I’ve had lots of work published in September, including writing on sexual health, mental health, work, and lots more. But I wanted to share this article separately, as it’s one I’m especially proud of. After writing for The Guardian about my godson and his refugee mother back in July, I went on to write a feature for them about an incredible project, Bread and Roses, which I also discovered through my work with Women for Refugee Women (WRW).
Bread and Roses is a social enterprise that teaches refugee women floristry and employability skills, helping to boost their confidence and get them back into work. I’ve seen firsthand the difference it’s made to the lives of women from WRW’s network, so it was a real privilege to chat to them and some of their newly trained florists. There’s a snippet below, and you can read the article in full at The Guardian.
I’ve never had the chance to build a career. I was a student when my traffickers brought me here and then, as an asylum seeker, I wasn’t allowed to work,” explains 37-year-old Monica from Ghana. “Now I’ve got leave to remain, I’ve felt anxious about throwing myself straight into full-time employment,” she adds.
It’s a challenge facing many refugees in the UK who, regardless of their professional backgrounds, often find themselves up against language barriers, loss of confidence, CV gaps, and a lack of UK work experience.
But one all-female social enterprise is aiming to overcome all that, providing refugee women with the practical and emotional skills to blossom in the workplace. Hackney-based Bread and Roses offers a seven-week floristry programme, teaching trainees how to create everything from floral bouquets to Christmas wreaths.
It is inspired by the principle of Rose Schneiderman’s 1912 feminist speech of the same name, which argued that low-paid women need more than just practical necessities to survive, but also dignity, respect and the opportunity to flourish.
For women such as Monica, its benefits go far beyond the practical skills: “I loved working with the plants, particularly calming lavender and stimulating eucalyptus. But I also learned social skills like networking, working as a team and not being afraid to ask for help,” she says.
“I was already interested in floristry, but I’ve never been green-fingered so I didn’t think I’d have the skills. Building my knowledge, and being prepared to make mistakes and learn from them, has made me realise that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and have the right support network around you,” she adds.
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.
After spending most of February hosting my own private pity party, I’m pleased to report that March has been, well… better.
Physically my health has improved enormously in the last 8 weeks. I’m off painkillers, I’m sleeping more sensible amounts at more sensible times of day, without sleeping pills, and my left wrist is finally free of its cast. I can handwrite properly again, which is wonderful, and I’m gradually getting my strength back. More frustratingly, I had expected to be free of the neck brace by now too. After going into hospital expecting to be released, the news that my consultant wanted me to keep it on for another five weeks felt like a massive blow. I wrote off two whole days just lying in bed feeling sorry for myself and depressed. Fortunately though I’ve just about mastered the art of covering it all up under a scarf.
So, what have I been up to?
Celebrating amazing women
March is always one of my favourite months of the year, and not just because it’s when the sun finally begins to emerge from its wintery sleep. Women’s History Herstory Month means International Women’s Day celebrations, Women Of the World (WOW) Festival at the Southbank, March4Women, the Million Women Rise march, and lots and lots of exciting feminist writing and events to get stuck into. This March was quieter than usual, obviously, but there was no shortage of sisterhood.
On 1 March I was gutted to miss the National Refugee Women’s Conference, after so many months of planning and looking forward to it. Women for Refugee Women hosted hundreds of refugee women and supporters from around the country for panel discussions, workshops, performances, and the launch of The Way Ahead report. Although I was confined to watching along on Twitter and Facebook, I was so proud of what an inspiring and uplifting event the team achieved.
Actress Noma Dumezweni, who’s currently playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, opened the conference with a moving speech – and musician Yasmin Kadi closed with a performance that just perfectly encapsulates everything I love about Women for Refugee Women. As our director Natasha Walter said, quoting Emma Goldman, “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”:
International Women’s Day (8 March) was fairly muted – but I wore my WSPU T-shirt and wrote a client blog post about feminism, in the spirit of the day.
Then, that weekend, I put my face on and dressed up like a functional human being for the first time since the accident – to see my Women for Refugee Women sisters perform again, this time at WOW Festival. They never fail to blow me away, and it was lovely to catch up with so many of my talented and inspiring friends. As of today, I’m now back in the office a few hours a week, until the new comms exec takes over the role after Easter, and it feels so good to be back with my sisters.
Reading and writing
After having to put most of my work on hold following the accident, March has been a month of gently easing myself back in. I’ll post more about my recent writing work shortly, but in brief… As well as catching up on blog writing for my regular clients, and working on health features for my regular publications, I also started writing lifestyle content for a global healthcare brand, and had my first article published by Mental Health Today.
Of course, some days are easier than others. The brain fog, the forgetfulness, and the inability to get out of bed are too unpredictable to get back into my normal work routine just yet. But, for the most part at least, writing feels like a release rather than a chore again.
