from the camp to the restaurant. We try to give back what others took from the people, Nikos says. They took their lives, their smiles, their humanity, their dignity. These things we have here.

It hasnt gone down well with the authorities. They have broken petty rules, such as that you are not allowed to be a charity and a restaurant at the same time. Nikos and Katerina have been fined a total of 47,800 (40,000). So they have given up the restaurant and are now solely an NGO, Home for All. They have refugees here every day, to eat, to learn to cook, to be at home, like the boys today. They cook and deliver food for the most vulnerable in the camp minors and sick people.

Katerina has had to accept that they cant help everyone. This was my problem in the beginning I wanted to help them all. But then I realised: If I do this, probably I am not going to help anyone. You help those you can, and if you can do more, you do.

Why do they do it? Because we want to and because we can, she says.


I return to Moria one more time, turning off the road where the police bus sits, up the dirt track that runs parallel to the perimeter fence, right into the Jungle. I am not going to Zekrias library this time, not yet, but to his school, to see one of his teachers.

It has been more difficult for me to talk to women in the camp than to men, mostly because of culture and tradition. No problems with 19-year-old Azita Barekzai from Afghanistan, though. She is happy to chat. Her English is good; she is ambitious and wise (I hope that doesnt sound patronising). When I ask her something I have already asked, she tells me off: I told you! She doesnt want her photo taken, because she has a cold, but in the end she relents. I am glad there is a picture of Azita; like many of the people I meet in Moria, she is amazing.

I enjoy it a lot because I can make some people smile … Azita Barekzai, a 19-year-old Afghan English teacher, poses inside a classroom at the school founded by Zekria Farzad. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

She got here seven months ago, with her parents and her three siblings. She is the oldest of the kids. The crossing was terrifying, really dangerous. I never thought we were going to survive.

Then she was shocked by what they had come to in Moria. The usual issues the cold, the rubbish, the fights, being too scared to leave the tent at night. It is especially horrible when it rains. You cannot imagine how people tolerate it. Life is really difficult here.

She wants to go to Switzerland, because she heard it accepts refugees and is beautiful. She would like to be a doctor. She has her papers already; she can travel, but the rest of her family hasnt been approved. They are still waiting.

In the meantime, she is teaching English to kids in Zekrias school. I enjoy it a lot because I can make some people smile. I just want to make them laugh. I know that if someone laughs it doesnt mean they dont have problems. We need hope. Everyone especially children needs hope. We are really hopeless sometimes because of this bad situation. Maybe learning English gives them some hope for the future. They can go somewhere else better.

It is time for the librarys opening ceremony next door. There is a small gathering; someone has brought a basket of sweets and a red ribbon. Zekria says a few words, thanks the people who nailed the bits of wood together and attached the tarpaulins, and the book donors. Then, with a pair of scissors, he cuts the ribbon. Morias library is, he declares, officially open.


A couple of weeks later, back in my nice, safe, warm office, I WhatsApp Zekria to check a couple of things. First, he tells me that the pictures I took of the opening (Byron wasnt around at the time) were terrible. He is not wrong. Then he says his asylum application was rejected again. Fearing deportation, he and his family managed to get to mainland Greece, where they are staying in a squat. Its cold, there is no electricity, it is the life of refugees, he says. I hate the fucking politics of the world.

He has no money left and will try to find informal work, then perhaps try to cross a land border into Albania or Macedonia. The library and the school in Moria are fine, he says. The team is running them; he is in touch regularly. I have to go, he says. We will speak later, my friend.

Read more:

Exclusive: Novelist Khaled Hosseini marks the second anniversary of three-year-old Syrian boys death with an illustrated story animated in a virtual reality film

This is a 360 film. Click to play then follow the story as the illustration is drawn.

Play Video

Sea Prayer: a 360-degree illustrated film by award-winning novelist Khaled Hosseini

To commemorate the second anniversary of the death of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned while attempting to reach Greece in 2015, the author Khaled Hosseini, a UNHCR goodwill ambassador , has written Sea Prayer. This imagined letter is written in the form of a monologue, delivered by a Syrian father to the son lying asleep in his lap, on the eve of their sea crossing to Europe.

Hosseini is the author of The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed. Sea Prayer is the first narrative animated virtual reality film created using Tilt Brush, a tool for painting in a 3D space with VR. Using this tool, the Guardians in-house VR team, in collaboration with the acclaimed VR artist Liz Edwards, has brought Hosseinis sensitive imagining of this letter to life.

Narrated by the Bafta-winning actor Adeel Akhtar, who takes the role of the father, Sea Prayer reflects on the city of Homs, a devastated war zone where he grew up and which he is being forced to leave behind with his son. Hosseinis piece also meditates on the dangerous sea crossing that lies ahead.

Sea Prayer is accompanied by a score specially composed by Sahba Aminikia, an Iranian-American contemporary classical music composer, and performed by the US-based string musicians Kronos Quartet and the musical saw player David Coulter.

People continue to attempt this journey, many losing their lives in the process. Since Alans death, at least 8,500 refugees and migrants have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

This piece was made in collaboration with the UNHCR.

Read more:

Dina Nayeri was just a child when she fled Iran as an asylum seeker. But as she settled into life in the US and then Europe, she became suspicious of the idea that refugees should shed their old identities and be eternally thankful

A few weeks ago I dusted off my expired Iranian passport photo, an unsmiling eight-year-old version of me stunned, angry, wearing tight grey hijab and staring far beyond the camera. Its not the face of a child on the verge of rescue, though I would soon escape Iran. I have kept that old photograph hidden since the day I threw away my last headscarf, and now its the bewildered face and parted lips, not the scarf, that capture my interest. No matter how hard I try, I cant reconcile this child with the frazzled American writer in my recent pictures.

In 1985, when I was six years old, my family left our home in Isfahan for several months to live in London. The move was temporary, a half-hearted stab at emigration; nonetheless, I was enrolled in school. In Iran I had only attended nursery, never school, and I spoke only Farsi.

At first, the children were welcoming, teaching me English words using toys and pictures, but within days the atmosphere around me had changed. Years later, I figured that this must have been how long it took them to tell their parents about the Iranian kid. After that, a group of boys met me in the yard each morning and, pretending to play, pummelled me in the stomach. They followed me in the playground and shouted gibberish, laughing at my dumbfounded looks. A few weeks later, two older boys pushed my hand into a doorjamb and slammed it shut on my little finger, severing it at the first segment. I was rushed to the hospital, carrying a piece of my finger in a paper napkin. The segment was successfully reattached.

I never went back to that school, but later, in the chatter of the grownups from my grandmothers church and even in my parents soothing whispers, I heard a steady refrain about gratefulness. God had protected me and so I shouldnt look at the event in a negative light. It was my moment to shine! Besides, who could tell what had motivated those boys? Maybe they were just playing, trying to include me though I didnt speak a word of their language. Wasnt that a good thing?

Eventually we returned to Iran. I was put under a headscarf and sent to an Islamic girls school.

No matter how hard I try, I cant reconcile this child with my recent pictures Dina Nayeri, then aged six, in her passport photo

Three years later, my mother, brother and I left Iran for real, this time after my mother had been dragged to jail for converting to Christianity, after the moral police had interrogated her three times and threatened her with execution. We became asylum seekers, spending two years in refugee hostels in Dubai and Rome. By that time I had lived my first eight years in the belly of wartime Iran for most of the 80s, the Iran-Iraq war wrecked our country and trapped us in a state of almost constant fear. I had grown accustomed to the bomb sirens, the panicked dashes down to the basement, the taped-up windows. So the time that followed, the years in refugee hostels, felt peaceful, a reprieve from all the noise. My mother urged me to thank God in my prayers.

When I was 10, we were accepted by the United States and sent to Oklahoma, just as the first gulf war began. By the time of our arrival in the American south, the nail on my pinkie had grown back, my hair was long, and I was (according to my mother) pretty and funny and smart. The first thing I heard from my classmates, however, was a strange ching-chongese intended to mock my accent. I remember being confused, not at their cruelty, but at their choice of insult. A dash of racism I had expected but I wasnt Chinese; were these children wholly ignorant to the shape of the world outside America? If you want to mock me, I wanted to say, dig down to the guttural khs and ghs, produce some phlegm, make a camel joke; dont ching-chong at me, you mouth-breather. (See? I had learned their native insults well enough.)

Of course, I didnt say that. And I didnt respond when they started in on the cat-eating and the foot-binding. I took these stories home and my mother and I laughed over chickpea cookies and cardamom tea fragrant foods they might have mocked if only they knew. By then it was clear to me that these kids had met one foreigner before, and that unfortunate person hailed from south-east Asia.

I neednt have worried, though; the geographically correct jokes were coming. Like the boys in London, these kids soon spoke to their parents, and within weeks, they had their turban jockeys and their camel-fuckers loaded and ready to go. Meanwhile, I was battling with my teacher over a papier-mache topographical map of the US, a frustrating task that was strangely central to her concerns about my American assimilation. When I tried to explain to her that only a few months before I had lived with refugees outside Rome, and that most of the social studies work baffled me, she looked at me sleepily and said: Awww, sweetie, you must be so grateful to be here.

Grateful. There was that word again. Here I began to notice the pattern. This word had already come up a lot in my childhood, but in her mouth it lost its goodness. It hinted and threatened. Afraid for my future, I decided that everyone was right: if I failed to stir up in myself enough gratefulness, or if I failed to properly display it, I would lose all that I had gained, this western freedom, the promise of secular schools and uncensored books.

The children were merciless in their teasing, and soon I developed a tic in my neck. Other odd behaviours followed. Each time something bad happened, I would repeat a private mantra, the formula I believed was the reason for my luck so far, and my ticket to a second escape maybe even a life I would actually enjoy. I said it again and again in my head, and sometimes accidentally aloud:

Im lucky. Im grateful. Im the smartest in my class.

Im lucky. Im grateful. Im the smartest in my class.

That last sentiment (which I did a poor job of hiding) didnt go over too well. What right did I, a silly Iranian, have to think I was better than anyone?

Still, my mother suffered more. In Iran, she had been a doctor. Now she worked in a pharmaceuticals factory, where her bosses and co-workers daily questioned her intelligence, though they had a quarter of her education. The accent was enough. If she took too long to articulate a thought, they stopped listening and wrote her off as unintelligent. They sped up their speech and, when she asked them to slow down, they sighed and rolled their eyes. If someone messed up a formula, she was the sole target for blame.

The hate did eventually wane; some would say that thats the natural cycle of things. We assimilated. No longer dark strangers from war-torn lands, at some point we stopped frightening them. We went to work, to school, to church. We grew familiar, safe, no longer the outsiders.

I dont believe in that explanation. What actually happened was that we learned what they wanted, the hidden switch to make them stop simmering. After all, these Americans had never thought we were terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists or violent criminals. From the start, they knew we were a Christian family that had escaped those very horrors. And they, as a Protestant community, had accepted us, rescued us. But there were unspoken conditions to our acceptance, and that was the secret we were meant to glean on our own: we had to be grateful. The hate wasnt about being darker, or from elsewhere. It was about being those things and daring to be unaware of it. As refugees, we owed them our previous identity. We had to lay it at their door like an offering, and gleefully deny it to earn our place in this new country. There would be no straddling. No third culture here.

Nayeris family having a picnic in Iran in 1976

That was the key to being embraced by the population of our town, a community that openly took credit for the fact that we were still alive, but wanted to know nothing of our past. Month after month, my mother was asked to give her testimony in churches and womens groups, at schools and even at dinners. I remember sensing the moment when all conversation would stop and she would be asked to repeat our escape story. The problem, of course, was that they wanted our salvation story as a talisman, no more. No one ever asked what our house in Iran looked like, what fruits we grew in our yard, what books we read, what music we loved and what it felt like now not to understand any of the songs on the radio. No one asked if we missed our cousins or grandparents or best friends. No one asked what we did in summers or if we had any photos of the Caspian Sea. Men treat women horribly there, dont they? the women would ask. Somehow it didnt feel OK to tell them about my funny dad with his pockets full of sour cherries, or my grandpa who removed his false teeth when he told ghost stories.

