10 mins

Teem Khan was a beaming ray of sunshine as he described his refugee fashion brand Teem Khan and the launch of his new collection “Resilience”. Teem is a refugee fashion entrepreneur living in the UK. He was eager to recount the arduous and precarious journey of creating his own refugee fashion brand to Everyday Grit because “Getting asylum seekers and refugees to tell their stories is amazing. Instead of having pity, people who read this can say ‘Well done! If this guy was able to do this, what can we do?’

Genderfluid and organic – Teem Khan changes the face of fashion

To give us a feel for his journey, Teem begins with the story of his dream brand.
Teem Khan is his genderfluid, organic and vegan-approved brand of refugee fashion.

Following a successful pre-launch in November 2019, Teem planned the official launch date for March 2020. Regrettably, the launch date wound up coinciding with the national UK lockdown. Initially, he had drawn his inspiration from London’s pre-Covid-19 nightlife scene using shimmery fabrics and mesh.
But as the sanitary crisis spread, people’s focus shifted from sequins to
PPE.

 

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Teem wasted no time in adapting to the situation.
He began tailoring face masks for friends around the idea of “buy-one, donate-one-to-an-asylum-seeker”. Teem knew first-hand that refugees and asylum seekers were a particularly vulnerable community facing an unprecedented moment.

Likewise, he supported a group of sewers in London to make scrubs for the NHS during the beginning pandemic

Combining his design skills, with strong ties and a deep concern for the refugee asylum seeker community, he found a way to make a difference by providing masks to people who were falling through society’s cracks.

But it’s been a battle to even have the right to contribute to the greater good.
And being on a journey of self-expression and creating an inclusive, refugee fashion brand has been long and fraught with serious hardship.

Sitting down with us from his new home in Glasgow, Teem shares this tumultuous journey, filled with pain, mental health blows, scarcity, heartbreak as well as support, love, and hope.

“Can’t I just travel?”

To begin with, the UK has been Teem’s country of residence since he was a young adult. He originally came to London to study and escape from a life where bullying and violence were ever-present. Describing his aspiration in leaving his country of origin he says, “The one thing that would make me really happy one day, is to be studying. To be somebody in life. And to move away from all of this trauma where I have been.”

He arrived and began to study, going on to university and working 4 jobs to pay school fees and to support himself. Following his studies, he worked 9 years in London as an operations manager with different High Street retailers.

As the years passed he saved enough to buy a house, but due to his immigration status he was unable to travel from the UK. “I wanted to travel, I wanted to see the world. Because all my friends do! And I was like in a prison on the island” he recalls.

As a result, he decided to use his savings to hire a lawyer and apply for residency.

View from behind of a man wearing a white vest and jeans, walking down the middle of railroad tracks that wind through a forest

Image: Mika Matin / Unsplash

“No, this is not happening”

Applying for residency led to hardship that he never could have imagined.

For example, the application process took a depressing toll on his mental health. He could not avoid revisiting the dark times from his past. He needed to prove the reasons that kept him from being able to return to his country of origin.

Then, a misunderstanding regarding his residency application led the police to arrive at his house with a warrant for his arrest and deportation as an illegal immigrant.

Teem, had never in his life run afoul of the law.
Suddenly found himself imprisoned. He spent the next 42 days in a detention centre. He watched helplessly as his life savings evaporated over the course of 3 failed attempts to obtain bail.

Finally, after consulting a detention centre physician he was freed and told to apply for asylum in the UK.

Learning the law

By law, UK asylum seekers may not work during the first year of their claim. In return, they receive a miserable allowance of roughly £5.65 per day which places them in a situation of absolute poverty.

Therefore to make ends meet, Teem gradually sold off all of his belongings during the first 6 months following his asylum claim. He lived in the hope that his request would be granted speedily. He ached to be able to return to his previous life with a new legal status.

“I never knew the word ‘asylum’, I knew the word ‘refugee’ and I certainly didn’t know the difference between the two.”

Months passed.

Teem was no longer able to meet his most basic needs and he became houseless, forced to live in what was meant to be “temporary accommodations” for 4 months. “It was a temporary place. A place for when people get arrested or they are sent for a couple of days until their paperwork is sorted and then they are transferred. I was there for 4 months and I was going absolutely crazy.”

His mental health and wellbeing declined rapidly.

A man in a white tee shirt standing holding the bars of a window that he his facing

Image: Karsten Winegeart / Unsplash

“I was there for 4 months. I was going absolutely crazy.”