Having my cast removed has also made a big difference to my reading, so I’ve started making up for lost time in the book department! It’s been a really great month for captivating reads by brilliant women writers.
A Quiet Life
First up was A Quiet Lifeby my colleague Natasha Walter – a gorgeously written, unputdownable novel about the wife of a Soviet spy during the Cold War. A Quiet Life was very almost my favourite read of the year so far – but then I read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.
Set over three continents and seven generations, Homegoingtells the story of two Ghanaian sisters’ descendants – after one marries a British slave trader, and the other is shipped to America to be sold as a slave. Gyasi’s novel is heartachingly beautiful – both devastating and restorative, brutal and hopeful – and without a doubt one of the best things I’ve read in a really long time. I raced through it in 24 hours.
Ghana holds a very special place in my heart because of the incredible Ghanaian women (and one very special Ghanaian little boy) who’ve had such an impact on my life in the last 18 months. I spent a lot of time thinking about them while I was reading Homegoing; such a wonderfully raw and poignant tribute to their homeland, and to the power of human connections. I can’t wait to visit some day.
A Single Man
My third book of the month was a ‘get well soon’ gift, Christopher Isherwood’s classic A Single Man. I saw the film adaptation of it years ago (mostly for Colin Firth), but I obviously hadn’t remembered much of the plot. It centres on the grief of English professor George, whose partner was killed in a car accident 8 months earlier. Perhaps not the most thoughtful choice though, for someone recovering from a traumatic car accident! As beautifully written as it is, that detail was still just too raw and painful, and I had to stop about halfway through. I’m sure I’ll come back to it one day.
Finally, I read Lindy West’s (Notes from a Loud Woman) – another ‘get well soon’ present from a friend – which was far more uplifting than A Single Man. I have a complicated relationship with the Jezebel.com ‘loud women’ school of feminism – mostly because it’s always made me feel that my own quietness is one of my biggest failings as a feminist – but I enjoyed Shrill far more than I expected. West has done significantly more than her fair share of speaking out, and taking the relentless abuse for it, than most of us dare. Her victories – against the social acceptability of rape jokes, of fat shaming, and of Twitter abuse – are hard-won and well-deserved, and speak volumes about the power of women’s voices when we do speak out. She’s also refreshingly human and down to earth; raw in her honesty about the struggle to overcome shyness and self-loathing, and learning to love and accept herself. A really inspiring read.
Topping up my vitamin D
Although – to my huge frustration – I’m still not allowed to run or swim, the sunnier weather has made it easier for me to enjoy getting out and about. Somehow, despite knowing that exercise, fresh air and sunshine make me feel better, as a depressive I’m still always pleasantly surprised when they do. After a grim couple of months, March has been beautiful. The extra vitamin D has definitely given me a much-needed boost.
Self-care this month has meant buying myself daffodils; eating ice lollies, reading books, and sipping cider in the sunshine; going for gentle walks around the park; and enjoying some much-needed quality time with really wonderful friends. Emotionally I still feel unnervingly fragile, like the slightest insensitive question, or unexpected engine noise might shatter me into thousands of pieces. But I also feel loved and supported, and more capable of learning to love and support myself again.
Paris in the springtime
On Saturday, the most glorious day of the year so far, I wrapped up March with a trip to Paris with my mum and two very special little sisters. It was a celebratory trip, planned to mark the ten year anniversary of my parents becoming their respite foster carers. I still can’t believe the eldest is now almost 17, the same age I was when I first met her. Despite their problems, the pair of them have grown into such bright, thoughtful and funny young women, who I’m very proud to call my sisters.
The weather for our trip was perfect, and there really is nothing more beautiful than meandering around Paris in the springtime. I was surprised by how familiar everything still felt after six years away. The eight months I lived there, in 2010 and 2011, were simultaneously the best and worst of my life. I’ve always loved Paris, but the everyday stresses of living there certainly took some of the sheen off. My mental health during that time was dreadful. And yet Paris, in all of its darkness and light, still felt like home. Wandering along the river with my family, and eating breakfast by the Notre Dame, it was such a relief to escape from everything, even if only for a few hours.
There’s still a long way to go, but recovery is so much easier when the sun’s shining.
This year, for obvious reasons, I’m not able to spend the day with those sisters who endlessly inspire and encourage me with hope for the future. Instead, I’m holding a smaller, quieter celebration, from home – wearing my WSPU T-shirt, reading some of my favourite feminist writers, writing about feminism for one of my female clients, and reflecting on the challenges ahead for the international feminist movement.
But I also wanted to mark this IWD by sharing some of the articles on feminist issues that I’m most proud of having written over the last few years. Some are interviews with incredible campaigners and activists, while others address problems still facing women across the UK, and worldwide – from representation and healthcare provision, to violence and trauma.
