He lost his wife, six children, his peace of mind – and his British asylum claim

    An Afghan father and son who are trying to make a new life in Britain suffer a huge setback as their initial asylum application is turned down

    Lately, Said Norzai hasnt felt much like going to the mosque. He hasnt lost faith. Hes just tired of the questions, and one in particular: how is the asylum claim going?

    I dont like to go when I dont have any good news, he says. The first question after Hello, how are you? is Whats happening with your case? Its out of kindness but I dont want to be reminded of it.

    In truth, its not going so well. Norzai and his 10-year-old son, Wali Khan, arrived in the UK last winter, having fled the Taliban in and then lost Saids wife and six other children on the perilous journey west.

    They thought their case, which the Guardian is following as part of our New Arrivals series, would be straightforward. It turned out to be anything but.

    About

    A catalogue of errors many of them down to intricacies of the asylum system that are utterly baffling to new arrivals has thrown the Norzais future in the UK into jeopardy, even though Norzai is clearly traumatised by his losses, even though Wali Khan is clearly flourishing in school.

    Norzai
    Norzai and Wali Khan break their Ramadan fast at the end of the day at their home in Derby. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

    First there was the solicitor or the lack of one.

    There is legal aid available for asylum claims and most asylum seekers will see a solicitor before their substantive interview with the Home Office, which is their chance to lay out their reasons for having left their homeland.

    A good solicitor will help an asylum seeker to prepare a statement beforehand and collect any evidence news reports, witness testimonies, reports on the situation in their country to support their claim.

    Said went to his substantive interview in November last year without having spoken to a solicitor. He says the Home Office said he would get a solicitor, but they did not give him one, though it is not clear who made that promise to him.

    I dont know why I didnt get one. So I went to my big interview, I didnt have a solicitor, he says.

    It is difficult to overstate the importance of an asylum seekers substantive interview with the Home Office. It is used as the key piece of evidence in deciding their claim and deciding their appeal, should they be refused.

    Indeed, Keerum Akhtar, a solicitor from Fountain Solicitors in Walsall, who have taken on Norzais appeal, says she was recently working on a case where she saw a Home Office interview coming back to haunt someone 15 years later; thats how significant the records are.

    It is clear Norzai had little intuition of how the lack of a solicitor would harm his chances.

    I didnt know what it meant, he says.

    Liz
    Liz Clegg, a volunteer who has been helping Norzai. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

    Liz Clegg, a volunteer with refugees who first met Norzai and his son in Calais last year, and has been in touch with them in the UK since, said she was furious when she found out about the legal glitch.

    How did it get to that point? says Clegg. Why wasnt it picked up in the hostel that Said Ghullam was obviously suffering from depression? Its not hard to see it. Bearing in mind the age of Wali Khan as another flag, they have a duty of care G4S who operate the accommodation and the hostel [and] the Home Office have a duty of care to make sure they are looking after both vulnerable adults and children.

    But before the first mistake could be addressed, there was a second: he missed a crucial bit of post.

    The envelopes that decide the future of asylum seekers in the UK come in two sizes.

    Asylum seekers say they know a small brown envelope (brown envelopes being the stationery of choice for the Home Office) means good news: your claim has been accepted. If a larger one arrives a brown A4-sized envelope its bad news. Refusals are bigger because they contain pages of reasons explaining why you have been rejected.

    From the day the letter arrives an asylum seeker has 14 days to appeal against the decision, so the next two weeks are crucial.

    But Norzais large brown envelope 26 pages explaining why he could not stay in the UK sat unopened and unread for three months. Norzai, a farmer, cannot read his native Pashto, let alone English, and says he did not recognise that the letter was addressed to him.

    Philip
    Philip Kelly from Derby, who is a volunteer helper for Norzai and his son. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

    Philip Kelly, who along with his wife, Marian Regan, has been supporting Norzai and Wali Khan since their arrival in Derby last year, was the one who found the unopened Home Office rejection.

    Kelly and Regan said they were devastated by the news, but didnt know if Norzai grasped its seriousness.

    Its quite hard to know whats going on in his head most of the time, says Regan.

    I didnt know what I was carrying, Norzai says, sitting in his lounge room with his son perched on the arm of the chair tracing the lines on his dads hand as he talks. I took it to be translated and when he told me of the bad news I felt the whole world turned; it turned against me. I felt extremely disappointed.

    When the Guardian sits down with him to an iftar meal in the dying days of Ramadan, Norzai says the news of his asylum refusal, compounded with missing his family, has made this years Ramadan particularly hard.

    Im living with the uncertainty of whats happened to my family, he says as he waits for the sun to set and his days fast to break. Not just alone, but missing my loved ones.

    Said
    Said Ghullam Norzai and his son, Wali Khan Norzai, photographed in February. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

    Later, he offers up a generous iftar meal, plates of chicken curry, spiced rice, fruit, naan bread, and jugs of what he calls his Ramadan drink, a lemon and rosewater cordial mixed with milk and cardamon pods, simmered over a low heat, then served chilled. It is neon pink and the Guardians interpreter, also an Afghan, looks at it with suspicion. It is not traditional, though it is delicious.

    Between them, Clegg and Kelly managed to assist Norzai to apply for an out of time appeal. The application was successful and he was granted permission to appeal, but his appeal hearing was set for two weeks later. Clegg and Kellys search for a solicitor stepped up in intensity. Eventually, Clegg heard back from Fountain Solicitors, who said they could take him on.

    Lawyers
    Norzais solicitors Keerum Akhtar and Ramzan Sharif. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

    The first thing his new solicitors, Keerum Akhtar and Ramzan Sharif, did was to file for an adjournment of the forthcoming appeal; they were successful and the pressure was off.

    Akhtar and Sharif say that if they had been involved with Norzai before his interview there is much they could have done to help him.

    It may have been that he wasnt prepared mentally to have the interview at that time, we could have assessed that, says Akhtar. Because it was quite soon after he came to the UK that he was under this gruelling process and the facts as you know are quite harrowing in terms of how they came. Hes got a young child as well, there were certain factors which needed to be looked at.

    Now, they have to work out how to represent Norzai as best they can for his imminent appeal, given the difficult situation he is in.

    I wouldnt say he loses all hope, says Akhtar. But certainly to be assisted or to have legal representation puts him in a much stronger position than without. You cant change whats happened in the past, you cant rewrite that, we can only put forward whatever arguments we can from this point on.

    Norzai
    Norzai and Wali Khan, preparing for bed. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

    As for Norzai, he feels bewildered by the process. He is glad to have a solicitor and the chance to appeal. He feels a little more settled in Derby and proud of his son, who is doing well at school. Indeed, Wali Khans English has improved significantly even in the few months since he was filmed for the Guardian. As we eat our iftar meal together he shows off, reciting a story he has composed about Bananaman, a superhero of his own invention.

    But Norzais claim hangs over him, consuming his thoughts, affecting his wellbeing.

    I have a sense of hopelessness, says Norzai. It started in the jungle in Calais, it was minor in Calais but made worse when I came here. What made it worse? This feeling of statelessness.

    Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/28/he-lost-his-wife-six-children-his-peace-of-mind-and-his-british-asylum-claim