Refugee turns lawyer to help asylum-seekers rebuild in Britain
Kaweh Beheshtizadeh, an immigration lawyer, works 10-15 hour days on behalf of often desperate and vulnerable people seeking asylum in the UK.
Beheshtizadeh, 36, toils from a windowless basement office for Barnes Harrild and Dyer, a solicitors’ firm, in West Croydon. Paint peels from the wall and case files lie stacked on the floor. In these spartan surroundings, a small glass award stands out on a filing cabinet, given by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group for immigration and asylum legal aid lawyer of the year.
The achievement is remarkable for someone who arrived in 2004 from Turkey in the back of a lorry with six other refugees. Beheshtizadeh, who was 23 and spoke no English, had previously fled Iran after his pro-Kurdish activism landed him in trouble with the authorities.
Since he was granted asylum in September 2006, he has worked hard to help others who have fled danger – and has also strived to fit in to his new home.
“I do feel British,” he told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “I eat fish and chips, stand in queues, talk about the weather, food and holidays all the time. I am very grateful to this country and its people for granting me refuge here.”
In a sense, he has come full circle. Beheshtizadeh’s law firm is on a bustling street full of Iraqi Kurdish shops selling green bananas, okra, yams, giant water melons. The restaurants sell Kurdish bread and ayran, a salty yoghurt drink. At the legal aid award ceremony in July, Beheshtizadeh said he had been inspired to become an immigration lawyer after seeing how hard his own legal aid solicitor had fought for him.
“I do feel British. I eat fish and chips, stand in queues, talk about the weather, food and holidays all the time."
It has been a hard road. He had to overcome the language barrier – something other newcomers cite as a key hurdle in getting back on their feet after fleeing to a new country – and had to scrape by on meagre resources. Beheshtizadeh and his housemates made ends meet by pooling their benefits. Each received £31.35 a week for a month from the state for a short spell while studying. After that, they had to fend for themselves.
Crucially, however, he was made to feel welcome and speaks fondly of the time he spent in Cardiff, where he shared a house with four other refugees. “Cardiff is a beautiful city, I loved it,” Beheshtizadeh said. “There was no problem whatsoever and I felt genuinely welcome. The neighbours were supportive and they taught us about British culture.”
Every day, he would walk 45 to 50 minutes to college for English classes because he could not afford the bus. He thought this wasted valuable learning time so he bought a radio for the walk, but had no idea what was being said. Next, he bought a small TV at a market and would watch ‘Friends,’ the US sitcom, to improve his English.
“I had no clue initially, but I learnt a lot eventually,” Beheshtizadeh said. “The characters spoke in short sentences, their accent was clear, the words were everyday, not political or legal.” He still retains a slight Kurdish accent.
While studying English during the day, Beheshtizadeh worked at night. First in a factory loading clothes, then as a hotel’s night receptionist. Pursuing a law degree at London Metropolitan University was even tougher. He would record the lectures, listening to them later with a dictionary by his side. “I nailed it in the third year and graduated with a 2:1 in 2010 at the age of 29,” he said.
Justine Fisher, a barrister at Lamp Building Chambers, who taught Beheshtizadeh at London Metropolitan University, remembers him as conscientious. “I was delighted to have the chance to teach him and to help him get on his way,” Fisher said, adding he “does a lot of good work.”
"The neighbours were supportive and they taught us about British culture.”
Pushing further with his studies and encouraged by Fisher, Beheshtizadeh studied at the University of the West of England in Bristol to become a barrister, but he failed to get a pupillage (training in a barristers' chambers); top law firms tend to recruit Oxford or Cambridge graduates. Changing tack, Beheshtizadeh qualified as a solicitor in May 2016, specialising in asylum and immigration law, and handling complex detention and right-to-remain cases.
Beheshtizadeh currently juggles some 150 cases, about 100 on asylum and 125 supported by legal aid. His clients are from all over the world, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cameroon and Nigeria. All have different stories and means of arrival, all are asking Britain for sanctuary.
Against this backdrop, asylum applications in the UK have been falling. According to the Home Office, in the year to June 2017 there were 27,316 requests, down 25% year on year. Even when requests are unsuccessful, there is plenty of work for lawyers like Beheshtizadeh. For example, in 2016, 41% of 12,235 appeals against asylum decisions were allowed. Beheshtizadeh has won most of his appeals cases at tribunals in the past year.
Philip Nathan, a barrister at Landmark Chambers who has worked on several cases with Beheshtizadeh, said his success rate was “remarkable given that many cases previously have been rejected by the Courts and other solicitors.”
Beheshtizadeh believes the climate has changed from when he won asylum over a decade ago. But that hasn’t stopped him fighting for those who need international protection, like he once did.
Away from law, he plans to take his long-term integration efforts a step further with a tilt at public office. “It is also my plan to stand for Parliament,” he said, “at the right time.”