In July I wrote for The Guardian about two very special people in my life. I made so many wonderful friendships during my time at Women for Refugee Women, but this one has definitely had the most impact on me as a person.
A moment that changed me: becoming godmother to a refugee’s baby – for The Guardian
“Here, go to Auntie Sarah,” Lucy said, as she thrust her four-month-old baby into my arms – not leaving me any time to panic or protest. I’ve never felt particularly maternal. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to have kids of my own, and other people’s babies make me nervous. Like sharks, they can usually sense my fear, and scream for their mother as soon as they come into contact with me. But with Tom it was different. Neither of us cried or screamed in terror; instead, I looked down at this little boy and fell head over heels in love.
It was March 2016 and I was six months into my communications role at Women for Refugee Women (WRW), which I left earlier this year. I’d travelled 100 miles to interview a case study as part of our research on the detention of pregnant asylum seekers in Yarl’s Wood. But Lucy was already so much more than just a case study – and I knew from that moment that “Auntie Sarah” was a job for life.
Tom and I were sitting on the bed in Lucy’s dark, cramped asylum accommodation, while she microwaved the lunch I’d bought for the two of us. It was only the second time I’d ever met him in the flesh, but I’d never before felt so invested in someone’s future.
I had first met Lucy the previous October, when she was eight months pregnant and homeless. After coming to the UK from Ghana to seek asylum, she’d been detained in Yarl’s Wood for a month, before being released with nowhere to go, and left to rely on the kindness of strangers for the remaining three months of her pregnancy.
Last week I finished my 12 month sabbatical-cover contract at Women for Refugee Women (WRW). After a year of cramming my freelance work into two days a week, I’m now officially a full-time freelancer again – but I’m not the same freelancer I was this time last year. It’s an easy phrase to throw around, but this year out with WRW really has been nothing short of life-changing. I cannot thank the staff, trustees and refugee women enough for welcoming me with such warmth, and allowing me to contribute to the amazing work they do.
Although words are how I make my living, I’ve struggled to find the words to sum up this experience. I simply cannot do justice to the strength, courage, resilience, humour and compassion of the women I’ve had the great honour and privilege of working with. I thought I’d try and keep it concise – short, sweet and to the point – and I have totally failed. I just can’t write about a job like this in 700 words or fewer. But, in keeping with the whole ethos of WRW, I’m going to start by letting the women themselves do the talking.
Campaigning to Set Her Free
Looking back over the last year, the majority of my work has centred around WRW’s fantastic Set Her Free campaign. I’ve protested outside Yarl’s Wood, I’ve visited women there on a monthly basis, and I’ve spoken at events alongside ex-detainees, raising awareness of the campaign and sharing their experiences. The things I’ve seen, and the stories I’ve heard, are both horrifying and heartbreaking. I have nothing but awe and admiration for my colleague Heather Jones, who has been visiting Yarl’s Wood for more than a decade and still has the most phenomenal capacity to be shocked and outraged, as well as compassionate, loving and giving beyond measure.
One of the most powerful stories to capture the trauma of Yarl’s Wood is told by the Set Her Free animation, which WRW commissioned before I joined. In August we premiered it at the London Feminist Film Festival, and the response – both at the festival and online afterwards – was incredible. Margaret’s story really encapsulates why the Set Her Free campaign exists, and why it’s so vital. It has been such an incredible movement to work at the centre of, and I’d urge you all to find out more and get involved.
Celebrating and demonstrating with 99 women
There’ve been so many memorable moments during my time at WRW that it’s hard to condense it all down. One of my proudest achievements though was working with so many inspiring women, including many of my personal heroes, on the 99 women action. In March, for International Women’s Day, we asked 99 women – campaigners, celebrities, writers, businesswomen, politicians, performers, NGO leaders, healthcare professionals, and academics – to write a message in solidarity with refugee women. Each woman reflected one of the 99 pregnant women who were detained in Yarl’s Wood in 2014.
The list included Malorie Blackman, Mary Beard, Noma Dumezweni, Charlotte Church, Yvette Cooper, Pragna Patel, Romola Garai, Juliet Stevenson, Nimco Ali, Yasmin Kadi, Caitlin Moran, Bridget Christie, Valerie Amos, Caroline Lucas, and so so many more amazing women. The action was covered by Guardian G2, the Evening Standard, and even Germany’s leading women’s magazine Brigitte, and WRW’s social media channels lit up in ways that I’d never seen before. But my favourite part was delivering those 99 messages to the Home Office, on International Women’s Day, as part of a loud and proud gathering of music, speeches and poetry that we held outside the building.
