Greenbelt Festival with permission for Varsity

Persian-Iraqi poet Zena Kazeme has spent her life inside the asylum system – first as a refugee, then working as a paralegal on immigration cases, volunteering at refugee camps in Greece, and working at the Refugee Resettlement Programme in London. Themes of home and belonging, exile and war are central to Zena’s poetry: “I found I could just talk about the grief and loss and the things that made me angry. It was a way to connect with people to make them listen […] It was art, and it’s a lot harder to ignore art.”

Meeting Zena at a poetry workshop that she ran at Jesus College, she described poetry as a form of therapy, a way of processing the trauma of a childhood defined by refugee camps, deportations, and violent racism. Born into an Iranian refugee camp, Zena calls herself a “legacy refugee”, raised by parents who became stateless overnight in the 1980s following Saddam Hussein’s exile of their minority community of Persian-Iraqis, just before the beginning of the Iran–Iraq War.

“My parents were really scared of the Home Office and any letters or phone calls they received”

“My mum refers to that time of our lives as ‘when we were in prison’. There were armed soldiers everywhere, lots of barriers so there was no way to leave. It was a building that was previously used by the Nazi regime. We slept in a very big hall that had three-tier bunk beds, with barely any bedding. There were huge groups of men, women, and children altogether. It was unsafe, there was a lot of violence.” She describes living on peanuts, quite literally — her mother would use what little money they had to sneak out of the camp and buy the only food they could afford that was halal. Despite everything, Zena recalls finding a community in the camp. “We befriended a lady who turned out to be Iraqi and my mom could speak to her in Arabic – she had a son about my age. We used to play together, because when you’re a kid you just learn to have fun wherever you are.”

Zena recently found out that the camp in Vienna was shut down due to human rights violations only a few years after she and her family left.

She made the journey to the UK with her youngest sister, the two of them arriving as unaccompanied minors until the rest of the family was able to join. However, in what should have been a time of relief, life as refugees in the UK soon became a new form of struggle. “My earliest memories of arriving here are not great, to say the least. I quite vividly remember spending an entire day in the Home Office waiting for my parents to be interviewed. My mum came out crying. When we finished, we took a bus to a hostel and slept on a floor with two other families.”

This became Zena’s life while waiting for asylum status, which was rejected after a year and a half. Her parents began the process of appeal: “They were really scared of the Home Office and any letters or phone calls they received.” Their fear was grounded in the trauma of having lived in a violent state where people were constantly under surveillance and sometimes disappeared.

Then came the invasion of Iraq. Zena was faced with immense racism: “We had to take a week off school because we got on the bus and a group of boys tried to attack us. Nobody said anything.” But now she has found her voice and the courage to tell her own stories and encourage other refugees to do the same – through poetry.

“Growing up in the culture I did, you couldn’t avoid poetry. Arabic is inherently poetic”

“Growing up in the culture I did, you couldn’t avoid poetry. Arabic is inherently poetic. My parents had a huge love of literature and I used to memorise a lot of poetry when I was a kid.” ‘The Round Peg’ was her first poem. “I found I could just talk about the grief and loss and the things that made me angry.” Zena began adapting her poetry for spoken word, contributing to BBC Radio 2’s Pause For Thought and performing at various literary festivals.

Zena has a first-class Law degree and a master’s in Immigration Law. In addition to her poetry, she has worked as a paralegal in various immigration law firms, and is now a Refugee Resettlement Officer, contributing to the fight for a fairer system.

Zena tells me how her experience as a refugee has affected her current work: “when your existence is inherently political, you spend it pursuing a sense of justice.” She has witnessed the last decade of government policies first-hand: “Ever since I could vote, the Tories have been in power. Throughout the last ten years, all I have seen is the hostile environment getting stricter and the rhetoric around refugees’ right to survive and have a life here deteriorate.”

A common misconception is that the difficulty ends once refugee status is granted. “I have worked with people still living in hotels. You hear so many stories in the tabloids about how these hotels are costing taxpayers so much money, and how luxurious it must be. The reality is that people get given maggot-ridden food. Babies don’t receive enough milk. Families are living off £8 a week. I have met and worked with pregnant women who have walked a mile and a half in their third trimester to the hospital because they can’t afford Oyster Cards.”


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As a result of what Zena sees as the UK government’s “weaponised incompetence”, she argues that asylum seekers are living in “destitution”. She recounts a particularly shocking case of a woman evicted from her hostel after being granted refugee status, who, upon going to the local council as she had become homeless, was told she could “sleep in McDonald’s because it is open 24/7”.

But blame does not solely lie with the Conservative government and their “hostile environment” policies. “In the year that we came to the UK in 1999, Tony Blair decided to remove the right to work from asylum seekers. You could be waiting for up to two years to be given refugee status, during which you are not allowed to claim benefits, open a bank account, work, or study. You’re stuck.”

Zena expresses her feelings of desperation and anger, stating: “I can’t look towards any European country at the moment for inspiration.” However, despite encountering “a lot of very, very challenging cases” in her work, she also tells me that the work her and her team does fills her with “a lot of hope”.