Teem decided to find ways to do daily volunteer work. He attended events for refugees and asylum seekers, gave English lessons to children and took the elderly out for walks. There were 140 asylum seekers where he was living and he recalls, “they became a different kind of family suddenly”.

“No future”

Once an asylum seeker has “waited 12 months for an initial decision on their asylum claim” they may begin to work. However, “Permission to work only allows asylum seekers to take up jobs on the UK’s shortage occupation list. Those jobs are at ‘graduate level’ or above,” says Teem. “This restriction makes it very difficult for an asylum seeker to find a job that would be validated by the Home Office.”

After he was granted permission to work, Teem was offered the position of store manager at Ben & Jerry’s flagship shop in Soho, London.
Unfortunately, the position didn’t meet the criteria established by the Home Office so he continued to do volunteer work.
Likewise, he taught asylum seekers how to sew, cut t-shirts, mend trousers as well as volunteering at both the
Refugee Council and the Doc Society, making many friends along the way.

Unable to support himself and with no news from the Home Office, Teem’s mental health had now deteriorated dangerously. The hopeless nature of this “no future” status inevitably led to serious despair. He received medical help and therapy, found ways of being of service and received support from friends.

But his undetermined status as an asylum seeker kept him from having a home, a job or any semblance of regular life.

“Lift the Ban”

Fortunately, the network of relationships that he had been developing with all his activities started to pull together around him.

The people from Ben & Jerry’s and the CIO Refugee Action stayed in touch and did what they could to help Teem. Working together with the organisation Refugee Action and Ben & Jerry’s they created the Lift The Ban campaign.
The campaign, still active today,  asks the government to repeal the 1-year work ban. Allowing asylum seekers to work would avoid creating the circumstances that lead to poverty and depression. “As importantly” he explains, “this also alleviates stress from the NHS and the mental health team. As they (asylum seekers) will be working, they will be learning English and they can do a lot of positive things instead of falling into drugs or falling into shoplifting for necessities for example.”

Working with the campaign, Teem visited many places including the House of Lords and the Parliament. He shared his personal experience with MPs. He spoke about the importance of the Lift The Ban campaign for fellow asylum seekers.

As a result of this work, he contacted his local MP to inquire about the status of his asylum claim.

“[The MP Ian Duncan Smith ] wrote to the Home Office and within a month, literally – it’s crazy – we went over 2 years without any answer and then within one month, I was getting letters and letters from the Home Office. They said they are about to make an ‘imminent’ decision.”
Teem laughs as he recalls, “Everything is always ‘imminent’ with them. They arrest you imminently, they deport you imminently and they are about to make an imminent decision.”

The wait is over

Finally, the Home Office decision arrived.

It was not what he expected – his asylum request was denied.
Teem knew that he could not accept this without one last fight.

Surrounded by the friends he had made along the way, friends from Ben & Jerry’s, the team from the Doc Society, the CIO Local Welcome, his family and lawyers, Teem once again found himself in court, this time to appeal the decision. “We waited, we waited and we waited. Finally, someone came and said, ‘The judge has called in sick.’ I thought ‘No! This is not happening!’ ”

Any final words?

He had minutes to decide – reschedule or to wait to see if another judge might be able to hear his case. After consulting with his team, he decided to take his chance and wait for another judge.

“Actually, it was kind of like a blessing in disguise! Within an hour, the usher came back to say ‘We have a judge on his way to judge your case!’

The judge walked into the courtroom and I’m sitting here in that seat. The Home Office lawyer came in, my lawyer was there. I had 4 witnesses that would give a statement in the court. I can’t express the feeling. You are sitting here to be judged about the right to live. The right of freedom… I’ve never asked the government anything. I worked every single day for 13 years of my life. I’ve paid my taxes like a normal citizen would do. The only thing is that I was ‘different’ and because of that my family didn’t accept me for who I am. I just wanted to live here in a country that I love, in a country that I call home.

The case went on and on. Everyone was talking. Witness 1, then witnesses 2, 3 and witness 4. By that time I was in pieces. My friend’s arms were covered in bruises because I was holding them so tight. I was crying. Everybody was crying.

And then the judge said to the Home Office barrister, ‘Have you got anything else to say ?’ She replied ‘No.’
He repeated the question saying to the Home Office lawyer ‘I’m about to rule. Are you sure you don’t have anything to say?’ ”

By that time I didn’t know what was happening, I was just crying, I was suffocating.”

refugee fashion welcome

Image: Maria Teneva / Unsplash

The Decision

The judge then gave his ruling – ‘I grant you your leave to remain.’
I didn’t react, I didn’t understand what the judge said. 
The judge looked at me and said, ‘Do you understand what I just said?’
Everyone behind me was crying and I thought that the judge had ruled not in my favour. So I said, ‘No judge.’