It’s been just over a month since my last blog update, and since I set off on a long-awaited three week trip to China, Australia and the South Pacific. I was so very ready for a break after what’s been a pretty intense year, but wow, isn’t it amazing quite how much can happen in a month?
The trip itself was definitely more of a change than a rest, with its own challenges, anxieties, and busyness to contend with, as well as plenty of fun and adventure. Within the first seven days we’d crammed in visits to Shanghai, Beijing, the Great Wall of China, and Brisbane, catching up with two very special old friends along the way. I’m still trying to find the words to describe our experience of China, which is all kinds of phenomenal, bizarre, overwhelming and fantastic. Probably the only ‘rest’ came in the form of a State-imposed social media detox – and I have to say my week behind the Great Firewall of China, avoiding the real world, was pretty refreshing. Many thanks to Andy, who was our guide through the (largely culinary!) highlights of Shanghai, and to Jack who guided us on a four hour trek of the Great Wall.
After China we enjoyed a slightly more serene fortnight exploring Brisbane, the beautiful islands of New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and Australia’s Gold Coast, arriving back at Gatwick just as the British weather turned from pleasantly Autumnal to bleak mid-winter. I’d expected the climate change from eastern Australian spring time straight into British winter to come as a bit of a shock, but the weather turned out to be the thing I was best prepared for.
The US election didn’t come as a shock exactly – but I have felt woefully unprepared for the aftermath. After the murder of Jo Cox, Brexit, and the rising tide of fascist and hateful rhetoric that seems to have engulfed 2016, Trump felt almost inevitable. For months I’ve dreaded it, the knot tightening in my stomach as November drew closer, but when it happened I just felt sort of numb. I spent the morning after the election – like so many others, I’m sure – curled up in bed feeling hopeless, anxious, and unbearably sad about all the hatred in the world. 2016’s certainly been a rough old year for politics, and for mental health; right now it really does feel like fascism is winning.
On the same day though, I had a fortuitously timed lunch date with Natasha Walter, Director of Women for Refugee Women – an organisation that never fails to remind me that sisterhood, love, compassion and hope are all still so powerful in the face of men like Trump, Farage and chums. When I left WRW two months ago I fully expected to stay in touch but, for reasons that none of us saw coming, I’m actually going to be returning for a few extra months. It’s certainly sooner than I’d ever expected to be back, but I’ll be working on a more flexible basis than previously to make room for my freelance commitments. In a post-Trump world it really feels like the most useful work I could be doing right now, and I’m looking forward to catching up with my sisters and friends there in the coming weeks.
More updates to follow soon – including some of the writing projects I’ve been working on lately…
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.
Refugee Week is a nationwide programme of arts, cultural and educational events celebrating the contribution of refugees to the UK and encouraging a better understanding between communities. We need this now more than ever, says Sarah Graham from Women for Refugee Women.
“I suffered rape, trauma, torture. I don’t remember names, dates, evidence. I am refused, abused, misjudged. I am disbelieved, detained, deported. I came here to seek asylum.”
No matter how many times I see this poem performed, those four lines never fail to affect me.
The theme for this year’s Refugee Week (20-26 June) is ‘Welcome’, reflecting the outpouring of compassion and hospitality much of the British public has shown those refugees seeking shelter in the current crisis. But what does ‘Refugees Welcome’ really look like?
At Women for Refugee Women (WRW) we work with hundreds of asylum-seeking women – from across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East – who have faced experiences like those described in the poem. Their stories are all different, but disbelief and detention are common features of the welcome they receive from the UK Home Office.
Women for Refugee Women runs the Set Her Free campaign, calling for an end to the practice of detaining refugee women, the vast majority of whom are survivors of torture, sexual or gender-based violence.
Grace* – a Ugandan lesbian who had been imprisoned and sexually assaulted for six months in her home country – told me the Home Office had asked her for the dates her abuse took place. “Locked in a dark, windowless room for six months, I didn’t even know if it was a Friday or a Tuesday – and they wanted me to give the exact dates when prison officers assaulted me,” she said.
Despite having the legal right to claim asylum she, like 2,000 asylum-seeking women each year in the UK, was locked up indefinitely in Yarl’s Wood detention centre – an institution managed by private company Serco, and recently described as ‘a place of national concern’ by the Chief Inspector of Prisons.
A 2015 Channel 4 investigation into Yarl’s Wood uncovered what women have been telling WRW for years: high levels of self-harm, poor standards of healthcare and sexist and racist abuse from staff.
“I am so depressed that they think I am going to kill myself here, and I am watched by men and women night and day,” Margaret*, a survivor of rape and torture from the Democratic Republic of Congo, told WRW for our 2015 research report I Am Human. “I feel full of shame about what happened to me and what is happening to me. Being in prison here is a torture in my head.”
Like more than three quarters of those who were detained, Margaret and Grace were later released to continue their asylum claim in the community. Less than a month after her release Grace attempted suicide, haunted by nightmares and flashbacks of her time in Yarl’s Wood. Detention had forced her to relive the traumas she endured in Uganda, and for a long time after her release she regularly woke in the night hearing the sound of the officers’ keys.
Both women now have refugee status in the UK – the mental trauma of their detention was not only cruel but also ultimately pointless. According to the Home Office’s own figures, just 15 per cent of those asylum-seeking women who were detained in 2015 were actually deported; so-called ‘immigration removal centres’ like Yarl’s Wood aren’t even serving their stated purpose.
At an event we hosted in March, another former detainee Sophia* said, “I came to the UK to seek asylum because I had heard the UK was a place that champions human rights; I was wrong.” She was detained for six months of her first pregnancy, before also being released to continue her asylum claim in the community.
In the recent Immigration Bill, the Home Office responded to pressure from WRW and others by introducing a legal time limit of 72 hours on detaining pregnant women. Immigration minister James Brokenshire has also pledged reforms, which “the government expects… to lead to a reduction in the number of those detained, and the duration of detention before removal.”
The question for Women for Refugee Women is how long will that broader reform take? This Refugee Week, join us in pushing the government to ensure women who have fled violence and persecution are not welcomed by locked doors and barbed wire fences.
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.
Lucy* was 23 when she fell pregnant as a result of brutal sexual violence. Her mother bought her a plane ticket to the UK, thinking she and her baby would be safe here – but she was detained straight from the airport. She arrived frightened, alone and pregnant, and was locked up.
Lucy spent four weeks in Yarl’s Wood between months five and six of her pregnancy. She told me that she couldn’t believe places like this existed in the UK.
Her pregnancy had been painful, Lucy said. At one point, things got so bad that her solicitor had to intervene to ensure she was taken to the nearby hospital for medical attention. The staff at Yarl’s Wood were dismissive of her complaints; there’s a prevalent culture of disbelief, and women are often accused of pretending to be ill to strengthen their asylum case. Concerns have repeatedly been raised about the quality of the healthcare provision at Yarl’s Wood, and Lucy had no idea what was going to happen to her or her baby.
About a month after she was detained, Lucy was released. She had nowhere to go, and had to rely on the kindness of strangers until her baby boy was born. Her son is now three months old and they are living in the community, but their asylum status is still in limbo.
About a month after I first met Lucy, I also met Priya* in Yarl’s Wood, where she’d been for about six weeks. She was 25, and around five months pregnant; her story is also told in this video.
I visit Yarl’s Wood about once a month, and always take small gifts for the women I’m visiting – usually nice smellies, body lotions and shampoos. When I asked Priya what she wanted me to bring, she asked for a photo of a baby girl to look at, and I felt so saddened by the simplicity of her request. During her time in Yarl’s Wood, she’d been taken to Bedford hospital for her 20 week scan, so she knew she was having a girl and desperately wanted to imagine what she might be like.
Priya had been taken late for her appointment, escorted by Yarl’s Wood officers, and hadn’t had time to speak to the midwife afterwards. She was clearly frustrated, anxious, and uncertain about what to expect. “I used to worry about myself, but now I only worry about what will happen to my daughter,” she told me.
She also felt very alone. She has no family, either in the UK or her home country, and her partner, like her, is an asylum seeker. Although they spoke on the phone every day, he lived in asylum support accommodation at the other end of the country, and couldn’t afford to visit. At the time, I was the only ‘social’ visitor she’d had. I couldn’t believe how tiny and fragile she looked when we first met, but she told me she felt weak and sick all the time.
She struggled to eat the food that was provided, and had been unable to access proper support for her depression, low blood pressure, and problems sleeping. The experience of detention is immensely distressing, and over half the women we surveyed in detention said they thought about killing themselves. For Priya, pregnancy and the separation from her partner also made her more emotionally vulnerable, but staff were again dismissive and unkind when she sought help for her mental health problems.
Lucy and Priya’s stories are heartbreaking, but sadly they are not alone in their experiences. Over the course of 2014, 99 pregnant women were detained in Yarl’s Wood – despite the Home Office’s own policy that pregnant women should only be detained under ‘exceptional circumstances’.
At Women for Refugee Women we know, from the stories of women like Lucy and Priya, that detention is no place for pregnant women. And it’s not just our opinion – two recent independent reviews, by HM Prisons Inspectorate and Stephen Shaw, as well as medical and legal experts, have expressed similar concerns about pregnant women being detained. Join our Set Her Free campaign to ensure all women who seek asylum in the UK are treated with dignity and respect – sign the petition here.