From war-torn Iraq to the streets of Wigan: how an asylum-seeker ended up homeless

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A dozen years on from escaping the Iraq war, going between living on the street and couch surfing, a former asylum-seeker can now start his life over in Wigan.

Mohammed Ahmed, known as Mo, described his years of living without stable accommodation as “black”, but now thanks to a new Wigan Council programme that supplied him with a fully furnished flat, he can see some “light in the dark”.

Leaving behind his family and his home country ravaged by war to come to the UK in 2008, Mo had to wait until 2020 before he managed to get official documents which allowed him to legally work. In that time the 38-year-old “has done what he needed to” in order to survive.

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Mo Ahmed and William Elvin outside Sunshine House in ScholesMo Ahmed and William Elvin outside Sunshine House in Scholes
Mo Ahmed and William Elvin outside Sunshine House in Scholes

Waiting for the Home Office to grant him asylum, he ended up living on the streets of Wigan, which left him passing the lonely hours of the day walking from Leigh to Tyldesley on a daily basis no matter the weather.

“Before I moved to Wigan I was homeless, I found some accommodation but then I became homeless again,” the Atherton resident said. “I rang the council who sent me to a shelter [The Brick] in Leigh and then I went to a further accommodation in a hotel.

“The Brick helped me a lot, they offered me a flat – it was really suitable and perfect for me and I really love it.”

The Brick is a Wigan based charity that offers services to people who are homeless, in poverty or facing debt crisis. As its name suggests, it provides a safe, solid building block for people in crisis to begin to construct a new life and become valuable members of society.

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Ridyard Street in PembertonRidyard Street in Pemberton
Ridyard Street in Pemberton

“My health will soon be okay and I can work for myself,” Mo continued. Now I cannot just do nothing, before my life was black.

“Since I know them [council’s homeless support team], it is like there is a light open for me and I follow that light now.

“I want to get a new life with this [opportunity]. I remember when everything was black, I would try to kill myself but I couldn’t do it.

“I did things to myself, but now I’m not thinking like that. Mentally that was my lowest point.

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Mohammed Ahmed, 38, formerly homeless now living in AthertonMohammed Ahmed, 38, formerly homeless now living in Atherton
Mohammed Ahmed, 38, formerly homeless now living in Atherton

“The Home Office picked me up when they gave me the paper that allowed me to work, that was when I could finally do something.

“Friends helped me, strangers helped me [when homeless]. I really appreciated that.

“Sometimes the Government gave me accommodation with a 10 month visa when my case was reviewed but then I was homeless again. There were points where I thought I had everything then it would all go again.

“Now I feel I won’t go back into that cycle. At that time I wasn’t allowed to work, I had to beg off people.”

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Warwick Road Stores in AthertonWarwick Road Stores in Atherton
Warwick Road Stores in Atherton

Mo is one of 11 of success stories to come out of Wigan Council’s project, launched in 2021, that aims to bring people off the streets and back into society. According to council statistics, in 2017 there were just over 30 rough sleepers in the area, and since this new accommodation operation was brought in just over 18 months ago, that has reduced by 70 per cent. A count on November 24 2022 identified only four homeless people in the area.

When he got his new flat, Mo said that he was dancing all night – he was “too excited to sleep”.

“My plan is to go forward, not to go back” Mo noted, speaking about the process of how he gained his council accommodation in Atherton. “I didn’t know how to pay bills before, the council team helped me with that.

“Everything in the house is perfect, it even came with furniture. After I got my flat I started to go to college to learn English properly. Before when I would do something, I would have nowhere to go back to.

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“I don’t know why it took so long but now I have those papers [from the Home Office] I can work. I came from Iraq, escaping the war.

“I came from a really scary place, I lost my family. My dad passed away when I was young, and I have not seen my mum or sister since I left Iraq.

William Elvin, 52, formerly homeless now living in ScholesWilliam Elvin, 52, formerly homeless now living in Scholes
William Elvin, 52, formerly homeless now living in Scholes

“My first plan is to find them now that I have this accommodation. I have spoken to the Red Cross and now they are looking for them.