Such memories, of course, would imply the unthinkable: that Iran was as beautiful, as fun, as energising and romantic, as Oklahoma or Montana or New York.

From then on, we sensed the ongoing expectation that we would shed our old skin, give up our former identities every quirk and desire that made us us and that we would imply at every opportunity that America was better, that we were so lucky, so humbled to be here. My mother continued giving testimonials in churches. She wore her cross with as much spirit as she had done in Islamic Iran. She baked American cakes and replaced the rosewater in her pastries with vanilla. I did much worse: over years, I let myself believe it. I lost my accent. I lost my hobbies and memories. I forgot my childhood songs.

In 1994, when I was 15, we became American citizens. I was relieved, overjoyed and genuinely grateful. We attended a citizenship ceremony on the football field of a local college campus. It was the Fourth of July and dozens of other new citizens would be sworn in with us. It was a bittersweet day, the stadium filled with cheering locals, a line of men, women and children winding around and around the field towards a microphone at the end zone, where each of us would be named and sworn in. I remember staring in wonder at the others in line: I didnt realise there were this many other brown and yellow people in Oklahoma. Yes, there were a handful of black people, a few Jews here or there. But this many Indians? This many Sri Lankans and Pakistanis and Chinese and Bangladeshis and Iranians and Afghans? Where had they been hiding? (Not that I had looked.)

Halfway through the ceremony, an Indian man, around 80 years old, was led to the microphone, where he introduced himself and swore allegiance to the United States. When he was finished, he raised his fists and thrashed the sky. I AM AMERICAN! he shouted into the microphone. FINALLY, I AM AMERICAN! The crowd erupted, joining his celebration. As he stepped away, he wobbled and collapsed from the effort, but someone caught him. He turned back and smiled to the crowd to show he was OK, that this fit of joy hadnt killed him, then walked away.

Thats my favourite day as an American, my first one, still unsurpassed. No one was putting on a face that day. No one felt obliged or humbled, imagining their truer home. That old man was heaving with love. The people in the stands were roaring with it. Its a complicated memory for me now. I refuse to deny the simple and vast beauty of it, though I know they cheered not the old man himself, but his spasm of gratitude, an avowal of transformation into someone new, into them.

Years passed. I became as American as a girl can be, moved far away, grew into my mind and body and surrounded myself with progressive, educated friends. The bad feelings disappeared. I started to love the western world and thought of myself a necessary part of it. I moved around with ease, safely flashing my American passport, smiling brightly when customs officers squinted at my place of birth. It didnt matter: I was no longer an asylum seeker. I had long ago been accepted. I had a stellar education. My confidence showed (and maybe it helped that I had caramel highlights in my hair). Again and again I was welcomed home at JFK with a polite nod or a smile.

Other immigrants have written about this moment: the welcome home at JFK, its power on the psyche after long flights. For me, as soon as those words leave the officers mouth, my confidence is replaced by a gush of gratitude. Thank you! I say breathlessly. Thank you for saying its my home. Thank you for letting me in again. In that instant before my passport is returned to me, Im the old man punching the air.

When I was 30, I had another citizenship ceremony. This one wasnt the sleepless obsession that the American one had been. It was simply that I had married a French citizen, he had applied on my behalf, and, having passed the language and culture tests by a whisker, I became a Frenchwoman of sorts. I travelled a lot in those days and so I decided to have my fingerprints taken (the last step in the paperwork) on a stopover in New York. The police officer whose job it was to oversee the process asked why a nice girl like me needed fingerprints. I told him, to which he replied: Couldnt you find an American man?

Though I hadnt given it much thought back then, I said: American men dont like me. He gave me a puzzled look, so I added, The American men I know never try to impress you or not me, at least. They think I should feel lucky to have them.

He gave a weary sigh. No man likes to work for it.

Some men work for it, I said, trying to sound defiant.

He laughed and bashed my fingers into the ink.

My second citizenship ceremony was held at the French embassy in Amsterdam (my then home) beside families from Lebanon, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and a number of sub-Saharan countries. The image that stays with me is of families singing the French national anthem, the Marseillaise. The awe in their faces as they sang that song, every word practised, moved me. Even the small children straightened their shoulders and sang from memory. I had made a stab at memorising the words, but mostly I read off a sheet. I was proud, but they were experiencing something else: a transformation, a rebirth. They were singing their way into a joyous new life. I took a moment to think of that old Indian man from years before, to do an imaginary fist-pump in his honour.

Ive been moving back and forth between New York and Europe pretty much my entire adult life. When I lived in Amsterdam, even highly educated people openly complained of too many Moroccans and Turks in certain neighbourhoods. Geert Wilders, the head of the far-right Party for Freedom, had warned that the country would soon become Nether-Arabia.

In Amsterdam, I got to know Iranian refugees who didnt have my kind of luck with their asylum applications. One man in our community set himself on fire in Dam Square in 2011. He had lived in Amsterdam for a decade, following their rules, filling out their papers, learning their culture, his head always down. He did all that was asked of him and, in the end, he was driven to erase his own face, his skin.

Remembering Kambiz Roustayi, a man who only wanted a visa, his family and his own corner of the world, I want to lash out at every comfortable native who thinks that his kind dont do enough. You dont know what grateful is, I want to say. You havent seen a young man burn up from despair, or an old man faint on a football field from relief and joy, or a nine-year-old boy sing the entire Marseillaise from memory. You dont know how much life has already been spent settling into the cracks of your walls. Sometimes all thats left of value in an exiles life is his identity. Please stop asking people to rub out their face as tribute.

With the rise of nativist sentiment in Europe and America, Ive seen a troubling change in the way people make the case for refugees. Even those on the left talk about how immigrants make America great. They point to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens, listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth. Friends often use me as an example. They say in posts or conversations: Look at Dina. She lived as a refugee and look how much stuff shes done. As if thats proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment.

But isnt glorifying the refugees who thrive according to western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics? Isnt it akin to holding up the most acquiescent as examples of what a refugee should be, instead of offering each person the same options that are granted to the native-born citizen? Is the life of the happy mediocrity a privilege reserved for those who never stray from home?

This semester, Im teaching an American literature course at a private international school in London. My students have come with their families from all over the world and have empathy and insight, but for the most part, they have lived privileged lives. For the last semester, Ive forced them to read nothing but outsider fiction. Stories by immigrants and people of colour. Stories about poverty. Stories about being made to sit on the periphery. Most are loving it, but some are frustrated. Ive already learned the race stuff, one said, after our third story with a protagonist of colour. More than one parent advised me thatBharati Mukherjeeand James Baldwin are not important when these kids have yet to read classic writers such as Harper Lee (because how could they develop their literary taste if they hadnt first grounded themselves in the point of view of the impossibly saintly white family?).

Even among empathetic, worldly students, Im finding a grain of this same kind of expectation: the refugee must make good. If, in one of our stories, an immigrant kills himself (Bernard Malamuds The Refugee), they say that he wasted his opportunity, that another displaced person would have given anything for a shot at America. Theyre right about that, but does that mean that Malamuds refugee isnt entitled to his private tragedies? Is he not entitled to crave death? Must he first pay off his debt to his hosts and to the universe?

Despite a lifetime spent striving to fulfil my own potential, of trying to prove that the west is better for having known me, I cannot accept this way of thinking, this separation of the worthy exile from the unworthy. Civilised people dont ask for resumes when answering calls from the edge of a grave. It shouldnt matter what I did after I cleaned myself off and threw away the last of my asylum-seeking clothes. My accomplishments should belong only to me. There should be no question of earning my place, of showing that I was a good bet. My family and I were once humans in danger, and we knocked on the doors of every embassy we came across: the UK, America, Australia, Italy. America answered and so, decades later, I still feel a need to bow down to airport immigration officers simply for saying Welcome home.

I became as American as a girl can be. I started to love the western world and thought of myself a necessary part of it Dina Nayeri

But what America did was a basic human obligation. It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we dont give you sugary success stories. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view. If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy khs and ghs, and even if, after all that, we dont spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need.

In 2015, I moved to England again, a place I no longer associated with the permanently numb tip of my little finger, or the strange half-sensation of typing the letter a on a keyboard. I became a mother in a London hospital. Now I have a little girl who already looks Iranian. The first major event of her life was Brexit. The second was Trumps election. At 5am on Brexit morning, as I was feeding her, the memory of my pinkie returned. We had just learned of the referendum results. On Facebook, every former immigrant I knew released a collective shudder all of them recalling their first days in England or America or Holland. They began sharing their stories. What I remembered was that boy who pushed my finger into the hinge of a door. That other boy who slammed the door shut. Theyre adults now. Most likely, theyve lived lives much like their parents, the ones who taught them to hate me in 1985. Most likely they believe the same things. England doesnt want us, I thought. It doesnt want my daughter. It doesnt want me.

Nowadays, I often look at the white line through my pinkie nail, and I think I finally understand why gratefulness matters so much. The people who clarified it for me were my students, with their fresh eyes and stunning expectations, their harsh, idealistic standards that every person should strive and prove their worth, their eagerness to make sense of the world. They saw right through to the heart of the uneasy native.

During our discussion of Flannery OConnors A Displaced Person, the class began unpacking Mrs Shortleys hatred of Mr Guizac, the Polish refugee whose obvious talents on the farm would soon lead to her mediocre husbands dismissal as a farmhand. Shes seen the images from the Holocaust, the piles of bodies in Europe, said one student. So if one of those bodies in the pile can escape death and come to America and upend her life, then how much is she worth?

I was stunned silent (a rare thing for me). By the time I formulated my next question the conversation had moved on, and so I presented the question to my next class. Would anything be any different, then, if Mr Guizac had been grateful to Mrs Shortley for making room for him?

Around the table every head shook. No. Of course not. Nothing would change. Mrs Shortley wants to be above him, to be benevolent, to have control, said one insightful student. Once the guy starts doing better on his own, control goes, no matter how grateful he acts.

The refugee has to be less capable than the native, needier; he must stay in his place. Thats the only way gratitude will be accepted. Once he escapes control, he confirms his identity as the devil. All day I wondered, has this been true in my own experience? If so, then why all the reverence for the refugees who succeed against the odds, the heartwarming success stories? And thats precisely it one can go around in this circle forever, because it contains no internal logic. Youre not enough until youre too much. Youre lazy until youre a greedy interloper.

In many of the classes Ive taught, my quietest kids have been Middle Eastern. Im always surprised by this, since the literature I choose should resonate most with them, since Im an Iranian teacher, their ally, since the civilised world yearns for their voices now. Still, they bristle at headlines about the refugee crisis that I flash on the screen, hang their heads, and look relieved when the class is finished. Their silence makes me angry, but I understand why they dont want to commit to any point of view. Who knows what their universe looks like outside my classroom, what sentiments theyre expected to display in order to be on the inside.

Still, I want to show those kids whose very limbs apologise for the space they occupy, and my own daughter, who has yet to feel any shame or remorse, that a grateful face isnt the one they should assume at times like these. Instead they should tune their voices and polish their stories, because the world is duller without them even more so if they arrived as refugees. Because a persons life is never a bad investment, and so there are no creditors at the door, no debt to repay. Now theres just the rest of life, the stories left to create, all the messy, greedy, ordinary days that are theirs to squander.

Main photograph by Anna Leader

Dina Nayeris new novel, Refuge, will be published by Riverhead Books in July

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

Read more:

The long read: When Isis rounded up Yazidi women and girls in Iraq to use as slaves, the captives drew on their collective memory of past oppressions and a powerful will to survive

The day before Isis came was a holiday in Sinjar district, northern Iraq. Yazidis gathered to celebrate the end of a fasting period. It was 2 August 2014. Harvested wheat fields stood short and stubbly under the shadowless sun. People slaughtered sheep and gathered with their relatives to celebrate the holiday, handing out sweets and exchanging news and gossip. In the past, they would have invited their Muslim neighbours to join the celebrations, but more recently a distance had grown between them, leading the villagers to keep mostly to their own.

