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A life on the run

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From the guns of war in Angola to culture shock in Europe

By Pavithra Rao

Lucia Kula was only eight when war came to her doorstep and upended her life. A civil war had raged for years in her birthplace of Angola and her father was held political prisoner. To save her two daughters, Lucia’s mother picked up the family and fled for safer ground.

They made their way to the cold and rainy city of Lelystad in the Netherlands. It saved us from the conflict in Angola,” Lucia recalls.

“It was a complete culture shock, coming from a conflict environment to a country where you don’t speak the language, you don’t know the culture and customs,” Lucia says. The new environment felt strange and unfamiliar, and she often felt confused and lost.

“Imagine moving to a country when you are eight years old, and for 12 years you don’t have a permanent resident permit. It means any day you could be deported,” Lucia told Africa Renewal.

“It meant years of insecurity and having your life on hold, mental exhaustion and legal battles. It also meant years of not knowing where home was. School was my escape. I dreamt about all the things I could do, all the places I could go and the freedom it would give me,” she wrote in her blog.

She added: “I was always active with youth issues, migrant issues and student political activism. I organised debates and conferences, was vice president of the student union, secretary for an international youth fund, but not a resident.”

The family lived in asylum centres on the outskirts of town, and Lucia struggled to develop close relationships with others. “We moved about nine times and most of the centres were far from the city.” Although people were generally not hostile toward her, that did not mitigate the stigma of being a refugee.

“There is the stigma and the ignorance attached to a refugee or an asylum seeker. Local communities did not understand anything about refugees, and as a child it was very difficult for me to explain,” said Lucia, inferring that refugees are seen as beggars.

“When that resident permit was finally issued, followed by the Dutch nationality a few years later, I finally felt like I could exhale,” she wrote.

“I received a partial scholarship in 2013 to do my master’s in London, UK. I completed my master’s and continued to pursue a PhD in law. Now, three years later, London is home. I miss it when I’m away, I feel comfortable and challenged to do more.”

Lucia also researches and teaches refugee and migrant studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

– This story was first published by Africa Renewal magazine

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