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Story Publication logo October 13, 2022

I Am Not Your Refugee: Coffee, Comedy, Music

Illustration of a girl holding a small wooden house, inside of which is a flame. Text reads, 'not your refugee.'

Podcast series created in collaboration with journalists, artists and activists with direct lived...

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Multiple Authors

Hear from refugees in London and Greece who are working to break the false narratives around migration

Usman Khalid wanted to set up a coffee shop with a difference – Haven Coffee is a social enterprise, a café with a mission of breaking false narratives around migration.

Their Laff-Uccino comedy gigs are regular events in London, with comedians of refugee or migrant background and Kryzsia, one of the comedians involved, talks comedy, migration and accents.

From comedy in London to music on a Greek island, we head to Mythinini, Lesvos, where Bairbre meets Ramozmontana, a Saudi Arabian/Somali artist on the island, and Farhad, an Iranian musician.


This is the last episode in this series and we’d like to thank the Pulitzer Center for their funding and support, and all the people who shared their experiences and observations with us.

Thanks also to our team Caroline Dipanda, Osama Gaweesh, Wael Habbal and Reza Nouri for all their work on this series. Omar Alkilani who wrote and performed our theme music and Haya Halaw who designed our artwork.

From producer Bairbre Flood and presenter Mahmoud Hassino, thanks for listening!


Mahmoud Hassino: 'I Am Not Your Refugee', a podcast in collaboration with some of the refugee community organizers, activists and artists working to challenge stereotypes around migration. With thanks to the Pulitzer Center for funding support. Usman Khalid wanted to set up a coffee shop with a difference. Haven Coffee is a social enterprise, a café with a mission of breaking false narratives around migration. It gives free barista training to refugees and runs visual and performing art events with refugee artists. Their Laffocinno comedy gigs are regular events in East London with comedians of refugee or migrant background. Our reporter Bairbre Flood went for a coffee and a chat in Usman's café in Walthamstow, London.

Usman Khalid: My name is Usman. I am originally from Pakistan. And I'm here since 2007. And got my refugee status in 2015. I was not applying for the Asylum Seeker at first to get asylum because I wasn't 100% sure that I will definitely get it. When they sent me to detention center then I had no other choice. So that was the time I applied.

Bairbre Flood: What was the detention centre like?

Usman Khalid: It's like a fairy tale, but opposite to a fairy tale. very hostile and very dark, a very sinister place. If I may say so. Yeah, it's so extremely hostile. A building with with extreme hostility inside. I was there 50 days. So on the 50th day, I won my case. And I got my status.

Bairbre Flood: Seems like such a cruel, unnecessary way to do things here.

Usman Khalid: Yeah, very, very cruel as well. But yeah, unnecessary. Also, there are so many things in the society that are unnecessary, not just detention, they're everywhere, there are unnecessary things happening. There are like unnecessary processes, unnecessary steps. Unnecessary waiting, queues, unnecessary paperwork, just to slow down the life and just to make people busy, so that they can't think of anything else, so you can think of others. So, individualism is the byproduct of all these processes. And all these steps.

Bairbre Flood: Is that why when you set this up, there was like a social and a community aspect to it?

Usman Khalid: Yeah, that's what my initial idea was, and still is, of course, to start a social enterprise. And coffee also tells a story of migration itself, because starting from Ethiopia, in Africa, and then moving to Europe, and then Asia and then America. So if if there is one product, one food, which can tell the perfect story of migration, that is coffee. So I thought that why not take this coffee culture and turn it into something a little bit more than just a café.

{Background noise in café}

How you been? You've been alright.

Usman Khalid: One of the most vibrant and diverse and economically booming city in the world. In that city, there was things, dark things happening in a detention center. If you can't stop the things happening there. How can you say that you are sending the people to Rwanda, and they will be safe there? Among all the art forms I think comedy is is the art form where you have bigger pitch to play on. So you you can say things as a comedian on the stage, which you can't say otherwise. Well, that is changing also unfortunately now because now there are so many things there are so many things coming up. You open your mouth on the stage and there is always someone to come and slap you.

