It’s a cold day in London. I am standing on a pavement outside the Home Office. In my hand is the result of the hardest decision I will ever make. My children are playing beside me, blissfully unaware that life as they know it is about to change forever. As I stand on the pavement, the weight of it hits me. Suddenly it’s real. I look down at the object in my hands – a card that reads: ‘Asylum Seeker’.

I grew up in Libya under the Gaddafi Regime – a regime that made speaking against injustice a crime. Growing up, my life was by no means perfect but I had a deep love for my country. I decided to study law because the effects of dictatorships, despite their crushing nature, can instil in some the strength to stand for justice and uphold the rule of law. In 2008, I completed my Master’s degree in Criminal Justice Systems.

Of course throughout, the irony that I was studying law under a dictatorship was not lost on me. In fact, it drove me to fight, among many in my country, for a revolution which came in 2011. Free from the constraints of the Gaddafi Regime, there was hope for liberty and justice.  Unfortunately, I soon learnt the more things change, the more they stay the same.

My area of expertise was focused on prison systems and conditions, penal reform and the incarceration of human rights activists. Post-revolution, the treatment of prisoners, particularly those who spoke out against the militia or asked for reforms worsened. Through my own research, I learnt of many injustices within the prison system, where educated people who tried to raise awareness of what was happening in Libya were imprisoned. Many were tortured, raped, beaten and experienced life-changing trauma. This was the antithesis of everything we had fought against in the revolution of 2011. The militia tried to get the public on their side and control what people saw and knew. With the sacrifices of those who had died fighting for the revolution in my mind, I realised I too had to fight.

Drawing on sources from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports, I produced journals criticising the treatment of prisoners (particularly female prisoners) and armed groups in Libya. I wrote about the new laws that were reducing people’s freedoms and I told the truth – that the revolution had not in fact set us free, it had further imprisoned us. I wrote in Arabic, as most criticisms of the Libyan government were written in English, which many Libyans do not read. My articles were widely read and I became a recognised human rights activist while studying in the UK.

When you speak out against a dictatorship there are consequences. I had witnessed the extent of those through my own research. I was now about to experience some of them first-hand. As a result of my journals, it was no longer safe for my family and I to return home. Part of me wanted to fight this but another was terrified of how those consequences could be felt by the ones I loved.

Staying in the UK was hard but, as unbearable as life was about to become at least here we were living it. We applied for asylum but I did not feel relief  when it was granted. With the success of that application, everything I had built up, the PhD and the idea of working to liberate Libya, collapsed. My life disappeared. Like so many others, I was simply a refugee who’d had a dream.

One of the hardest things about starting over was being treated as though I was worthless. In some work environments, I felt my refugee status affected the way I was treated, some people who knew I was vulnerable took advantage of my situation.

The role at global law firm DLA Piper came through my relationship with The British Refugee Council. DLA Piper were looking for a refugee with a legal background and a strong academic record. It was like a dream.

I am now a Legal Officer in the Responsible Business team and manage their flagship programme ‘Know your Rights’ – a legal education training programme which empowers asylum seekers and refugees to better advocate for themselves and know their rights in host countries. It is a programme for refugees, led by refugees. The first time I met the individuals on the programme, I saw the same vulnerability and confusion I knew so well. Over the first course, I became a trusted advisor to many who have now become friends. I value my role as someone to whom attendees can relate and it changed everything for me. Suddenly, I found something worth getting up for.

I am now also working closely with the team at DLA Piper to design programmes that address gaps in refugee service provision. I know from personal experience that refugee women are more vulnerable and face additional barriers accessing employment. I am therefore designing a bespoke training programme for refugee women, that will be run by women. Giving them a safe space to learn and prosper in their new home.

The label refugee has many negative connotations but to me, a refugee is an experience and not an identity. That word does not define me. I am a wife and mother, an academic, a legal advisor, a lecturer, a feminist and I fight for human rights. If any words define me, it would be those.

A Khattab is pro bono legal officer at DLA Piper. The full Women Against Adversity series can be found here.