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Aram Rawf, the first asylum seeker to join St. John Ambulance

Aram Rawf, a Kurdish refugee who fled Iraq in 1999 and came to the UK [Aram Rawf/Facebook]

Aram Rawf, a Kurdish refugee who fled Iraq in 1999, became the first asylum seeker to join St. John Ambulance in a bid to "say thank you to my community".

When Aram arrived in the UK as a 17-year-old minor seeking asylum, he didn't know what to expect from this new and strange country. He was alone, having arrived in Dover in the back of a lorry. Little did he know that seven years later he would be recognised as the first asylum seeker to join St. John Ambulance, a British NGO that teaches and carries out first aid.

Aram sees this as his greatest contribution to British society. He told MEMO that prior to receiving the recognition, he didn't know he was the first refugee to join the organisation. He explains that he decided to volunteer in order to "save people's lives", which he sees as "my way to say thank you to the community for saving me from being deported".

In 2006 Aram faced deportation after British immigration authorities detained him. His case had become caught in an administrative backlog, but his discovery threatened to see him returned to Iraq, by now ravaged by war following the US-led invasion of 2003. Aram had been forced to flee when he was imprisoned for two months for refusing to become a suicide bomber. He was interrogated and threatened with death if he didn't cooperate.

When British authorities looked likely to serve his deportation, a huge media campaign by the local community succeeded in raising awareness of his plight and having the decision overturned. In 2008, Aram was given indefinite leave to remain and permission to work in the UK.

Read: What awaits Syrian refugees in 2018?

Since then, he hasn't looked back. Although Aram describes himself as a "former asylum seeker", he emphasises that "I always say I'm British and proud to be British". Aram has become a central figure in his community, working as a hotel manager in Kent, in the south of the UK, and running for election in the Kent County Council elections in 2017. Aram came second, beating the local far-right and anti-immigration UKIP candidate.

Aram believes that his origins as an asylum seeker have never held him back, saying that "it is actually nice that many articles about me have shown not just what I went through before I arrived in the UK, but that I am now a manager of a busy hotel. It's great when I walk into town and people stop to talk to me or come over and introduce themselves".

Asked what he would like people to know about being a refugee, he explains that:

Being a refugee isn't easy. Not only do you have to learn a different culture and language but you also have to adapt to many things in your new life. Not many people succeed in all this easily. I have been lucky to preserve positive aspects from my own culture and learn new aspects of British culture, and try to use this to my own benefit and that of those around me.

As Refugee Week marks its 20th anniversary this week, Aram is one of thousands of asylum seekers in the UK and beyond who make a positive contribution to their new home societies. Asked which of Refugee Week's #SimpleActs he would choose to challenge peoples' perceptions of refugees, Aram chose number 15, "spread the word". Refugee Week believes that "it's through conversations and sharing experiences that movements begin to grow". Aram's story is just one part of a wider conversation.

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