The atmosphere was restless and the temperature peaked above 40C (104F). The top of Mount Sinjar, just north of the town of Sinjar itself, appeared to be shimmering in the heat, and the people living below mostly avoided travelling until after the sun had set, when the streets were filled with neighbours trading fearful rumours, and men patrolling with guns.

At dusk, unfamiliar vehicles started to appear. The lights of the cars could be seen moving in the desert beyond the outlying villages. A sense of foreboding grew as darkness fell. The Yazidi men took their guns and set out to check the horizon beyond the wheat fields, peering toward the villages.

On their return, they gathered in Sinjar town centre in small, tense groups. Convoys of cars, kicking up dust in the distance, had appeared two months before, just before the city of Mosul the capital of Nineveh province, of which Sinjar is a part fell to Islamic State (Isis). Mosul is 120km (75 miles) east of Sinjar, and its capture was quickly followed by the fall of other towns. Four divisions of the Iraqi army collapsed, including the third division, which was based around Sinjar and included many Yazidis. The area was almost completely defenceless.

When they seized Mosul, Isis freed the Sunni Muslims from the citys Badoush prison and executed 600 Shia prisoners. The group plundered weapons and equipment from Iraqi army bases. Soldiers scattered their uniforms, and half a million civilians fled north and east. Within a week, a third of Iraq was under Isis control. Sinjar district, with a population of around 300,000, was surrounded. Only a thin strip of contested road remained, linking them to the relative safety of the Iraqi Kurdistan in the north but the journey was dangerous.

The Kurdistan region in northern Iraq is semi-autonomous, and guarded by the peshmerga, who now had to defend the four Kurdish provinces against Isis. Peshmerga means those who face death, and the word is heavy with the historical import of the Kurdish struggle against oppression. In the south-east of the region, on the Iranian border, part of the peshmerga clashed with Isis, but near Sinjar, an uneasy stillness hung in the air like a tension headache that comes before a storm.

Leila is from a family of Yazidi farmers and shepherds. She is small with a pale, girlish face, even though she is 25, and gives off a kind, practical air. She has two younger sisters and three older brothers. As a child she worked on the family farm with her brothers, and after a spate of sheep thefts on their ranch, they decided to move closer to Kojo, a village below Mount Sinjar.

Leilas brothers had joined the peshmerga after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. On 2 August 2014, their colleagues in nearby Siba Sheikheder came under attack from Isis and called for help. Siba Sheikheder, south of Sinjar, is the closest Yazidi town to the Syrian border, a collection of a few hundred squat buildings. By mid-morning on 3 August 2014, the peshmerga stationed in Kojo had fled. In the confusion, Leilas family and around 100 others decided to run, but most people stayed, unsure what was going to happen to them.

Leilas younger sister was living in Siba Sheikheder with her new husband, and phoned home to her parents that morning: Were running Isis is coming, she said. Leila and her family drove north to Sinjar, leaving her uncle at home to guard the house. Arriving in Sinjar, they realised the town was already under attack and its people were fleeing. Gathering together in a patch of scrubland outside Sinjar, they phoned her uncle. He told them the area was surrounded and Isis would not let anyone leave.

Displaced Yazidis from Sinjar fleeing Isis walk towards the Syrian border, August 2014. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters

They were trapped. Shortly after the phone call, a group of Isis fighters approached them and told them to hand over money, guns, gold and phones. Leila remembers that the leader had a red face and beard and was called emir (prince) by the others. Fighters drove her family to one of the central government offices in Sinjar, where ID cards used to be issued. What seemed like thousands of women and girls had been gathered inside the buildings offices, with men crammed together on the second floor. At around 9pm, Isis guards brought lanterns inside and began inspecting the faces of the women and girls. The women huddled together for protection, and as the men drew near to Leila, she was so scared that she fainted. This saved her from being taken away that night. Five of her female cousins were not so lucky.

The Yazidi women in Sinjar didnt realise it yet, but the Isis fighters were carrying out a pre-planned mass abduction for the purpose of institutionalised rape. Initially they were looking for unmarried women and girls over eight.

When Sinjar district was attackedby Isis, more than 100,000 people fled to take refuge on Mount Sinjar. Those who couldnt flee were rounded up. Many of the men were massacred. Thousands of Yazidis were either executed and thrown into pits, or died of dehydration, injuries or exhaustion on the mountain. So many people were missing that the enslavement of women didnt immediately come to international attention.

According to Iraqi MP Vian Dakhil, herself a Yazidi from Sinjar, an estimated 6,383 Yazidis mostly women and children were enslaved and transported to Isis prisons, military training camps, and the homes of fighters across eastern Syria and western Iraq, where they were raped, beaten, sold, and locked away. By mid-2016, 2,590 women and children had escaped or been smuggled out of the caliphate and 3,793 remained in captivity.

The Yazidis are a majority-Kurdish-speaking religious group living mostly in northern Iraq. They number less than one million worldwide. The Yazidis, throughout their history, have been persecuted as infidels by Muslim rulers who demanded that they convert. Rather than formal ceremonies, their religious practice involves visiting sacred places. Yazidis participate in baptism and feasts, sing hymns and recite stories. Some of the stories are about historical and mythical battles fought in protection of the religion. Others, told over the centuries by generations of women, detail methods of resistance to the same threats that Yazidi women face today.

The Yazidis had already been made vulnerable by forced displacement under Saddam Hussein, economic meltdown under UN sanctions, the breakdown of the state and security after the US-led invasion of 2003, and the political failures that followed. In Iraq there are now around 500,000 Yazidis, primarily from the Sinjar region in Nineveh province in the countrys north. The Yazidis of Syria and Turkey have mostly all fled to neighbouring countries or to Europe. In Germany, their numbers are estimated at 25,000.

Not all violence is hot. Theres cold violence, too, which takes its time and finally gets its way, Teju Cole wrote in a 2015 essay about Palestine. Around the world, a broader kind of cold violence continues. Its the violence of indignity, of forgetting, of carelessness and of not listening. Its there in the way politicians talk about refugees, and in the way the stateless are sometimes written about and photographed by the western media. Its there in the fear of outsiders. Its there in the way humans dismiss other humans as less worthy of protection or care. When cold violence and hot violence merge, we get mass killings inflicted on the most vulnerable.

Yazidis have suffered massacres and oppression for generations. But there was something different about the Isis attack that took place in the late summer of 2014. This time the media took notice.

Many of the stories about the abduction and enslavement of Yazidi women and children described them as sex slaves and featured graphic, sometimes lurid, accounts by newly escaped survivors. The female fighters of Kurdish militias helping to free Yazidis from Mount Sinjar became fodder for often novelty coverage. The Yazidis became the embodiment of embattled, exotic minorities set against the evil of Isis. This narrative has stereotyped Yazidi women as passive victims of mass rape at the hands of perpetrators presented as the epitome of pure evil.

It was only much later in my reporting on how some Yazidi women managed to escape and return that I became aware of how important stories of captivity and resistance were to dealing with trauma, both historically and in relation to Isis. Yazidism is a closed religion and identity, one that is passed down through generations by stories and music. These practices have been extended to dealing with the traumas of their treatment at the hands of Isis.

Many of the women and children captured in Sinjar had seen or heard their male relatives being killed by the armed Isis fighters who now surrounded them. In jails across Iraq and Syria, where the women were held, they felt a sense of abject terror on hearing footsteps in the corridor outside and keys opening the locks, said a report by the UN commission on Syria that designated the Isis crimes against the Yazidis as genocide. The first 12 hours of capture were filled with sharply mounting terror. The selection of any girl was accompanied by screaming as she was forcibly pulled from the room, with her mother and any other women who tried to keep hold of her being brutally beaten by fighters. [Yazidi] women and girls began to scratch and bloody themselves in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to potential buyers.

At first, the women and girls were taken to prearranged locations in Iraq where they were handed out to the Isis fighters who took part in the attack on Sinjar. To avoid being raped, some of the girls killed themselves by slitting their wrists or throats, or hanging themselves, or throwing themselves from buildings.

Amid the panic in the Sinjar ID office, Leila decided to pose as a mother to her small niece and nephew after she saw the other women being taken away, and correctly assumed that being unmarried was dangerous. The following day, the Yazidi men on the second floor disappeared.

Leila was transported 50km east to a school-turned-prison in Tel Afar, where the women were crowded into classrooms functioning as cells, guarded by fighters who continued to pick out beautiful girls to serve as slaves. Each time they were moved, their names and ages were noted down on a list.

In the coming weeks, some Yazidis managed to escapeby walking through the night across muddy fields, keeping to the valleys to avoid Isis checkpoints and reach the peshmerga. It was in those first few days that the Yazidis could most feasibly have been rescued. The captives were held together and some still had mobile phones hidden under their clothes to call relatives back in Kurdistan and tell them exactly where they were. But with little by way of rapid international or governmental support materialising, a sense of abandonment soon grew among the families waiting for their loved ones.

Within days of what happened to the Yazidis on the mountain, the phone calls went from help us survive to theyve kidnapped these women and can you help us to rescue them, said Tom Malinowski, then the US assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labour, when interviewed in February 2016 during a visit to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region. Hostage rescues are one of the most dangerous things to do, but when they [the women] were still being held in large groups this was discussed, but tragically they were then dispersed It is still very much on our minds and something we know has to be considered.

To date there have been no known, large-scale rescue missions to free the Yazidi captives in Iraq and Syria, by either the US, Iraqi or Kurdistan regional governments.

According to Isis, it has no choice but to attack and kill disbelieving men. Flowing from this, it justifies the enslaving of their women as an act of protection, a way of replacing the men who previously looked after them. This idea is crucial to the role of slavery in Isiss conception of how a caliphate should function.

Implicit in the goal of eliminating the Yazidi community is the idea that society would be better without them, which is common to all genocides, said former UN investigator Sareta Ashraph. The enslavement, for Isis, is meant to eventually bring the women to Islam, and is part of their ideology of conquest. [It is] among the greatest forms of the honour of Islam and its sharia [Islamic law], as it is a clear affirmation showing the supremacy of the people of sharia, and the greatness of their affairs, and the dominance of their state, and the power of their might, according to an Isis pamphlet on slavery.

Isis describes its own use of enslavement through a mix of clumsy metaphors about sex, war and power. Dividing up the captive women and children among the Isis mujahideen [holy warriors] and sanctioning their genitals is described as a sign of realisation and dominance by the sword.

Katherine E Brown, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Birmingham, explained that Isis mainly justifies its use of slavery through selective interpretations of the hadith, the reported accounts of the life and sayings of Muhammad and his companions: They justify it on the basis that it is a reward for carrying out services for the community slaves are presented as compensation for fighters. However, they chose particular ways of seeing these hadith, and selectively choose them so as to ignore, for example, the requirement not to kill your prisoners by focusing on the requirement to make sure they dont escape by being secured at the neck until negotiations have taken place.

A Yazidi woman in the northern Iraqi town of Dohuk, May 2015. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

The promise of sexual slavery is used as a sweetener when recruiting disaffected young men to Isis. At the same time, media stories about sex and violence involving non-Muslim women being enslaved by Muslim men feed stereotypes about Muslim men that create divisions that Isis can then exploit.

Slavery serves to increase the Isis community because Yazidi women will give birth and the children will be brought up among its fighters, writes the author of the Isis pamphlet.

The same document calls on fighters to treat their slaves well, citing words from the Quran calling for them to be good to those whom your right hand possess a euphemism for a female captive and cites Islamic texts with instructions not to hit the slaves face, and to emancipate the slave who becomes a believer, for which the master will be rewarded by God.

But, as with other strictures, there is a gap between Isis proclamations and an abusive, often violent reality. Isis used gang rape as punishment for women and girls who tried to escape to further degrade and control them physically and psychologically. Despite this, many of the women continued to fight back against their captors, risking punishment and death in pursuit of freedom.

After the women were captured, they didnt immediately become slaves to the fighters, but were held for a period while their details were recorded. The process was systematised. Women were then sold in markets, either electronically over a mobile phone messenger app where their photos and slave numbers were exchanged, or in market halls and prisons at prearranged times.