He continued to stare at me and said, ‘I grant you leave to remain in the United Kingdom.’”

 

“Getting asylum seekers and refugees to tell their stories is amazing…
If this guy was able to do this, what can we do?”

Refugee fashion has a new online market

In January 2019, Teem Khan earned the right to legally live and work in the UK.

Since being granted refugee status he has found that he actually had to readapt to living a rooted life. However, that has not stopped Teem from following his dreams and pursuing his career.

He began by enrolling with The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network. TERN is a social enterprise that helps refugees start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs. TERN helps refugees to thrive through the power of their own ideas. He worked a full-time job as he began to develop his genderfluid fashion brand with help from this network. “TERN has been such a support, and still is,” he says.

And as the pandemic began to force people to change their business models, TERN too adapted. They created a platform to help their refugee entrepreneurs sell their products. The platform – The Anqa Collective – is a remarkable online marketplace for refugees.
It is the first marketplace of its kind in Europe.

Being one of the first refugee fashion brands on the platform, Teem Khan is helping the platform to “write history”.

Fluid fashion

Meanwhile, Teem still works 70-90hours a week. He divides his time between working on the frontline of the NHS with the Scottish Ambulance Service and Teem Khan, the refugee fashion brand.

Last month the brand released an organic and eco-friendly “hug-a-buddy” hoodie collection. The line of hoodies “Comes with a mental health quote. It’s a resilience quote of love, care and support on the left shoulder, because the shoulder is what we give to someone a place to cry on, or we give to someone to lean on.” 

The brand reflects the values of its founder who is someone who quite literally wears “his heart on his sleeve”.

“I also wanted to be taking climate change and the climate crisis into consideration. So our garments, from production to packaging and posting, everything is currently 100% eco-friendly.”

Teem Khan the fashion designer a dressed in black and smiling and sitting on a wooden bench amid clothing that the has designed with green plants in the background

Teem at work with his creations Image: teemkhan.com

The Teem Khan brand is genderfluid. Teem explains, “None of the garments are marketed for his or hers. If a man wants to wear a vest that was initially designed for women, they can wear it!  We live in a world where there should be no judgment of what we wear. Hence the slogan of the brand is ‘Fabric has no Gender.’”  He laughs, “Fashion is fluid, so you wear what you want to wear my friend! It’s been designed with you in mind!”

“Fabric has no Gender…
so you wear what you want to wear my friend!

Looking forward

Following the hoodie collection, the brand will be releasing a summer collection of t-shirts, baby t-shirts, designer masks and vests.
For “Refugee Week“ (
June 14-20) he produced a special line of hoodies with the quotes “Seek solace on my shoulder”, “I am a citizen of the world” and “I am here for you” which he hopes will “tickle your humanity to remind you to be kind to people.”

His vision for the future is to raise enough money with the brand to be able to work full time, support himself with Teem Khan and turn his business into a hub for other refugees.

“I can be a mentor or a coach. They can come here to do some entrepreneurship, get support and understand the logistics behind it. I know how it is when you are an asylum seeker. Your dreams and your goals can be so easily shattered.
Every barrier in front of them is extremely hard to break. 
My goal is to break these barriers, even the gender-fluid barrier for example. It is an aim for Teem Khan to break barriers in the fashion industry. And it is happening. It is happening around the world, different people are already doing it, so it can be done at different levels. And it’s all about education.”

“Resilience” – the Teem Khan fashion collection

“Resilience” is the name that Teem chose for his refugee fashion collection. He is the very incarnation of resilience.

Through his journey and his struggles, he seeks to continue to spread a message of love and acceptance. He is relentlessly dedicated to helping other refugees and asylum seekers whether it is through his fashion brand, working and donating to the NHS or speaking out on the importance of mental health. He is an advocate and a voice for the importance of mutual support and resilience.

You can find his design work on his Etsy shop, or The Anqa Collective platform or  his website

Post Script: Since we last spoke to Teem we learned, “I will now be moving to London and will work for Ben & Jerry’s as a Hub Assistant manager in their flagship store in London. And as Teem said to us, “Tell your readers, ‘if you are ever in London, remember to pop down and say hello to Teem.’

Follow Teem Khan on Instagram and Twitter.

Feature image credit: photo of  Teem Khan by Anna Brooks 

 

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