IWD 2016 was not just another protest, but a passionate celebration of women who cross borders, and a defiant demonstration against the policies that harm them. We were joined by more than 50 refugee women from around the UK, as well as Juliet Stevenson, Stella Creasy, Natalie Bennett, Kate Osamor, Shami Chakrabarti, Zrinka Bralo, Caroline Lucas, Nimco Ali, Sophie Walker, Gaggle, Lips Choir, London Klezmer Quartet, Sabrina Mahfouz, Demi Mseleku, Sula Mae, Sajeela Kershi, and (my personal highlight) the absolutely incredible African dancing of Nyakaza.
The detention of pregnant women
Our particular campaign focus, for the year I was there, was on the detention of pregnant women. Some of the political conversations that happened around this were such a testament to WRW’s lobbying work, and proof that change really is possible. Conservative MP Caroline Spelman hosted a Parliamentary event on the subject. Labour peer Baroness Lister put forward an amendment to the Immigration Bill, which would have ended the detention of pregnant women. That amendment passed in the House of Lords, but was later defeated in the House of Commons. The Government did, however, introduce a 72-hour time limit on detaining pregnant women which, while not the total exclusion we’d hoped for, did represent a significant step forwards.
My role in this part of the campaign included working with two women who were both detained in Yarl’s Wood while pregnant. I’m so grateful to them both for working with me to tell their stories to the media, to politicians, and to the UK’s biggest online parenting network Mumsnet. I’m also incredibly grateful for the generosity of WRW’s supporters, who donated mountains of maternity clothes, baby clothes, nappies, bottles, toys, and accessories to support them both.
Of all the things I wrote during the year, the piece I’m most proud of is this interview for The Pool with a brave woman who, for media purposes, I referred to as Lucy. She and her gorgeous baby boy hold such a special place in my heart. Long before I left WRW I’d already made plans to visit Lucy for her son’s first birthday later this year, but I was so honoured and moved when she recently asked my husband and me to be his godparents. I never imagined, a year ago, that I would leave this job with new lifelong friends.
Sisterhood at its best
I’ve long suspected it, but at WRW I learned definitively that sisterhood is one of the most powerful forces in the world. On Saturday, just three days after my final day in the office, I was proud to march alongside WRW at the 2016 Refugees Welcome march, where one woman – a refugee from the DRC, who has been waiting 12 years and counting for asylum in the UK – summed up the spirit of the organisation so beautifully. “In our hopeless condition, we give each other hope.” WRW is a place that embodies sisterhood, friendship and compassion, where relationships are nurtured, and women are both supported and empowered – in the truest sense of the word.
At WRW I have truly been privileged to work with some of the bravest and most inspiring women in the world. Women who, having been through more horrible circumstances than I can even imagine, dedicate so much time and energy to supporting one another. It’s one of the things the most struck me about the women I’ve met in Yarl’s Wood – for all the trauma and depression that place breeds, it also forges unshakeable bonds of friendship and solidarity between the women who are locked up there. Their determination to speak up, both for themselves and each other, has been a constant source of inspiration to me. The London Refugee Women’s Forum, who I’ve seen perform the Set Her Free poem countless times, never fail to move me.
As part of WRW’s Women at the Borders project, I also visited women in the Calais ‘jungle’ refugee camp, and was heartbroken to meet a 17-year-old Sudanese girl and her husband, who had spent months making the treacherous and exhausting journey across Africa and Europe in search of safety. My colleague Rehab Jameel, herself a Sudanese refugee and now a British citizen, did such a wonderful job of speaking to her in their native Arabic about the trauma of their experiences and what they hoped for next. It felt like such a small thing to be able to offer women in such a desperate, bleak situation. Just a few hours of solidarity, sisterhood, support and sympathy. But this year has taught me that those small things are often all you can give, and often mean more than you realise.
I’m proud to call so many of these women my sisters and my friends; to have laughed and cried, both with them and for them. As I’m writing this from my office, at the end of a day of freelancing, the photo of our recent trip to the seaside stands pride of place on my desk, alongside my other proudest achievements – my BA and MA certificates, the first book I edited, my first national newspaper front page story, and a copy of the beautifully designed WRW annual review.
Women getting sh*t done
In another recent conversation, Afghan refugee Rahela Sidiqi described WRW as a place where refugee women’s knowledge and skills are recognised, valued, and used, and where their voices and experiences are at the forefront of everything they do. It’s also, she pointed out, an organisation that makes far more efficient use of its limited resources than many much bigger and better-resourced charities manage. People are constantly surprised to learn that WRW is made up of just five part-time staff – all of them amazing women, who get sh*t done and have a huge impact.
Which brings me to the final (I promise!) moment that I want to write about. The night before my last day with WRW, we held an event in partnership with CARE International UK. The event, Listen To The Women, was an inspiring evening of refugee women’s voices and stories. Held ahead of the United Nations refugee summit, the idea was to ensure that refugee women – so often unseen and unheard in coverage of the refugee crisis – are not forgotten.