Away from the main markets, women and girls, supplied by fighters or Isis members who acted as middlemen, were sold by local brokers in smaller numbers. At the beginning, they were given mainly to Iraqi fighters who took part in the battle for Sinjar. Subsequently, the remaining captives were taken to Syria, and sold there, often to fighters who had arrived from around the world.

In late 2014, a group of young, bearded men sat on long sofas lining the walls of a living room somewhere in the caliphate, wearing ammunition-packed vests. They joked with one another. Today is distribution day, God willing, said one of the men, as he flashed a grin at his companions. You can sell your slave, or give her as a gift You can do whatever you want with your share, said another fighter in view of the cameraman who was recording the exchange. The men didnt seem to notice and continued discussing buying women for three banknotes or a pistol.

By the summer of 2013,Raqqa, 370km west of Mosul in northern Syria, became Isiss de facto capital, and supporters from all over the world flocked there to join the group. It was also the destination for other women from Sinjar.

When we got to the farm [near Raqqa], we saw four or five buses full of Isis members with long hair and beards, said Zahra, a farmers daughter from Kojo. They were like animals. On the first day they came among us and started picking girls for themselves. Two or three of them would catch the girls, blindfold them and take them by force into a car. The girls were crying and shouting but they didnt care.

From the second floor of the building, the girls could see the Euphrates river, but they were hidden from view by the surrounding trees and fences.

We were just like sheep, when the shepherd goes toward them and the sheep disperse; thats how we were, running away from them, said Zahra. She fled when the men came, but she was blocked by a fence at the edge of the farm. On the first day the men took 20-40 girls. Food was delivered from a local restaurant for those who remained, but they were too scared to eat. They covered their faces with ash to try and look unattractive in the hope that they wouldnt be picked.

After two days, Zahra and her sister were taken to an underground Isis prison in Raqqa. Hundreds of women were crammed into three rooms in what was just one of several similar structures that were used for holding women in Raqqa. The girls arrived at night and werent allowed to see the outside of the building a tactic similar to that used by the Syrian government in its jails, said Sareta Ashraph.

A Yazidi woman abducted by Isis is carried to safety near Mount Sinjar. Photograph: Channel 4

Inside the prison, the women had to share a few filthy, overflowing toilets, forcing them to stand in raw sewage. Their bodies were crawling with sand flies. The only light came from two solar-powered lamps hanging from the ceiling, one prisoner recalled. Each morning the guards would give them a small piece of bread and cheese to share between two, and in the evening some rice and soup.

Some women sat on bags or clothes to try and avoid touching the filthy ground. Children cried constantly with hunger. The women waited under the constant fear of rape or death. They were always beating us and we had diarrhea because of the fear, said a woman I shall call Khulka, who is 30 years old and comes from the town of Tel Qasab. She had arrived at the prison with her four children, inside a refrigerator truck normally used for ice-cream. We didnt have a shower for one month and we always had lice in our hair. After two months they took us outside, but we couldnt stand because we hadnt seen the sun for so long, she said.

While in the jail, Khulka tattooed herself with the names of her husband and father, so that her body could be recognised and returned to them if she was killed. She mixed breast milk from a lactating woman with ash, and used a needle she had smuggled into the jail. With the same needle and some thread, she began embroidering her underwear with the names and numbers listed in her phone in case Isis found it and took it away. Khulka had been to school, and unlike many of the women there, she knew how to read and write. She also sewed other womens clothes with their loved ones names and numbers so that they would not be forgotten.

Historically, Yazidis associated formal education with repressive state authorities, the suppression of their language, and the threat of religious conversion. In the years before 2014, literacy rates had been improving in Sinjar, but many women and girls worked in the fields to support their families while their brothers went to school. Illiteracy made it harder for women to escape after they were taken into captivity, because they couldnt read the signs on unfamiliar buildings in Isis-held towns and cities.

Khulka was taken to a side room in the prison with her children and photographed by the Isis guards who gave her the slave number 16, which was then printed above her photo. There were around 500 women in the jail, she recalls, and all of them had to pose with their children and were given slave numbers. Before the picture was taken, she cut her daughters hair to make her look like a boy and stop them being separated. If the guards recognised her daughter as a young girl, there was more chance shed be taken. The other imprisoned women envied Khulkas grey hair, thinking it might save her from being seized. They tried to imitate it using ash.

Some of these women and girls resisted forced conversion, protected themselves against violence, or at least tried to, and protected their children. How they resisted really shows incredible intelligence, courage and strength, said human rights lawyer and gender justice advocate Sherizaan Minwalla.

Yazidi women who fled what is now Turkey during the first world war and the chaos that followed passed down stories that are repeated among Sinjaris today. Among them are accounts of how they did as Khulka was now doing: covering their daughters faces with ash and cutting their hair.

In the same prison, Zahra and her sisters were put together into small rooms. They heard screaming and crying as Isis guards came in the middle of the night to drag away the girls. The guards came for Zahras middle sister first. When Zahra pleaded with them not to take them separately, one of the guards whipped her with a cable.

After her sister was taken from the cell, the door opened again. This time Zahra was grabbed by two large men and shoved into a car. I wont go until you give me my sister! she cried out. The men drove her to a house in Raqqa belonging to an Isis member who kept her as his slave, then sold her on after four months to another Isis fighter. He found her disobedient and sold her on straight away to a fighter of only 18, who lived at a compound for Libyan fighters near Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria.

Many Yazidi girls were by being held in the same compound of 100 to 200 caravans where the Libyan fighters lived. The women and girls were chained, beaten, raped and passed around like animals between the men. At the edge of the compound, a barbed-wire fence prevented them from escaping. The stories of privation and torture suffered by Yezidi women in this compound are some of the worst in a long catalogue of abuses.

After a little more than a month at the farm, Leila and three other girls from Kojo were taken back to Iraq and kept in a military base near the IraqSyria border, more than 200km south of Sinjar in Anbar province. The military base was in Al-Qaim, a border crossing between Iraq and Syria, but by that time, under the caliphate, it was merely a pitstop between Isis-held stretches of desert. It was also a common crossing point for slaves passing between markets in Isis towns and cities. Leila was sold to a man called Muhammad, who looked familiar to her. Then she remembered who he was: his family were like godparents to her family.

When Leila recognised Muhammad, she was relieved: she thought he would rescue her, and maybe sell her back to her family. Instead, he sold her on. Three days later, Leila was taken to a military base near Ramadi and sold to an Isis military commander. Later, after she had escaped and was in Baghdad, someone asked her what she would do if she saw Muhammad again. I would burn him alive, she said.

The Isis commander who bought Leila in Ramadi was a notorious sadist known as Shakir Wahib, who had been terribly wounded in fighting, and was now trafficking women for sex and organising gang rapes. When one woman arrived in early 2016, having held on to a mobile phone, Leila managed to call her brother in Kurdistan and told him he needed to send someone to rescue her before the woman was moved on, and her phone with her. For two days, calls went back and forth between Leila and a smuggler called Abdullah, who eventually helped her to escape. Abdullah used to work in Aleppo and had a wide network of business contacts in Syria and Iraq. He had become a smuggler after 50 members of his family were kidnapped by Isis.

Most of the smugglers working to rescue Yazidi women are Yazidi businessmen. Some of the women are bought back from the Isis fighters holding them, or from the slave markets or online auctions. The cost of smuggling is reflective of the danger involved. Its not clear how much of the cash ends up with Isis, and how much goes to middlemen or the smugglers.

This black market thrives because families are left with no other options. The war against Isis continues to win back territory from the militants, but Yazidis told me that they would prefer the focus to be on saving their captive women and children, rather than winning back terrain.

Yazidis displaced by Isis in a camp near Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, January 2015. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

After reaching Baghdad, Leila and her niece travelled north by plane to the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, and then by road to the camps where many Yazidis from Sinjar had taken refuge, and where their families were waiting. When Leila arrived, she collapsed sobbing into the arms of her female relatives. She was in such a state of shock that, for the first few weeks, she had trouble understanding what her family were saying when they tried to talk to her.

Sometimes I watch the TV and I see the news of the army taking more land and villages, but its not this that we are worried about it is our people who are still imprisoned, Leila said. We know most of them are in Raqqa, so why are [the army] not going to save them there?

The failures have been broad and deep. Earlier this month, Iraqi forces, backed by coalition air cover, declared victory over Isis in Mosul.But for many, the price of that victory was high: civilians were killed by Isis as they tried to flee, as well as being bombarded by Iraqi forces and the coalition. In March 2017 a US airstrike on a house where families were sheltering in western Mosul killed more than 100 civilians.

Attention has now moved from Iraq to the presence of Isis in Syria, and the battle for Raqqa. As Iraqs politicians and their military patrons prepare to congratulate themselves, the Yazidi community looks on from displacement camps, rented homes or forced asylum overseas. Almost two years after it was cleared of Isis by Kurdish forces, Sinjar town remains in ruins. A new wave of fighting for Sinjar district is under way, with Turkey eyeing a violent incursion after bombing the area in April. The idea that this represents liberation is seen by Yazidis as a bad joke. The UN and others have tried to recognise and document the genocide, but justice looks a long way off. Meanwhile, the battle for survival of the women and girls who were taken by Isis continues long after their return.

Sinjar was recaptured from Isis by Kurdish forces, led by the peshmerga, in November 2015. Since then the peshmerga and other Kurdish armed groups have been in a hostile standoff with each other,with rival groups providing arms, training and patronage to local Yazidis. Brightly coloured flags of the various groups flutter above their respective checkpoints, which are sometimes only metres apart along roads that were recently controlled by Isis.

Yazidis now fear renewed attacks not just from Isis, but also from their Kurdish liberators. Yazidis themselves are not politically homogenous, and many distrust the rival Kurdish groups. By May 2016, despite the liberation, only 3,220 families had returned to Sinjar district.

While the infighting goes on, Isis stands only to gain. Yazidis are stuck in a complex series of client-patron relationships with Kurdish leaders, in which ethnic identification is used in exchange for promises of safety. Meanwhile, the Yazidis remain unable to define their future, militarily or politically. While military clashes continue, any political settlement to the rivalry between liberating forces looks a long way off.

Main photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters

This is an edited extract from With Ash On Their Faces: Yazidi Women and the Islamic State by Cathy Otten, which will be published by Or Books in October.

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

Read more:

In her most successful decade, the actor talks family, surrealist politics and the perils of marrying James Bond

Rachel Weisz stands in the doorway of a cafe in downtown New York, adjusting to the gloom from the brightness outside. We are in the East Village, a formerly bohemian part of town long since gentrified, although, as I note to her as she sits down, the park at the end of the street still seems to host a few local eccentrics. Yes, she smiles, fishing in her bag for her glasses. Its not all bankers. The 47-year-old lives around the corner and, in spite of her wealth, fame and marriage to Daniel Craig, gives the impression of living a life somewhat in line with the low-maintenance neighbourhood. This morning, Weisz dropped off Henry, her 10-yearold son, at school, went to yoga, caught up on emails, and tonight she is taking Henry to the theatre. She is trying to get people together on Sunday for a roast dinner.

I mention all this because Weisz is a serious person and an interesting actor who has almost no tolerance for the indignities of fame. Her own celebrity is bad enough, but my God, to be married to James Bond the mortifying excess of it! and her reserve in the face of what she considers lascivious interest has often presented, over the years, as diffidence. There is not much of that in evidence today; she is sunny and sociable, unrecognised by all but the staff at the cafe, and bearing little relation to the creepy terms in which British newspapers have, for 20 years, been describing her (a starlet, a siren and, of course, an English rose). In a floral print dress and sensible shoes, she looks like everyone else in the cafe, which is to say, someone who has only glanced in the mirror before leaving the house.