“Finding my family is not down to me at the moment, going to get a job is in my power. I am doing college, trying to mix with people more and going back to my flat I am happy, I’m okay, I’m alright.”

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Mo is not alone in his grief for his lost family, William Elvin, also formerly homeless, lost his brother in a drug related incident when going through the council accommodation system – which requires multiple check-ins alongside partner charities like the Brick. Will had a near death experience, similar to how his brother died, which saw him admitted into hospital under blue lights after he severed an artery in his leg.

The 52-year-old now lives in Scholes after recovering from the needle related injury more than a year ago. Despite living in Wigan for a large portion of his life, he still has his Bristol accent from his time in the south west.

His current chipper attitude towards life is in stark contrast to how it was just two years ago when he was living on the streets of Wigan, going from shop doorway to anywhere he could sleep with a modicum of shelter. His escape was using hard drugs like heroin.

“I helped people out, the wrong people,” Will said, telling the story of how he landed on the streets. “Council got complaints of people coming in and out of my house.

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“They kept warning me and I ended up getting evicted, which left me on the streets for months. It was horrible [on the streets].

“You feel like you’re not part of society, people just walk past you and ignore you. Even if people say hello it’s nice, but I didn’t like asking people for money.

“I would just do drugs because that is all you can do. It was just to get out of it, get away from being there, being cold and wet.

“The turning point for me was when I ended up in hospital, I thought ‘I don’t want to die on the streets’, then my family helped me out. They told me I needed to get off the streets, they didn’t like it.

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“I would see my mum every day, and she has seen the change in me.”

Will said he had visits from members of The Brick charity when he was on the streets, who found him different accommodation within Wigan. This was temporary before he managed to get a place in council’s specialist accommodation in Scholes – just a stone’s throw from the town centre.

It took a year for him to get to where he is now, which he described as ‘better for him’ due to the closeness to his mum and being distant from drug dealers who exploited him. Both Will and Mo are given support workers to help them keep up with day to day tasks such attending doctors appointments or paying bills.

Will describes his support worker as ‘a devil on the shoulder’ who keeps him in check. Now he is looking to the future, which is a transformation from the man who would be doing drugs just to get through the day.

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“I see myself moving out, going back to Bristol,” he said. I was born up here but moved to Bristol when my parents went for work.

“I would prefer to be in Bristol. There is just more stuff to do in Bristol, always activities.

“Once I move down south I would like to get a job. I was just getting through it all when I was on the streets.

“I have changed now, I have more determination now, I want to prove to my family that I can do this. I have more gumption and drive.

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“I won’t let people walk all over me now. I had these associates who would borrow money off me and make me run around for them.

“I stay away from them now. I was doing drugs, both me and my brother fell into that path.

“I don’t want to make the dealers rich anymore. I think for every £10 you would give them, you can treat yourself. They don’t think of you, they’re thinking of the money.”

Will now works with We Are With You, a charity which provides confidential support to people experiencing issues with drugs, alcohol or mental health. This is to ensure he continues on this clean path.

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Will wants to move back down south to Bristol soon, which is something the council’s team supports. The accommodation is not time pressured, so residents can use it to get back on their feet and move on, or stay there for longer if they wish, Jo Wilmott, director of homes and communities for Wigan Council, explained.

Mo has found a community in Atherton and sees himself there longer term, which shows the versatility for the accommodation service. This is why Wigan Council wish to expand the housing stock they have – so they can help more people like Mo and Will.

Their plans for 12 new flats in new accommodation blocks in Pemberton and Atherton came as a result of government funding. Government capital grant across the Warwick Road (Atherton) and Ridyard Street (Pemberton) sites is £504,987, the council confirmed.

On top of that they would get revenue to spend in order to employ resettlement workers which totals £113,505. The total grant received for these two sites is £618,492.

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Now they are settled, Mo and Will both expressed their desire to give back to those who helped them. They are in the process of volunteering at The Brick and Mo has even started working with the Canal and River Trust helping to mend banks and rebuilding towpaths.

Both coming from dark places in their lives, Will and Mo, as the latter put it, have light from the dark that they will now pursue – thanks to this opportunity granted by the council.