Bairbre Flood: Ha, ha, yes poor Chris Rock.

Usman Khalid: Yeah, but still with comedy. I think comedy is a is a way where you can say things without offending people. But you still say what you want to say. You still convey your point.

Bairbre Flood: Do you have any favourite comedians?

Usman Khalid: In standups? And now this is where it probably gets controversial. I really like Jimmy Carr's comedy. I really like dark humour, which he does and then I really like Diane Morgan. Philomena King is her alias she's very funny.

Bairbre Flood: She has some TV series.

Usman Khalid: Yeah, if you go find 'Cunk on Britain', for example, it's very funny. So yeah, there are so many. So many. I like Sara Pascoe, she's good. And then Nish Kumar. I actually worked with Nish Kumar a couple of times. And he's, he's... one thing I really loved about Dinesh Kumar is that he's very political. And he does his jokes on on the political system. And on the current scenario situation. He is a good person as a person as well. He's a very good person. I really respect him.

Then there are so many others. Our headliner, Nabil Abdulrashid, I first saw him of course on, 'Britain's Got Talent'. I actually saw him one of his gigs as well. He's very good. He's funny. He's young of course as compared to Nish and Jimmy. And he's like, very young. Young as not in an age but young as in as in not as established. Yeah, but but he's, he's extremely funny.

And then the other comedians Stella Graham is she's very funny. She's extremely funny, and Mo Amer, one of our MCs, he's an amazing guy. If he's not late than he's amazing, amazingly funny. And then these other comedians, Kryzsia, Salaam, Raschke, Daddy, and they all are refugees. And very new, some of these are having their first gig and some of them have like three or four. So they're very new, but they're all very, very funny in their own way. They're already good.

So this is the idea to work with the very young refugee comedians who wants to start comedy, and then maybe bring one or two people who are like what are called old horses of the game, so to have mix up where it will be a balance between the social mission and ticket sales.

Mahmoud Hassino: Kryzsia is one of the comedians involved with Haven Coffee Laff-uccino. Bairbre caught up with her online to talk comedy, migration and accents.

Kryzsia: What is nice about the comedy that it allows you to take an unusual standpoint on things that you don't normally hold. So you can play around with the idea of experimenting with unusual opinions. Weird, weird opinions that nobody would normally hold. And it's it's really nice to be finding those because I think there's something powerful about it — about playing with the idea of polarisation. And you know how we all get into this mindset that there are two sides to every cause. And I think comedy allows you to explore that and break that a little bit in a non violent and wacky way.

Bairbre Flood: Good. I mean, how do you see that relating to like refugee issues as well, and migration and those kind of topics.

Kryzsia: I think it's really powerful when people who are in the predominant media narrative about refugees who are usually subjected to all sorts of scaremongering and victimising and even the the empathetic narratives, the sort of progressive narratives, they can be full of pity, and disempowering people. But if we, if a person can joke about the situation, they've put themselves in control of the narrative, and they've also put themselves in the position of power, I think, in that moment, and that I really, really love watching that because it turns everything on his head. And again, it's showing that the the narratives we're consuming via media are really quite flattened. Really, they're really rubbish.

Bairbre Flood: That's a good point because, yeah, I mean, I know even a lot of the well meaning stuff, you know, it's patronising, and it's boring. And it's like, you know, you can go on, okay grand, poor refugees, blah, blah, blah... It's like, that's not the people I know.

Kryzsia: No. Absolutely. And it becomes such a pitiful label. The circumstances of the person are very difficult. But the resilience that people have to cope with the situation is really extraordinary. And that should be celebrated.

Bairbre Flood: So how did you how did you get involved with Usman?

Kryzsia: So Usman was part of 'No Direction Home.' And I joined, I feel just before COVID started, so just before 2020, so we did a couple of gigs together. He seemed to have liked me, which is nice. And then he invited me to be part of his gigs, which he runs with Haven coffee. They employ people who have refugee background and different experiences of migration to work with them. And it's a social enterprise. So as well as the coffee shop, it's a very community oriented coffee shop. And they do lots of cool events, especially around comedy, and visual arts.