I realise I am being a killjoy with this, but there is a particularly trouser-rubbing tone to much of the coverage of Weisz that her near contemporaries Kate Winslet, Kate Beckinsale dont suffer to quite the same degree, and that has to do with an idea that her looks are unusual. The one startling thing about Weiszs appearance today is that, without much in the way of cosmetics, she looks easily 10 years younger than she is. At an age when a female movie stars options are expected to dwindle, Weisz is having the best decade of her career, starting in 2006 with her Oscar for best supporting actor in The Constant Gardener and leading up to Denial, in which she played Deborah Lipstadt, the Holocaust historian who was unsuccessfully sued for libel by David Irving. A few years ago, Weisz bought the rights to Naomi Aldermans novel Disobedience the story of a lapsed orthodox Jewish woman returning from her life in New York to her native north London which is about to go into post-production, and she is soon to appear in My Cousin Rachel, an adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel.

My Cousin Rachel is something of a Rorschach test, for viewers as for Weisz herself, who had to decide if her character was primarily a victim or a villain before playing the role. It is the story of a glamorous widow who returns from Italy to Cornwall and transfixes the young heir to her late husbands estate, whereupon her motives fall into question. The movie tries, successfully, to keep all interpretations open, as does Weisz. I cant tell you, she says as to whether she perceived the character to be a gold digger who conned a young man out of his fortune, or a woman unfairly maligned. I think it would ruin it. I completely decided, and Ive only met two people who have seen it other than you, and one of them was adamant and said, Oh, she definitely did it. And the other said not.

Rachel Weisz with Sam Claflin in her new film, My Cousin Rachel. Photograph: Nicola Dove

It is my hunch that Weisz plays the heroine as innocent; it is more morally interesting that way, turning the character from The Woman In Black into someone more sinned against than sinning, who flushes out the biases in all who would judge her. It also plays to a guilelessness in Weiszs style that seems vaguely rooted in her flair for absurdism. Weisz can do a better straight face than almost anyone, be that as Lipstadt, an American baffled by class subtext in the British legal system; or as the unnamed, short-sighted woman in The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimoss brilliant surrealist film in which her highly stylised performance relied for its comedy on a kind of aggressive earnestness, and in which she managed to look simultaneously blank and vaguely alarming.

Making Disobedience and My Cousin Rachel has meant spending long periods in London, where Weisz grew up, and where she and Craig still have a home. Weiszs mother died several years ago and her father is 88, but for the time being, moving back to Britain full time is out of the question; Weisz and Darren Aronofsky, her former partner, are jointly raising their son in New York. (Craig has a grownup daughter from a previous marriage.) Weisz was aware, however, during those weeks back in London, that she enjoyed a level of social comfort there that she doesnt experience in New York. She emigrated 16 years ago, and agrees that it was harder to make friends in ones 30s than ones 20s. When I was in London [recently], I had Sunday lunches every weekend, lamb or chicken in the oven, people milling about. I havent found that here, so Im going to start it. The forthcoming Sunday is to be her inaugural lunch.

Weisz says it was strange to be in Britain when the Brexit vote came in, although in some ways she finds Donald Trump the more puzzling phenomenon. Its hard for me even to understand how it happened, she says. Its surrealist. But its finite. Trump is pretty catastrophic, and there are terrible things he can do to the Earth and womens rights, but I feel it will be reversible, somehow. But Brexit feels like a death. Its gone. It made me think about my parents and the reason the European Union was created in the first place, to make sure we never had a war like that ever again, to come together and get rid of our nationalism, and be one stable thing. Its very hard.

Both Weiszs parents, who divorced in the 1980s, came to Britain as child refugees just before the second world war (her mother from Austria, her father from Hungary) and on the evidence of previous interviews, Weisz is irritated by ongoing interest in them. Now, she says, Im English, but my parents were refugees and I feel like, really, is that still interesting?

I wonder if questions about them strike her as a backhanded way to exoticise her origins. On the other hand, Weisz has also been thinking of her parents experiences lately. Its depressing, I suggest, how the warm welcome she says they received in England is not reflected in the current political climate.

I know. I know. I have been thinking about that, in relation to all the Syrian refugees and the xenophobia now. The way they recounted things is that they were massively welcomed in different parts of England and by different communities, and really felt proud to be English, even though, she starts laughing, they were really not. My dad is so Hungarian.

He still has an accent?

Oh yes.

And yet, she says, they were completely accepted. And they said, look at [Oswald] Mosley, no one would go that way. Thats what I grew up being told: the English sense of moral right means it could never have happened here.

With Colin Farrell in Yorgos Lanthimoss The Lobster. Photograph: Canal+/Rex/Shutterstock

The most animated Weisz gets in the course of our conversation is when she is revisiting her experiences at Cambridge University. She graduated with a degree in English in the early 90s, and spent most of her 20s trying unsuccessfully to get back to the happiness of being a student performer. The idea of acting on mainstream TV, let alone in Hollywood movies, never held much appeal; as a teenager, Weisz famously turned down a role opposite Richard Gere in a movie called King David, and by university she was convinced her talents lay in more avant-garde work. I remember this thing I once saw from Poland at the Edinburgh festival, maybe it was 1990 it was communist-era and it was a family, speaking Polish, so none of us could understand what they were saying. And theyd begin in a home with all their stuff around them and then a siren would go off and this relates to my mum, I guess suddenly the whole family would pack up their entire life and put everything into seven suitcases. It felt like a circus, juggling things. And then theyd march around the stage with this trumpet music playing, and theyd settle somewhere else and unpack their bags and start a new life, talking in Polish, and then woo-woo-woo the siren would go off again. It was one of the most incredible pieces of theatre that I have ever seen.

Weiszs mother was about five when she left Austria, and her experiences echoed subtly through her daughters childhood. My mum would always give me food, wherever I was going, even if I was going somewhere very briefly. I think thats a refugee thing. A sandwich, an apple. I still tend to carry food with me, too. Its a habit. It came in useful when I had a kid they get low blood sugar. I would say travelling, for my mum, was not easy. I mean, she loved going to places, but the actual journey it was not a streamlined experience for her. Packing. Packing.

Why packing?

With her husband, James Bond actor Daniel Craig. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Well, when she left Vienna, it was two weeks before the Germans arrived and they didnt want to let people out, so you had to pretend you were going on holiday. Her mum packed however many pairs of knickers one took on holiday in 1935, to look like a two-week holiday. Probably two at that time, and you washed them. And a toy. The shock of this move was not something her mother ever explicitly talked to her about, but the way I built it in my mind, she ended up in very different circumstances, very poor, in Hertfordshire.

By contrast, Weisz was raised in a prosperous household in Hampstead Garden Suburb, north London, her father an engineer and her mother by then a psychotherapist. It was strange, she says, being back in those parts to film Disobedience. I didnt grow up as an orthodox Jew, whereas the community in the book is very religious. Theyre Haredi, so all the women wear wigs. I grew up in a very liberal Jewish household and my mum was a convert from Catholicism. But we filmed in Golders Green high street and the director of photography had grown up on the next street from me. And it was the most extraordinary thing. It felt mythological ordinary and mythological at the same time. I remember being a child, and thats where the ice-cream shop was where I went after school, which was very potent. But it was also nothing to do with my life.

It is this tangential relationship to reality that Weisz likes best about her job, enabling her to self-expose under cover of drama. I like the idea that in stories, ever since Greek tragedy, the unspeakable, the undoable, the unsayable, the taboo, the fuck-you, whatever all those things can happen and no one gets hurt. I like fiction for that reason.

Does that limit the extent to which she reveals herself? I think youre completely revealed, but its you threaded through the coordinates of this fiction. Theres no biographical detail to get at, but I think youre ultimately revealed.

Autobiography is a less palatable business entirely. She has a policy of not speaking publicly about her life with Craig, whom she married in 2011, although she will concede that if one must be a famous actor who marries a more famous actor, one cant really blame people for ogling. Yes, my bad, she says drily. I ask if they have even a grain of competitive spirit between them and she says: I think that would be true if we were both women, or both men. I cant play his roles and vice versa.

After Cambridge, she was confident her life in avant-garde theatre was set to continue, until the acting partner with whom she had set up a theatrical company decided to go to Rada and the thing fell apart. We were going to apply for Arts Council funding, but suddenly it was like, Oh, thats not happening. And I had an agent, and things started happening in television. I was trying to do naturalistic acting. That was so weird. I remember, for one of my first jobs, I had to play a student and I thought, I dont know how to do that, even though all Id done in life was be a student.

What was it?

It was something from Scotland called The Advocate. She rolls her eyes. I didnt know how to do naturalism, whatever that means.

So she had to figure it out quickly?

Or, slowly. Yeah.

Weisz won an Oscar in 2006 for The Constant Gardener. Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk

Weiszs father, in particular, didnt disguise his lack of enthusiasm for her chosen career path. She has said in the past that he let it be known he didnt think she was a good enough actor, which she laughingly concedes was very much the case early on. I ask if it is conceivable she would ever express a negative opinion about her own childs skills the way her father did about hers.

Well, obviously my dad will read this article, so what can I say? Would I ever do that? Um. I think, if my dad was here, he would say, I think Rachel appreciates my honesty. I dont mollycoddle her and Im honest and she can trust what I say. And its a different generation, hes 88. Parenting that word its very different now in terms of directness, maybe.

Parenting didnt exist back then?

No. We just grew up. I think hed say that if he gives me a compliment, I know I can believe it. She starts laughing. He says this thing you know the expression, Well, to tell you the truth. And my dad always says, You were lying before?

Would she repeat that honest approach with her son? There is a long pause. I think one can think whatever one wants, she says, but one cant say whatever one wants.

After making The Mummy, a big hit in 1999, Weisz ricocheted between splashy but forgettable films (Enemy At The Gates, Runaway Jury) and smaller, more resonant ones. She was great in the adaptation of Nick Hornbys About A Boy, and appeared in The Fountain, a magical realist romantic drama, with Hugh Jackman, under the direction of her then partner, Aronofsky. She recently made another film with Lobster director Lanthimos, The Favourite, a period drama starring Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, who reigned until 1714 and was the last Stuart monarch. Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, one of the queens advisers. It is striking that if a project interests her, she will forgo the lead and take a smaller, ensemble part.

As Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt in Denial. Photograph: AP

This was not the case in Denial, which was very much Weiszs movie. During preproduction, she and Lipstadt bonded over the discovery that the Reverend James Parkes, the man who helped Weiszs mothers family come to England, was a theologian Lipstadt had studied in college. Her mother died of cancer, at the age of 83, before Denial was released, but her father thought it was an important film. A friend of my dads wife made a documentary about my dad going back to the flat where he used to live [in Hungary], and being let in and walking around. Theyre offices now, there were secretaries sitting there. And he said, This is my bedroom. They went to the playground where he used to play.

As she gets older, Weisz sees that securing the kinds of roles she wants necessitates her involvement at an earlier stage in the process. She is robustly feminist; when she thinks about history the second world war, womens enfranchisement it seems to her we all have very short memories. Thats how I feel about when women got the vote. Guys, weve only had a second. But she is also critical of the vapid form so much feminist commentary takes. I was thinking about that expression women in film, she says, as if were outliers. Giraffes in film! Or pandas in film! Meanwhile, she is especially proud of Disobedience, because, I produced that and made that happen. I bought the rights for the book three years ago. It didnt land at my door. I really loved that experience of working with the writer. Now Im watching edits and its using a different muscle from acting.

The play she is taking her son to see tonight is Sweeney Todd, which hes very excited about, she says, because apparently they give out real pies. Beyond that, she is hanging out in the neighbourhood, enjoying downtime between projects while awaiting the release of My Cousin Rachel. That it is a quiet film, slow-paced like a novel and part of what feels like a mini Du Maurier renaissance, isnt unusual for Weisz, but it does feel singular to the extent that the audience never gets closure on who the heroine is. People are going to bring their own interpretations, she says. Shes a bit of a mystery, right?

My Cousin Rachel is on general release.

Read more:

Stories and photographs of families who have found peace and pride after resettling in Tamworth, New South Wales, a regional centre that has been transformed since 2006 when it drew national ire for its rejection of refugees

In a country town we need to all work together, know each other, says Tamworth resident and refugee advocate Eddie Whitham.

