Life in room 221 of the Berkshire hotel that Ali has called home for 487 days is a dreary affair, with a built-in guarantee that each day will be the same as the last.
The food is repetitive, its fellow diners never leave, the streets of Reading seldom change. “There’s nothing to do there. Nothing’s happening. All I want is a proper book to read, but there isn’t one here and there’s no way I can afford it.”
Ali is one of the 37,000 asylum seekers currently stranded in hotels and is living on £1 a day, a sum he says is earmarked for clothing and other essentials.
Life in England has proved somewhat disappointing for the 34-year-old, who fled religious persecution in Iran and survived a treacherous Channel crossing on a small boat carrying twice its safe capacity.
His overloaded boat arrived in Kent on July 2, 2021 and Home Office officials entered his details into the asylum system. After a brief stay in Kent, he was taken to the capital by bus only to find that accommodation in London had run out.
The Kurdish Iranian was relocated 40 miles west to Reading and as of July 7, 2021 Ali has been living in room 221 praying for something to happen.
“One, two, three months is reasonable in a hotel, but not 17 months,” he said. “To expect us to have nothing to do is unbearable.”
For a man who was a successful scientific academic in Iran — he has two university degrees, including a master’s in astrophysics, and speaks six languages, including English — refusing to work or study has become a form of psychological torture .
Ali, like the other 100 or so hotel residents, has received no update on his asylum application and no word on his Application Registration Card (ARC), which provides a crucial platform for a fresh start.
“Asylum seekers need an ARC for a bank account, a driver’s license, take exams. When I checked the government website, it said asylum seekers would receive the card in three working days, but I still don’t have it. The government is trying to complicate things even further. The situation dashed Ali’s hopes of studying international politics at Reading University – and finding the £160 for an entrance exam. “How can I afford that?”
Ali and his hotel colleagues routinely question why they can’t work and pay taxes, pointing to the huge vacancies and severe labor shortages in Britain.
Ali and all his friends are free to leave the hotel and explore the neighborhood. They have no interest in disappearing into the informal economy, preferring to wait for a decision that they hope will allow them to work legally and contribute to society.
One of the worst parts of Ali’s Groundhog Day Existence is what he eats – bland canteen fodder that he says relies too heavily on eggs.
“The food is the most awful part, so repetitive. I can not stand it anymore.”
Enver Solomon, executive director of the Refugee Council, said life in limbo is having an increasingly harmful impact on the mental health of asylum seekers for individuals like Ali.
“Long delays leave people like Ali trapped in unsuitable housing for months or even years, unable to work, gain a foothold in their community or get on with their lives. This is incredibly damaging to their sanity, causing needless suffering and a real waste of human potential.”
However, life in England, limited as it is, has given Ali a sense of how some of its citizens perceive him.
“People don’t seem to have a good opinion of Middle Eastern asylum seekers. You read the press about the wars, about the poor. They seem to think people the color of our hair, the color of our skin, are stupid. “If you’re white European, with blond hair and blue eyes, like Ukrainians, then you’re considered intelligent. We must be brave enough to remember that we are all human.”
Ali is determined to change that attitude. “The problem is that no one can understand that asylum seekers can make a difference. In 2018, an Iranian asylum seeker in the UK won the Fields Medal [for outstanding achievement] in mathematics.”
At the moment, Ali said, it is difficult not to compare his current reality to what he had to leave behind in Iran.
“I had the best lifestyle. The best work, my own office. I had my job, my house and a luxury car, but sometimes life changes suddenly and there is no choice but to leave it all behind and just go.” Other memories haunt him, particularly the Channel crossing that he nearly lost would have cost the life.
“Someone fell in the water and you only have two or three seconds to think: You want to help, but helping is very dangerous – the choice between your life and theirs.
“But when I tried to pull him, he tried to pull me down. I put him on the boat but I have the same dream every night, he is pulling and I am trying to save him, this very moment in my dreams.
The only major positive aspect of his experience was the reception he received from many Reading residents.
“English people are the nicest people I’ve seen in my life, very nice and very polite, they share what they have with people who don’t have,” he said.
It is the government, he believes, that is letting everyone down. “Their politics are not like the English. they try to help; their government is not.”