Bairbre Flood: Yeah. What I liked is that all like challenging narratives around refugees and migration and that kind of stuff - was that, you know, a big part of getting involved with it as well? Because of their ethos?

Kryzsia: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, I think what is also nice about it is that it's broadcasting different people with different experiences of migration. And it's just there's this element of creating connections and finding commonalities between different experiences and different perspectives is quite powerful as well, I find. Also, sometimes when we laugh about our own issues, our own problems, our own, parts of ourselves that we don't always like, we process them a little bit better. And I think that's really cool.

One thing that is really powerful about migrant made comedy is, and it might seem like a very obvious simple thing, but the opportunity to hear different foreign accents on stage because we don't experience that in British comedy, or in British film or theatre, nearly enough. So I think that is hugely important to kind of get used to the idea. And it's not about huge political statements, but at the same time, it is a political statement. As in, we're here. We're here and we're making art. And we're making things happen.

Mahmoud Hassino: From comedy in London, to music on a Greek island, we head to Mytilini, Lesvos, where Bairbre meets Ramosmontana, a Saudi Arabian-Somali artist on the island.

Ramos: Yo, what's up boy? This is Ramosmontana - young flipped, you know I'm saying. Yeah, man, I'm an artist who grow up in Saudi Arabia KSA back in the hood? Yeah, hood blood! Jeddah city! You already know what it is man. I'm from Jeddah city man do ya feel me. And I started singing in 2018. I broke up with my ex let's say, so I guess sad boy in our singing and music. Let's see I was talking only about relationships and love and all that good stuff. All the sad boy, I used to listen to my music and they're gonna say like, oh, I like the music bro you be sad sad for real.

And I was like, yeah, man. I'm sad man. I miss my ex. And I need my ex back and I was like, bro, forget about your ex - let's talk about the life, the reality, don't stop talking about relationships and girls that left you out there in? You know, she become your ex now. And you can stop crying in front of the mic. And I was like, hell no, let me cry a little bit and let's see where the future we say.

Bairbre Flood: You can do both. But do you do talk about what's going on at the moment? And being a refugee in our current situation?

Ramos: I actually don't no. I don't like to talk about refugee but I don't know what the future we say. A lot of people come up to me and they told me you have to talk about refugees. In you also refugee you have to talk about the reality - your life. And at the beginning, I was like no. And then I was like, I will think about it. And actually yes, it's something that I need really to talk about. But it's not so easy. It's complicated a little bit.

For example, when I got an album coming the album would be like mostly talking about relationship stuff, but I do mix it up. Not only love every time that you need to talk about you need to talk about himself sometime you need to talk about what what's going to happen in the future. And I used to have a lot of videos but you know, when I arrived to Turkey, I don't know what happened, but and I lost the phone. I lost the phone, a lot of things, happened to me back in the day.

So I start from beginning when I become a refugee. And I was like okay, let's go ahead - not impossible, you know. Love keep going. You have to keep push yourself out. I don't think I'm the only - I'm the first one - there's a lot a lot a lot of musicians becoming refugees and they doing what they can do. When they eat or they can eat and if you're lucky person you know how to handle things. And it depended also in your mind like if you're smart enough you know how to play on the music? Of course you will do something.

Bairbre Flood: And what would you ultimately like with your career? What kind of way do you see it going?

Ramos: For me, to be honest, I see everything going well. And there's a lot of things change since I come here for now and past few years I just was writing down music. While I was waiting for the government to give me my what that was the last decision let's say and I was like OK, I'm done with this and now it is time to push my music out. And I tried to help myself jump in here and there and trying to meet like different types of people from here from Europeans, from Greek, from wherever they are/ I meet a lot of different people till I get the connection around Mythilini. Also I met a lot of different the biggest artists in Greek somehow they are from Athens as well. They're called Lights. And a couple months ago actually I met three artists from Athens they come visit us here in Lesvos and I was really so cool with them they were so cool to me and they tell me a lot of different stuff but they actually doing what the what I'm what I'm doing right now you know.