We need to find a common ground. Its not going to work if we have isolated people. We want to make our town work. The hope is that this will become a natural thing that there will be no us and them.


On the traditional lands of the the Kamilaroi people, Tamworth in New South Wales is now home to people of more than 80 different nationalities and has an estimated population close to 43,000.

Yet as recently as 2006, when it was proposed that the area resettle five Sudanese families fleeing from war, hunger and persecution, there was such concern from the community that a quarter of those who took part in a residents survey expressed their disapproval and the plan was voted down by the council, attracting national criticism.

Whitham, the founder of Multicultural Tamworth an organisation with the ethos of being good neighbours to newcomers says a lot has changed with the help of open and honest discussion. The region is now welcoming and celebrating diversity.

Here are the stories and portraits of those who have joined the community.

Shalini Pratap and family


A third-generation Fijian Indian, Shalini Pratap came to Australia in 1999 with her husband, an air-conditioning and refrigeration technician, who was issued a skilled workers visa.

Our first move was to Alice Springs, she says. It was a great move, a beautiful connection with Australia. A chance to experience real Australia.

The family decided to move to Tamworth in 2003 to be closer to family. At the time there were no other Fijian Indians in the region.

My husband started his business in Tamworth and it has been very successful. This is a reflection of the community, how welcoming they have been to us. Tamworth is very much home, a great community.



When asked about maintaining a connection to her culture, she replies: We owe our ancestors to maintain some of our culture and teach our daughter about her family history. We have a great sense of pride in being Aussie and Fijian Indian.

Shalinis daughter, Vineesha Veer, 15, is excelling at school and dreams of studying medicine. Australia has given me everything, she says.

Vineesha often wears traditional dress and joins her mother in regular Bollywood film nights. I love to wear clothes from India, she says. Fashion is one of the strongest links to my culture.

Nicole Li and family


Chinese couple Nicole Li and Charlie He arrived in 2014 as skilled migrants and have now applied to become permanent residents. Li, an engineering surveyor, and He, who has a background in IT, are settling into their new home with their nine-year-old son, James.


Li says the decision to migrate was tough on her parents, owing to Chinas one-child policy.

Wed never been [to Australia] before so coming here has been a total adventure for us, Li says. Coming from Beijing, we love the quiet and less-stressful lifestyle. We feel very free.

David Thon and Deborah Manyang


David Thon and Deborah Manyang came to Australia from the Kakuma refugee camp that is home to thousands, many known as the lost boys of Sudan.

Thon was resettled through the United Nations in 2007, along with his cousin. I was so happy to be coming to Australia and definitely felt some comfort knowing my cousin was with me, he says.

Manyang arrived in 2010 and, as a family, they moved to Tamworth in 2015. Its safe here, she says. We cant hear guns or see soldiers. Were happy. Its a new future for our children, they are adapting well and the local people have been very helpful.

Read more:

A riot broke out in Stockholm soon after the US president said immigration was causing problems

You dont have to look very hard in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby to identify some of the problem youths who ran riot here. As cars were set on fire and police were pelted with stones on Monday, Rinkeby found itself centre stage in the furore that followed Donald Trumps claim that immigration was bringing Sweden problems like they never thought possible.

A gaggle of young men of Somali and east African origin hover around Rinkeby Grillen, a burger and kebab bar on the station car park where the riot happened.

I have this nice weed, grins the tallest of them, clad in a thick hooded winter jacket to ward off the icy weather. You can put that in your article: write Rinkeby is like Amsterdam. We all smoke this nice weed.

He then jokily claims involvement in Mondays police skirmish. You can call me Hassan the stone thrower! he says, causing his friend, who calls himself Jamal Raheem, to hoot that was real good, man, in a variant of English that will be familiar to anyone who lives in London.

What is immediately apparent about these young men is that they havent imported their problem culture to Sweden from the poverty-stricken districts of Afghanistan or the bombed-out suburbs of Aleppo, but from the US and the UK. A lot of them were born in Britain, says Amir Zujovic, part of the large police presence keeping the peace in the suburb. Its not unusual if you catch someone selling drugs, when you look at their record, you see that they have also committed crimes inEngland.

These young men are revelling in the attention they have been getting since international TV crews and journalists arrived, many seeking to portray the suburb as a lawless, crime-ridden disaster area. This thing has been very big, we have become very famous, shouts one who refuses to give his name. Weve had Australian TV, American TV, everybody!

The riot came after two days in which Trump had been ridiculed for telling his supporters: You look at whats happening last night in Sweden, despite the fact that nothing of any significance had happened. (It later emerged he had been referring to a clip from a documentary on Fox News.)

So when some youths fought off the police who had come to arrest a local rapper, and then spent the next hour torching a handful of cars, breaking into a branch of Lidl and assaulting a photographer, it got blanket coverage.

And on Friday, Trump himself cited it as proof that he had been right all along. I took a lot of heat on Sweden. And then a day later I said: Has anybody reported whats going on? And it turned out not too many of them did, he said in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. The people over there understand Im right.

In fact, while many people in Sweden probably believe the 160,000 asylum seekers the country took in in 2015 was too many, few would agree that the country is facing insurmountable problems as a result. Trumps statements first forced the Swedish foreign ministry to make an official request for clarification, and then, on Thursday, to launch a new English-language web page, Facts about Migration and Crime in Sweden, which reports that crime in Sweden has been falling for 20 years, despite high levels of immigration.

On Friday, the former rightwing prime minister Carl Bildt wrote a comment article, The Truth about Refugees in Sweden, in which he argued that the 100,000 refugees Sweden took from Bosnia when he was in power had made Sweden a better country. I regret that President Trump is slandering our country in his attempts to find reasons for what he wants to do in closing off the United States, he wrote. If it were not for the massive turmoil that could ensue, I would urge him to skip one of his golfing weekends and come to us and see for himself.

Many local people are also upset by the tone of much of the coverage. Police officer Hanif Azizi told Mail Online: When we sat in the car and saw the riots, I tapped my colleague on the shoulder and said, perhaps Trump was right after all. But he is anxious to point out that is not all he said. Its quite unfair when they take one sentence and leave everything else out, he says. I get really sad when I see that they are trying to twist everything to fit a political agenda.

A policeman investigates a burnt-out car in Rinkeby after the riot last week. Photograph: Fredrik Sandberg/Reuters

Azizi believes immigration has been good for Sweden. If it wasnt for the open immigration policy I wouldnt even be in Sweden, so Im for it, he says. If Trump was talking about immigration, then hes wrong.

Rinkeby is a nice place, thats what I think, says Julianna, 13, who has come out of her music class at Kvarnby elementary school in an exuberant mood, along with her friends Tiffany, Zeinab, Gabriella, Brkti and Melissa and their teacher, Ulrik Dahl. Ive lived here all my life, everybody here takes care of one another, its like a big family.

People who dont live here, they say here that its a terrible place, but they dont know anything, Tiffany chips in. I like it here in Rinkeby. Rinkeby is the best.

While the 2,405 violent crimes reported per 100,000 residents in the Rinkeby-Kista district last year make it the most dangerous place in Stockholm outside the city centre, the rate still sits below a reported violent crime rate of 2,900 per 100,000 for the UK as a whole. But it is undoubtedly true that delinquency is a problem, particularly at night. During the day, Rinkeby is pretty much like any other area, Azizi says. But during the evening, a certain group of people are taking over the central area, and people are afraid ofthem.

A white Bosnian woman and a Polish resident, both of whom declined to be named, say they tried to stay away from the centre at night. I dont normally come out in the evening because there are a lot of young people who come out and stand around everywhere, the Polish woman says. Were always looking to move from here, because its no place for a small child.

I wouldnt recommend anyone else to come here, says the Bosnian woman, who has lived here since 1993. They robbed my flat, they have stolen my childrens bicycles, they attack me, they block me from going into my building.

Residents who report the young men dealing cannabis or robbing shops around the underground station risk being beaten up, Azizi says. But for him the most worrying development is that more and more of them have access to weapons. During the last one or two years, there have been major shootings in our area, Azizi says. We didnt have these kinds of murders before.

In December, two men walked into Kaffe Mynta, a restaurant in the Rinkabystrket shopping arcade, and shot dead two brothers. The cafes owner Jamal Ziani, 46, who came to Rinkeby from Morocco when he was six, is surprisingly sanguine, pointing out that it was only the second shooting in Rinkeby in five years.

Its not a big deal. Rinkebys a really calm place if you compare it to places outside, say, Paris, he says. But he too is a little worried at the emergence of gangster culture. The thing that they have in the US is starting to come to Europe now, that whole gangster thing, with the music and everything.

Mondays riot was a case in point. Police had come to take a celebrated local rapper who had been charged with carrying a firearm into custody.

Tomas Acar, a former boxer turned youth worker who knew the murdered brothers well, blames this outlaw mentality on segregation. I would guess that the only Swedish people they know are the teachers in school, but outside school I would say they have no ethnic Swedish friends at all, he says. In some cases they feel anger, they feel they are being discriminated against.

Rinkeby arguably has worse problems with segregation than even immigrant areas of London and Paris, with more than 90% of people living here either being born abroad or having parents who were.

Sweden has the most ethnically segregated cities of all the groups of countries in the OECD, says Irene Molina, professor of cultural geography at Swedens Uppsala University, although she points out that the generous welfare state means there is less of the poverty you see elsewhere.

But even the troublemakers here admit that what they get up to is small fry compared with what goes on in bigger cities. Rinkeby is not dangerous, says Jamal Raheem, who says he is on a two-week holiday from his home in east London. Its totally over the top. Its a lot more dangerous inStratford.

Read more:

Charli XCX, Pixie Geldof, Olly from Years & Years plus assorted indie musicians are raising money by performing Gimme Shelter at the NME awards on Wednesday. Can they pull it off?

Read more:

From the female squash champion fleeing the Taliban, to the gay popstar who became a hit back in macho Brazil, its often Canadas newcomers who can tell its most dramatic stories

The cliched threat to move to Canada because of political unpleasantness in your own country entirely hypothetical unpleasantness, of course (cough trumpfaragelepen) often seems empty. Its like a stroppy kid saying hes going to run away from home, to which the standard parental response is: Be my guest.

For the British loyalists who fled the US revolution, however, or the tens of thousands of black slaves who travelled via the Underground Railroad, or the roughly same number of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s, Canada has long been a place of refuge.

Nor is emigrating to Canada just about escape. The countrys particular combination of social tolerance, relative gender equality, collaborative cultural spirit and 4.7 quadrillion trees have attracted global emigres for as long as Canada has been an independent nation. (One hundred and fifty years next 1 July, but you knew that.)

Equally cliche, perhaps, would be to suggest that each brings a story. But weve found a handful of genuinely remarkable ones. Chris Michael

The athlete

Maria Toorpakai, Pakistans top female squash player

Nobody knew that I was a girl … Maria Toorpakai, who lived as a boy for more than a decade. Photograph: Lorne Bridgman for the Guardian

It doesnt take long to track Maria Toorpakai down in the Toronto financial district club where she now trains. Everyone nods to the squash courts where the 25-year-old has spent the morning.

It hasnt always been so easy to find her. In 2007, death threats from the Taliban forced her into hiding. Confined to her home in Pakistans Waziristan region for more than three years, she spent hours each day playing squash in her bedroom, turning the walls into a makeshift court.

Although she was only 16, much of her life had already been spent at war with the entrenched gender roles of her tribal region. Women are considered weak, not smart and [are] confined to four walls, says Toorpakai.

Her first attempt to challenge this idea came at the age of four when she burned all her dresses in the backyard and lopped off her hair with a pair of sewing scissors. She braced herself for her fathers reaction. Rather than him getting angry, he just laughed and said, Your name is Genghis Khan from now on.

For the next eight years she lived outwardly as a boy.

She developed a reputation as tough, challenging boys to fights. And it was when, aged 12, one of these fights landed her in hospital that her father looked to the local sports arena for an outlet for Toorpakais energy.

It was there that she fell in love with squash. I just liked the way the kids were playing, everybody was watching them, clapping and theyre jumping, diving, getting the ball the rackets are so beautiful.