We had an incredible line-up – musician and Sierra Leonian refugee Yasmin Kadi, who opened the night with a burst of energy and passion; campaigner Helen Pankhurst and comedian Shazia Mirza; actresses Tanya Moodie, Juliet Stevenson and Anne-Marie Duff, who read powerful testimonies from refugee women who couldn’t be there to speak for themselves; the London Refugee Women’s Forum with their Set Her Free poem; a Sudanese refugee, who spoke with a translator about her experience of Calais; a panel discussion, chaired by Jane Garvey and featuring MPs Yvette Cooper and Heidi Allen, CARE’s Howard Mollett, and Iraqi refugee Ghada Alnasseri; and finally Scottish-Sudanese singer-songwriter Eliza Shaddad, who beautifully closed the evening.
The power of women’s voices
We sold out. We filled every chair, and more guests, staff and volunteers stood around the edge of the room, all there to hear from refugee women. The testimony readings, the poem, the music, and the speeches were so powerful, poignant and moving. There were moments of heartbreak and despair, and moments of inspiration and insight into what refugee women can achieve when given a chance. Most importantly, the Set Her Free poem received a standing ovation, led by Tanya Moodie. That recognition was so well-deserved, so beautiful, that it brings a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat even just thinking about it now. At the time, I felt like I could burst with pride at what the London Refugee Women’s Forum have achieved, through their own words and their passionate, confident performances. They are quite simply amazing and, as their biggest fan, they can expect to keep seeing me crop up at their drama classes and performances for the foreseeable future! I so look forward to seeing their confidence continue to grow.
Finally, we closed the event by asking attendees, and our supporters on social media, to share the following short film. It’s just one minute long, with a simple message for the UN and the UK government: please, listen to the women.
Originally published at The Pool: Lucy was 23 when she fell pregnant, following a brutal gang rape by three men in her home country. After receiving threats on her life, she fled to the UK, believing she would be safe here – only to find herself locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre at five months pregnant. This is her story, as told to Sarah Graham.
After the attack, I knew people were after me. I was getting threatening letters, I saw men in front of our house, and my mum and I knew the police would not help. I told her it was too much for me; my life was in danger and I had to leave. We sold almost everything we had for me to escape, and friends and relatives contributed to the cost.
I didn’t know what to expect from England. I never thought in my life I would travel, so when it happened I didn’t think of anything except that I had to find somewhere safe for myself and my baby.
When I landed in the UK, they started interrogating me at the airport. They took my bag and my phone, so I couldn’t contact my mum, and the guy told me that if I didn’t tell him the truth, he was going to lock me up. I was really scared.
They took me to Colnbrook [detention centre]. I was really distressed and didn’t know what was happening to me. I wasn’t eating or drinking, just pacing up and down. That whole night I didn’t sleep, and I was crying throughout. The next morning they let me call my mum, and she was crying with me. “All that we struggled for, all the money we spent, everything was in vain,” she said.
I met a Ghanaian lady in Colnbrook, who told me how to seek asylum, and I started making calls to lawyers. Then the escorts came to take me to Yarl’s Wood.
Originally published at New Statesman, written as part of my communications work for Women for Refugee Women:
On Saturday, hundreds of protestors gathered in the muddy field outside Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, calling for an end to the detention of vulnerable women who have claimed asylum in the UK.
Despite the pouring rain, the mood on both sides of the fence was impassioned and defiant, with the women inside apparently buoyed by the support and solidarity of the chanting crowd.
On the way back from the demonstration, message after message reached me via asylum seeker and ex-detainee Karen*, who was travelling with me and taking calls from friends inside Yarl’s Wood detention centre. The news that seemed to please her most was that a hunger strike was being held, with one friend telling her: “We told the officers, ‘We have just come from a huge protest; we won’t spoil it by eating your food!'”
Karen is a keen supporter of these hunger strike tactics and was quick to encourage the friends she’d left behind when she was released from Yarl’s Wood less than two weeks earlier. She personally took part in four hunger strikes during the three months she was detained. The first, in early September, involved about 30 women, while her fourth strike was coincidentally held not long after the release of the film Suffragette.
At the time, as I watched Carey Mulligan’s Maud being force-fed on the big screen, I felt overwhelmed with sadness for the sisters who I’d been calling and visiting in Yarl’s Wood since I joined Women for Refugee Women (WRW) – a charity that works with women who have sought asylum in the UK – six weeks earlier.
There’s no forced feeding in Yarl’s Wood, and the hunger strikes there may at times be more symbolic than sustained – but I couldn’t help feeling an echo of the women’s desperation and defiance in their belief that, if they refuse food, the authorities will eventually have to listen.
At the moment, the Home Office locks up around 2,000 women who have sought asylum every year. A growing movement is speaking up against this unnecessary indefinite detention. Supporters come from across the political and social spectrum, but some of the most inspiring women I have met are those who have experienced Yarl’s Wood first hand.