The New Londoners

Gul Oztas with her daughter Hejar.

Born in the south of Kurdistan, it was due to political reasons that Gul Oztas first came to settle in England. As her brothers were involved in politics, Gul was often detained by the Turkish authorities and her family thought it would be better for her to move to the UK.

At 18 years old, Gul came to the UK in 1999 and has been here ever since. “It wasn’t really my choice,” she says. “I didn’t choose to come over and I didn’t want to stay in the UK, especially when I first arrived. I didn’t have any friends here, so it was really difficult for me. For the first couple of years, I wanted to return to Kurdistan.”

When she first arrived, Gul stayed with her sister who was living here at the time. She didn’t speak any English, and it was mainly through conversations with strangers in the street that Gul picked up the language. She also began attending the Kurdish Community Centre in Dalston to make friends and help out. Soon, she found herself at the court representing people and translating statements for the Home Office.

Later, Gul got the right to claim benefits and went to college to study health and social care. She got married and had her daughter Hejar, who is now 11. Hejar was three months old when Gul separated from her husband.

“Although I was receiving benefits, my benefits were not covering my daughter,” recalls Gul. Effectively homeless, she was given housing in Newcastle by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). But soon she began suffering health issues and missed her family and the community down in London. She filed a request to the NASS, and was eventually referred back to London after over a year of waiting in temporary accommodation in Birmingham. After getting permanent residency, Gul was eventually given a council property in London. She also got her driving licence and completed psychosocial studies at the University of East London.

Gul is now a British citizen, having been granted citizenship in 2013. She said the entire process took around 12 years to resolve. But now, both she and her daughter own British passports. While Gul would like to return to Kurdistan someday, she says that she will leave her daughter to make her own decision.

Gul: I can’t force her to go back. I would love to go and, if she’s happy to come with me, she can. Otherwise I will go and she can just come to visit for holidays.

In terms of identity Gul sees herself as Kurdish, or rather British-Kurdish. “I speak Turkish because the Turkish language was compulsory,” she says. “The Kurdish language was banned, but I still understand and speak some basic Kurdish of course, and I listen to Kurdish music.”

Hejar, on the other hand, has always recognised herself as British, says Gul, because she was born and raised here.

While Gul's mother passed away a year ago, Gul’s dad still lives in Turkey. Her sister remains in London and she has a brother in Germany.

Gul volunteers at the Kurdish Community Centre as an advisor and deals with people claiming benefits and asylum cases, writing up their statements for the Home Office and making application forms on their behalf. Meanwhile, she is looking for a more permanent job.