There was a moment when, after years of living as a boy, it seemed as if the jig might be up. Signing up at a squash academy, her father was asked to produce Toorpakais birth certificate. He took a gamble, saying, This is my daughter, actually. The academy owner surprised them with his reaction: He said: Im so happy that finally a girl is playing sports here, and handed her a brand new racquet emblazoned with the name of Jonathon Power, then the worlds top-ranked squash player.

Toorpakai spent hours each day on the court. The only female player in the region, she attracted constant scrutiny. She endured leering and bullying, but focused instead on winning tournaments. She climbed to the top of the countrys junior national rankings in 2005 only two years after she first picked up a racquet.

But with success came unwanted attention, and thats when the death threats started. The Taliban was active in the region and she knew the threats couldnt be ignored: Some of my family and friends, they were kidnapped, some were killed.

She confined herself at home for safety, but did her best to keep training, pausing only to send emails around the world, offering her services as a coach in exchange for a place where she could train without fear.

One of her few replies came from Power, the man whose name was inscribed on her first racket. Retired and teaching squash in Toronto, he told her he had been to Pakistan and offered to help. It was unbelievable to know that someone like Jonathon Power was sending me a message. A world champion.

She landed in Toronto in March 2011. Power met her at the airport. Everyone just received me with so much love. Right away we started playing, figuring out my training schedule. Five years later, Toorpakai is Pakistans top-ranked female squash player.

Off court, Toorpakai now shares a home in Toronto with three friends and relishes a life of squash, cooking and the occasional movie. Out of the whole world, God chose Canada for me, she says. But while Canada is where Toopakai found the freedom to play, shes adamant its Pakistan she represents in competition. Squash one of her homelands most popular sports has become a medium through which she can push for change in how women are seen and treated. If I keep playing for Pakistan, then I can inspire many girls, she says. And they can believe in themselves.

Ashifa Kassam

The adventurer

Graeme Dargo, one of the last Bay Boys

I had visions of fir trees … Scottish-born Graeme Dargo learned to grade furs and negotiate with trappers. Photograph: Lorne Bridgman for the Guardian

On a February morning in 1981, Graeme Dargo stood in the middle of a frozen lake in northern Saskatchewan watching a three-seater plane take off without him. A suitcase with all of the belongings hed brought with him from Scotland was all that stood between him and the wilderness.

He took off and Im going, Holy shit, what have I done? says Dargo. But this was part of the big adventure exactly what Id expected.

Though he didnt know it at the time, Dargo was in the last cohort of a centuries-old tradition: recruiting young Scots to staff the Arctic outposts of the Hudsons Bay Company. Dubbed Bay Boys, these experience-hungry men worked the backbone of stores that supplied Canadas most remote settlements.

Dargo had graduated at 16 in StAndrews the so-called home of golf and embarked on life as a butcher. Then at 21, just as he was growing dissatisfied with his job, he saw a newspaper advert for young people to work in a company of adventurers.

I had visions of fir trees and big lakes, and a very nomadic wilderness kind of life, says Dargo. Almost like a tourism ad for the Rockies.

The small plane actually deposited Dargo outside the Chipewyan-speaking community of La Loche, Saskatchewan, where despite never having previously seen a gun he took up hunting, fishing and trapping with his aboriginal co-workers.

At the time, Hudsons Bay still North Americas oldest company was the largest purchaser of furs in northern Canada. Dargo would pay a hunter-trapper an advance to cover ammunition, traps and supplies, and the man would return from a season of travelling with large sacks of furs. Dargo learned to grade the furs and negotiate a price.

The European fur ban changed all that. It was devastating to the local communities. Dargo recalls the day an old man entered the store, laden with bags of fur, and Dargo had to tell him they wouldnt buy it. He says, How can I pay my bill, then? How can I feed my family? Oh, it was awful. I felt really badly about that.

Meanwhile, he was doing everything he could to become more Canadian. Curling came naturally to him, and he took up ice hockey despite not knowing how to skate. After clinging to the boards for the first season, Dargo finally got the hang of it and scored a few goals.

All his efforts paid off in the Inuit hamlet of Kimmirut, when a judge brought him in front of the community and naturalised him as a Canadian citizen.

After nine years with the Hudsons Bay, Dargo joined the territorial government and embarked on a career that saw him become a deputy minister within just 10 years. Maybe this is a Scottish thing, but I took the words civil servant seriously, he says. Still, I was also an entrepreneur by nature. He now works with a gold mining company to help prepare indigenous people to share in the employment benefits of development on their land.

After 35 years in Canada, Dargo is a northern man, but Scotland still has a place in his heart. This week, Im on vacation pursuing a traditional Scottish activity on the land: chasing a little white ball, he says. Some things we dont lose.

Jessa Gamble

The pop star

Meg Remy, aka US Girls

I grew up with guns, so it all felt familiar … Meg Remy

In the spring of 2010, Meg Remy now better known as the solo artist US Girls was living in Philadelphia and anxious for a change of scenery. In the barely post-recession climate, Remy could already see the seeds of Trumpism. I could feel it coming on, and I knew I wanted to go.

Something like fate intervened when she was invited to perform a gig in Halifax, Nova Scotia, though she nearly didnt go. Thank God I did, she says. I walked into the club and Max [Turnbull, the pop psych musician who performs as Slim Twig] was performing. For six months afterwards, they kept up a long-distance relationship. But we knew it was right and we didnt mess around.

That fall, she wrangled an artist residency at Gibraltar Point, on bucolic Toronto Island. It was amazing to be on this island where you could see the city, but you were removed from it. I was blown away that that place even existed. On Boxing Day she made Toronto her permanent home.

Beyond love, Remys decision to relocate north rests on the classic trifecta of Canadian qualities: gunlessness, healthcare and arts grants.

On guns: In Chicago, a pregnant 21-year-old woman was shot in the back of the head outside my front door, dying instantly in her pink velour track suit. And one time in Philly, I was at Kinkos making copies and some guy came in to fax something. When it came time to pay, he pulled a gun and was like, Im not paying. Then he walked out. It was for $1.70 or something. But I grew up with guns, so it all felt familiar.

On health care: I would meet people from Canada and be like, So you can go to the doctor? Oh my God, thats so civilised. When people in a society accept that, it comes with a whole lot of other stuff. Because that means that you fundamentally care about other people. It seeps into all other areas.

On grants: When I started getting interested in making videos, I got a Toronto Arts Council grant to make a short film. I had an idea, but didnt have the money. I submitted my proposal and got it, which was pretty amazing because I wasnt someone with a film career or anything. I was just a person with a good idea.

Canada had another curious influence: the experimentalism of her earlier musical recordings gave way to overt nods to midcentury American pop classicism. US Girls began to embrace the sounds of Motown and girl groups, albeit refracted through a sensibility that brought to mind David Lynch, Cindy Sherman and Mike Kelley.

A case of clarity through distance, perhaps. But this shift in her musical identity also fits with the argument made by John Murray Gibbon in his 1938 book Canadian Mosaic. Gibbon wrote about how nurturing cultural differences could be done in service of the federal whole thereby laying the conceptual groundwork for the future adoption of multiculturalism as government policy under Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s. The idea contrasted with the much ballyhooed ideal of American assimilationism, the so-called melting pot so by this measure, in being more American in her music, Remy is paradoxically being more Canadian.

Her move to Canada has also opened her up to more collaborative ways of making music. Her sound today, she says, is the result of falling in with a like-minded crowd. They were so in line with my taste and so willing to help me, that it was just a weird freak thing. Now Im making a modest living off of music, and I owe that hugely to all the people Ive worked with in Toronto.

Her last record, Half Free, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polaris prize, and her next with Toronto collective the Cosmic Range is set for a 2017 release. Soon after that, if all goes to plan, the US Girl will officially become the most unlikely of things: a Canadian.

Daniel Vila

The police officer

Garry Woods, ex-Royal Ulster Constabulary

Policing in Northern Ireland was more like being a solider … Garry Woods. Photograph: Colin Way for the Guardian

As the son of a police officer during the Troubles, Garry Woodss childhood in Belfast wasnt exactly carefree. He had certain privileges a good school, a nice home but with them came a life of constant vigilance.

I wasnt allowed to go near our car until my dad had checked it first, he says. I couldnt answer the front door. I couldnt tell anyone what my dad did for a job.

But when youve never known anything else, thats normal.

Thats one reason why, after university, he decided to follow in his fathers footsteps by joining the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Youd put on the uniform and be a target, he says. But I wasnt scared. It was exciting, in a perverse kind of way.

He served for 14 years. After the end of the Troubles, however, Northern Ireland didnt need as many police officers. Many were directed toward retraining and transfer programs, and one day Woods attended a seminar selling the dream of Canada.

Woods didnt fall for the promises, which included big jobs in major cities, but it did sow that seed of curiosity, he says. In 2003, he went on a holiday to Toronto, followed by a separate visit to Calgary – where he walked into police headquarters and asked for a job. I loved Calgary, still do, he says. I love the big sky. The sun was shining the entire 10 days I was here, and people were so friendly and helpful.

Woods was, in fact, part of a wave of immigrants hired in the early 2000s by the Calgary Police Service to help deal with the citys booming population. Calgary poached more than 120 officers from Britain, which was targeted for its common language and similar training.

Policing in Canada was a revelation. For a long time, Northern Ireland was the most dangerous country in the world to be a police officer. Policing there was more like being a soldier, he says. In some of the areas we went to calls with a minimum of eight police officers. We had soldiers backing us up on every call. Checking under my car for explosives, being armed 24/7, not telling anyone what I did for a living … My normal was a heightened state of alert.

On one of his first days with the Calgary Police Service, colleagues offered to drive him through the citys roughest neighbourhood. They drove and drove. Finally Woods asked when they were going to get there.

Weve already gone through it, they told me. And I thought, thats the worst theyve got? Thats not that bad at all.

Woods is now a constable on the diversity resource team, building relationships with Latin American and Caribbean cultural groups, and giving presentations to new immigrants like he once was – talking to them about Canadian law, driving, domestic violence, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other aspects of life in their new country. These are people who may have had negative experiences in their former country with the police, he says. Im here to show them that a police officer is just another person.

Shelley Boettcher

The advocate

Tima Kurdi, the aunt of Alan Kurdi

Here, you have a voice, people will listen Tima Kurdi. Photograph: Tyler Stiem for the Guardian

When Tima Kurdi first arrived in Vancouver in 1992, a time in her life that now seems impossibly remote, she was confused: where were all the Canadian people?

She had moved from Syria to be with her new husband, and everywhere she looked around their apartment complex, at the printing press where she worked nights she saw immigrants like herself.

Her boss at the printing company was the first white Canadian she got to know. She said to me, Im going to teach you 10 words of English per night. Their friendship was a revelation: they shopped together, got to know one anothers family. I felt welcome. You can be yourself [here]. No one will impose You must be this kind of Canadian on you.

Such openness reminded Kurdi of Damascus, where her large, tight-knit Muslim family had belonged to the Syrian capitals multicultural middle class, and had lived side by side with Christians, Jews and Muslims from different sects. We knew their culture, they knew our culture everyone was different and it didnt matter. It was beautiful.

Even years later, when she was well-established as a hair stylist in the quiet suburb of Port Coquitlam and was raising a son He speaks English, Arabic and Kurdish: a good Canadian boy she still talked to her family in Syria nearly every day, and missed Damascuss lively social life.

It was on a visit back there in 2011 that Kurdi first saw news of the clashes between protesters and the Syrian government on TV. At first, she says, no one was taking it too seriously. When checkpoints sprang up around the city, Kurdi started to worry but she returned home to Canada as scheduled.

Then all of a sudden boom. My relatives started to witness terrible things.

The civil war broke out in earnest. Her brothers and sisters soon fled to Kobani, near the Turkish border, then to Turkey itself.

From Canada, Kurdi helped as best she could. She secured them places to live in Istanbul, away from the refugee camps, and subsidised their rents. In 2014 she visited, and was disturbed by what she saw. Her 13-year-old nephew, instead of going to school, was working 12-hour days at a garment factory. In Istanbul she went door to door collecting blankets and clothes her brothers and sisters were too proud, and too embarrassed, to ask for help from the local people.

