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A life on the run

From the guns of war in Angola to culture shock in Europe
By Pavithra Rao
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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 inthe Netherlands. It saved us from the conflict in Angola,” Ms. Kula 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 of age, and for 12 years you don’t have a permanent resident permit. It means any day you could be deported,” Ms. Kula 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.”

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

She has traveled many times to Angola to conduct research and says she might even settle there one day.

While her mother and sisters plan to remain in the Netherlands, a place they now consider home, Lucia prefers London, thrilled by the city’s multi culturalism and diversity.

Despite the allure of Western life, Ms. Kula has not forgotten her motherland or her identity. “I always call myself an Angolan-Dutch researcher. I do identify as Angolan first, and then Dutch. The culture and customs that I grew up with are African. It’s the best of both worlds, so to say,” she enthused.

Her mother made a conscious decision to move to a safer place because they wanted their children to live in a safe environment and have a future, she said. Her father was later released but died years later.

A refugee who is now a researcher has the nous to speak on refugee matters.She would likeconversations to focus more on how migrants and refugees can contribute to enriching a society rather than on how to protect borders and count populations.

“As a migrant, you make the conscious choice to move; as a refugee, the choice is not often yours, and it’s not because you were bored or because you were seeking a new opportunity; it’s ultimately because you want to be safe,” she concluded.