Mahmoud Hassino: Staying on the island of Lesvos, Bairbre visits the One Happy Family centre. It's much quieter than before, recently having moved to a new centre in Athens, but it still has the old center near the camp. For the hundreds of people still stuck here. Most of the residents of Moria one and two have been allowed to leave for Athens. But just under 1000 people are still waiting. One resident of the camp told Bairbre about how the police raid the tents at night to check for anyone who's managed to land on the island and hide until they can claim asylum. The Greek Coast Guard forcibly pushes back anyone crossing the sea from Turkey and there are countless documented violent push backs from the island over the past few years.

Farhad: {singing in Farsi}

Bairbre Flood: Do you want your name on it?

Mahmoud Hassino: Farhad, from Iran.

Farhad: {singing in Farsi} That song is by Morteza Pashaei. And it's Persian music.

Bairbre Flood: And what's it about?

Farhad: Do you know the 90% of the all the songs about the love. It's about the love!

Bairbre Flood: When did you start playing guitar?

Farhad: I started playing for one year ago, here inside the camp. Actually, for the first time I didn't have any guitar teacher, the one guy he was from Switzerland, he bought one guitar for me and I started to learn by myself. I didn't have any teacher. I learned by watching the videos in the YouTube and practicing with myself. Until now.

Bairbre Flood: Why do you enjoy it so much? Why do you love playing?

Farhad: You know it is ignore me everything's. It is make me sense. And it makes me calm, relaxed. Because of that I like to play music and singing. And also I'm making laugh to my friends. Sometimes when I play to them, they are really enjoying their life, to hearing the music. And it's really enjoyable you know the guitar, this is the only things I can ignore the situation of the camp, because it's made me calm and relaxed. And it makes me forget the everything that's happened inside the camp. Because of that I'm playing guitar.

And you know the situation of the camp it is terrible. You know some reporter they're talking about, for example, the about the situation of the camp like the about the toilet, about the showers, about the difference about this, our home, but they didn't ask about the psychological things. I think this is the important than, for example we are living there. We are needing the music. We need our family, we need the love. We need everything because we are human. Because of that I think this is the most important things for a refugee, they are living inside the camp. And this is really hard for them because they are far from their home. They are far from their families for two years for three years. Some of them, some of my friends, they are here for four years.

And I have one friend I want to say about this guy. He didn't get his decision for two and a half years. And every night I'm going with him near to the sea. And I'm making calm to him and I'm playing guitar for him. Maybe he forget this world and forget the things. Always he's saying to me what will happen to me. And he's really sad about his psychology things he has a problem. He don't know what should he do? And I think this is the important than the for example our house our shower, other things, our psychological things. It is really important.

Bairbre Flood: Yeah, having hope.

Farhad: Yeah and having hope and future for working. Everything is walking in front of our eyes. And we are just looking at it. It has not happened yet. {singing in Farsi}

Usman Khalid: I don't think that refugees need over pity behaviour. And then of course they don't need - they don't want someone is taking the piss out of them, out of their situation. So just treat them as you treat anyone in problem in trouble. Just treat them the way you treat anyone who's facing an issue, facing a problem and just try to make them part of the society rather than push them in isolation

Ramos: {singing}

Mahmoud Hassino: Thanks to Farhad and Ramosmontana for sharing their music and observations with us and Kryzsia and Usman Khaled of Haven Coffee. Links to the cafe, the comedy gigs and the music - they're all in the show notes.

This is the last episode in this series. And we'd like to thank openDemocracy and the Irish Examiner for their joint broadcasting, the Pulitzer Center for their funding and support and all the people who share their experiences and observations with us. Thanks also to Caroline Dipanda, Osama Gaweesh, Wael Habbal and Reza Nouri for all their work on this series, thanks to Omar Al Kilani, who wrote and performed our theme music and Haya Halaw who designed our artwork.

From myself, Muhammad Hassino and producer Bairbre Flood. Thank you for listening!



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Migration and Refugees

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