On her return to Kurdi was determined to bring her family to Vancouver, but the Conservative government of Stephen Harper had set strict quotas on refugees.

So in 2015, she helped pay for smugglers to take her family across the water to Europe.

On 2 September, the inflatable boat they were travelling in capsized.

Kurdis three-year-old nephew Alan, his five-year-old brother Ghalib, and their mother, Rehanna, all drowned. Alans tiny body washed up on a Turkish beach a photograph that galvanised international opinion around the refugee crisis.

In Vancouver, a devastated Kurdi addressed reporters outside her home, pleading in a raw stream of consciousness for an end to the war. She barely looked at the cameras. I felt like I was on trial because I couldnt help them, Kurdi says.

But her brother Abdullah Alans father encouraged her to keep talking: Tima, maybe the picture of my boy is a wakeup call to the world. So I decided to speak up for all refugees.

Kurdi has since addressed the EU Parliament, met with UN officials and heads of state and delivered public talks. It hasnt been easy. The crisis, still with no end in sight, weighs heavily on her. She opened her own hair salon in Vancouver earlier this year, but admits shes no longer as passionate about her work as she used to be.

When it comes to her advocacy for migrants, Kurdi says that being from Canada has helped: Here, you have a voice, people will listen. She believes the country is rediscovering its heritage as a place of refuge, especially since the election of prime minister Justin Trudeau, who honoured his campaign promise to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees. But she still thinks the government could do more.

In Canada, we are showing the world. The majority of Canadians have opened their hearts to the refugees. Here, you are allowed to keep your culture and still be Canadian. It reminds me of the Syria I remember.

Tyler Stiem

The charity worker

Uriel Jelin, Jewish-Argentinian leadership trainer

The door that opened the most warmly was Winnipeg … Uriel Jelin at the citys Jewish community centre. Photograph: Ian McCausland for the Guardian

As a middle-class professional living in Buenos Aires, Uriel Jelin, 39, felt he had to adapt to the levels of crime in Argentinas capital. We lived in a nice neighbourhood. And some nights we put the chair against the door.

In 2015, he and his wife, Cynthia Fidel, decided theyd had enough of the political instability and institutional decay in Argentina, which had not recovered fully from its 2001 economic crisis when it lurched into a new one.

So they left their coastal city of more than 3 million for the landlocked prairie city of Winnipeg, home to around 720,000 people.

On the first night in our apartment, we looked at the lock and said, This is a joke. This is not a real lock. And I was tempted to put the chair against the door, Jelin recalls.

People said to me, Where are you going? Winnipeg? Such a boring place. And I said Yes, thats what we want. We want a place where it isnt dangerous to go outside.

They arent alone. Over the past decade and a half, a steady exodus of professionals (Jelin and Fidel are administrators for charity organisation) have left Argentina.

Hundreds most of them Jewish chose to settle in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the first Canadian province to set up an immigration program of its own to run alongside the national system. About 15,000 people a year arrive under the provincial nominee programme.

The door that opened most warmly the most welcoming was Winnipeg, Jelin says. The local Jewish community was especially supportive, sensitive to a disturbing undercurrent of antisemitism that Jelin describes as pervasive within Argentinas police and armed forces.

So in February 2015, Jelin, a heavily pregnant Fidel and their daughter, Sofia, left 30C weather in Buenos Aires for overnight lows of -20C. For Jelin, the move renewed a pattern: his family had left Belarus for a more welcoming Argentina three decades previously.

Canada is very open to newcomers. You receive a lot of help, he says, citing free government-provided English lessons and assistance from both Argentinian and Jewish community organisations. There are a lot of mechanisms to help you integrate.

The couple now have a Winnipeg-born son, Eliel, to join Sofia, and Fidel jokes that the family practically lives at Winnipegs Jewish community centre, where Spanish, Russian and Hebrew can be heard in the halls.

It was very easy for us to sympathise and make friends with other newcomers, mostly Israelis. Same age. More or less same social profile. Small kids. Also Jewish. Also migrants.

Finding work was not as easy. Jelins first job, at a call centre, didnt get off to a smooth start: The first month was terrible, for me and for the people on the other side of the phone. They suffered a lot, I suffered a lot. But it was very good for my English,,he says. The value of the experience was a lot more than the money.

Fidel eventually found work at the Jewish National Fund Office, and Jelin is now employed by the Indigenous Leadership Development Institute, a non-profit organisation that provides leadership training to Manitobas sizable indigenous community, with whom he says he feels an affinity as a Latin-American. For now, money in Winnipeg is bit tighter than it was in Buenos Aires.

But coming here was about something else. Its about not putting the chair against the door.

Bartley Kives

The counsellor

Vania Jimenez, founder of La Maison Bleue

My inner earth is Canada Vania Jimenez. Photograph: Guillaume Simoneau for the Guardian

In 1967, forty years after she first arrived in Montreal from Cairo, Vania Jimenezs life would already have seemed like the quintessential immigrant success story. She had a thriving practice in family medicine and obstetrics, as well as seven Canadian-born children. She taught at McGill University, her alma mater. But for Jimenez something was still missing.

I was delivering babies for women, and then I would lose touch immediately, she says. There was no follow-up. Sensing that many of her patients, especially lower-income women or immigrants, would benefit from additional help or counseling, this gave Jimenez cause for concern. I could see they were getting nothing. One day I came home agonising about this, and my daughter said, Well, do something about it.

In 2007 Jimenez and her daughter, Amelie Sigouin, founded La Maison Bleue, a house that offers medical services and counselling for pregnant women in need both before and after they give birth. The house, bought and renovated through charitable donations and government funding, celebrates its tenth anniversary next year. It now serves as a model for other service providers in low-income Montreal neighbourhoods.

When I first wanted to become a doctor, it was because I had seen an image of Albert Schweitzer with an infant. Many of the women we are helping here are poor, some are refugees, some are dealing with conjugal violence or drug abuse. Were helping them and their children to improve their lives. This has always been my dream, to do what practicing medicine is really supposed to do.

Jimenezs own childhood in Egypt had been idyllic. Her father, the son of an Armenian immigrant, ran a profitable flour mill. But after the Suez Crisis ended in 1956, a spirit of pan-Arab nationalism took hold. We definitely felt that things had changed. There was growing mistrust of Jews, and people who spoke English or French. We were Armenian immigrants, and Christian. We were never persecuted. But suddenly, we were the Other.

Her decision to move to Canada, and attend McGills medical school, was a simple one. It was either that or Australia, she recalls. In the sixties, they were the only two countries that were welcoming to immigrants. She knew little else about the country, but her imagination told me that Canada was a place full of snow and ears and noses on the ground that had fallen off after being frozen.

Today Jimenez is also an accomplished writer, with four novels under her belt. They often involve stories of woman-physician protagonists who interact with patients from other cultures. She is now at work on her fifth book, a memoir looking back at the time when she first left Cairo for Canada, which has meant poring over lots of old letters to her mother and a friend as part of her research.

They tell of a time when Jimenez was shocked to see young people kissing in public, often quite passionately. This is something I wouldnt see in Cairo, she says. The Quebecois accent also confused her. At one point I wrote about taking the bus, and hearing people speak another language. I told my mother they must be speaking Greek. It turned out they were speaking French, but with a thick Quebec accent.

The province has changed a lot since she first arrived: Quebec now has much more self assurance, she says, it is in far less of a fragile place. The need to protect its language and culture in the vast sea of Anglo North America, has in the past bred its own currents of ethnic nationalism something that didnt always make newcomers feel welcome. Now, she says, there is less extremism, more acceptance. There is a sense we negotiate those differences, rather than try to mesh them into one. If we were all the same colour, we wouldnt have a rainbow anymore.

And while she wasnt initially drawn to Canada for any larger reasons, she says being here now makes sense: I couldnt see myself doing the things Im doing anywhere else. My inner earth is Canada.

Matt Hays

The singer

Bruno Capinan, musician

Read more:

14-year-old dies in hit-and-run incident after falling into the road while trying climb on to the roof a vehicle bound for Dover

A polite and gentle 14-year-old boy from Afghanistan has been killed in a hit-and-run incident on the motorway leading to Calais port, highlighting the extreme risks that asylum-seeking children take every night as they attempt to join relatives in the UK.

The boy was trying to climb on to the roof of a lorry that had slowed as it approached the port in the early hours of Friday morning, according to eye-witnesses. They said another child was attempting to pull the boy on to the moving vehicle, but he lost his grip and fell onto the road, where a car hit him. The driver did not stop.

Calais-based charities say his death was the 13th fatality near the port this year, and that he was the third child to have died. The boy is understood to have had a brother in the UK, and consequently a right to travel to the Britain legally. An application for papers to allowhim to be transferred had been made several months ago, but progress was so slow that he began trying to stow away on lorries at night.

We try dissuading them from taking these risks, but it falls on deaf ears. They are so desperate to get on with their lives, to be rejoined with their families just 30 miles away, said Jess Egan, a volunteer at the migrant camp in Calais who knew the dead boy. His name is not being released, because family members in Afghanistan are not aware of his death.

Egan said the boy, who had been in Calais for five or six months, loved being with his friends, playing football and listening to music. We would often have conversations about how much he wanted to be in the UK, in school, and to get on with his life, she said. But he was stuck in the camp, in awful conditions.

There are more than 900 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children living in second-hand tents and wooden shacks in Calais, according to a survey conducted by the charity HelpRefugees. Many have family in the UK, and some are as young as eight. Many of make several attempts to get into the UK every week.

Alf Dubs, the Labour peer who persuaded the government earlier this year to introduce legislation promising sanctuary for some unaccompanied child refugees, said he was shocked by the death. Since the so-called Dubs amendment in the Immigration Act was passed, no children have been transferred to the UK under it provisions, despite a campaign to get a substantial number of them moved in time for the start of the school year.

The government must speed up the process of identifying the children eligible to join family members already in the UK and start the procedures to discover children eligible under the Immigration act, Dubs said. Because so little progress has been made on implementing his amendment, few people are aware of their rights in terms of claiming asylum which means the people traffickers can persuade people to choose the risks of getting on the back of a lorry in preference to trying the legal and safer method.

Labours Yvette Cooper, who is campaigning for Britain to give asylum to more unaccompanied refugee children, said: This is shocking, heartbreaking news. This is the third child from the Calais jungle to die this year. The French and British authorities cannot keep dragging their feet and ignoring the urgency of this. While governments dither and delay, children are suffering and even losing their lives.

Friends of the dead boy were shocked, upset, angry that this has happened to someone in their community, Egan said. Volunteers who work with the children have persuaded many of those without family in the UK to seek asylum in France, but local facilities for caring for children are often full, and unable to house new arrivals.

Even those who know they have a legal case to travel to the UK, continue to take the extreme risks of attempting the crossing because they have little faith that their case will be successful. The system that doesnt work, Egan said. It takes months and months.

Many other children witnessed his violent death. He had already started the legal process for family reunification, but he had been waiting for so long he lost faith in the system and thought his only option was to risk his life in order to finally reach safety, said Annie Gavrilescu of the charity HelpRefugees.

Neha Shah, another volunteer who knew the dead boy, said he was polite and gentle and very determined in everything he did, especially learning English. He spoke often and with admiration of his brother who is in the UK.

Lorry drivers are becoming increasingly concerned about the risks of driving near the port, because large number of children and adults attempt to hide in vehicles every night. When police find children attempting to stow away they send them back to the camp. Many report having been hit with police batons and sprayed with teargas.

Laura Padoan, a spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said: We remain deeply worried about the situation of vulnerable refugee children living in precarious situations across Europe. With colder weather approaching, its now crucial that transfers of unaccompanied refugee children who can benefit from the Dubs amendment are fast-tracked.

This will require the UK and the other relevant governments in Europe to substantially pick up the pace in identifying those children in need of protection in whose best interest would be to come to the UK and transferring them here as a matter of urgency.

Read more: