Women Asylum Seekers Together
Women Asylum Seekers Together are a collective of women who have experienced or are currently experiencing the asylum system in the UK. They are women who have fled their home countries because of their ethnicity, their religion, their political activity, their sexuality or because of gender violence. They have found themselves in the UK under the threat of deportation, with no means of income, legal help or advice.
The organisation puts women in touch with each other and helps them support one another in women-only spaces, share skills and knowledge and to help take their asylum applications forward.
Two speakers from will be discussing their experiences and information about the work of WAST.
Kate: So, I hope we've all had a good lunch, and I know a lot of people are talking about some of the issues that have been raised this morning, and some of the stuff that's going to come up this afternoon. The next thing that we're going to do is talk about women in the asylum system in the UK, asylum seeking women, and I'm very lucky, I've been quite involved with a group called WAST, Women Asylum Seekers Together, and so I know these women and I'm really looking forward to hearing them share their stories and their experiences with you and I know you're going to find it absolutely fascinating. What we are going to do, for reasons of confidentiality, is we're going to cover up the camera lens, so the people who are watching online, you'll be able to hear what's being said, but we're not going to broadcast images of these women and also when I introduce them I'm not going to use their names, and I'm not going to do that stupid thing of making up a different name and then just confusing you, I'm just going to bring them up, and they can tell you their story and afterwards if you're chatting I'm sure they will tell you their names. But just for obvious reasons of security for them, if you wouldn't mind covering up the camera - bye!
So if you would please welcome the two women from WAST.
Now I've got to try and remember not to say your names, and that's going to confuse me completely, but yeah, if you want to go ahead...
Woman 1: I've come from London, I'm from Cameroon. Thanks for inviting me. I'm going to tell you about my own experience as an asylum seeker. I came to this country because I was basically [?], I didn't feel safe in my own country, I've come here for safety. When I came here, when I claimed asylum, it was completely different to what you were told was going to happen.
The first day I made my interview, they questioned me and told me to wait from eight o'clock until eleven o'clock at night. They were keeping me there, saying to me 'Wait, take the fingerprints, wait, take the picture, wait'. At about eleven o'clock in the night time, they took me in a different room and start searching me, and saying to me they were going to deport me because they don't believe what I'm saying to them, they don't believe me. They take me to a separate room, and then said to me again to wait. I wait again for a few hours. I was shaking, I was nervous, I was panicking, everything came into my mind. A few hours later, they put me in the car, with some other people and we drove. I didn't know where they were going to take me and I thought they were going to drive me to my own country. Instead, they took me to [?] detention centre, where I spent more than eleven days.
When I reached there, they started searching me again, I was thinking maybe I'd become a terrorist. I didn't know why they were searching me like this. I was scared. They took me to the room, and came and searched me again. I don't know what they were looking for. A few days later they took me to another interview, where they...I didn't speak one word of English when I came here. I had an interpreter, and she was from India. Unfortunately, when I would say 'knife', she would say 'robot'. So my interview was messed up.
Later on, after a few days, they sent me back to London and referred me to a medical(?) foundation, where I went there and I was having counselling. I'm still going there, I'm having psychotherapy there. Later, eleven months later, my asylum was turned down. The benefit was cut, everything. No house, nowhere to sleep, no money, nothing. I was living charity to charity, getting some food, getting some clothes, sleeping on the bus from Walthamstow to London Bridge at night time, I had to sleep like that all night because I had nowhere to sleep, and later on I made a fresh claim. It wasn't good because they asked me to give them money to make the fresh claim. I didn't know where to find the money. The medical foundation looked for a solicitor for me, and I'm still in the process, I'm still waiting.
And...I don't know. I was referred to an organisation, they're called WAST, Women Asylum Seekers Together, by one of my friends when I...when the medical foundation sent me somewhere to spend a holiday. From there she could see me stressing, panicking, every time I went to sign, I was panicking. I would get someone from the charity to go with me every time I had to sign, but they have to stay outside, it's only me allowed to go in. My heart always...I'm always panicking. And she found WAST on a website, and told me to go there, that I can find some help there, and when I went there... before that if you go to a college, they will say to bring your papers, they don't take asylum seekers. It's where I found an English class, free English classes which help me to speak English. Kate is my teacher here. I learnt a lot, we go out, I had some training there, advice, events and we can get some people there who are in similar situations, like me, and people are going through the same things as me, nowhere to sleep, only charity helping me out to survive. We have to get some for day, [?] in this side, clothes in this side. In WAST they provide hot food, drink, and people who'll transport, to go [?], without a car we have nothing, we have to walk and they provide money and transport. People have lost(?) their home, always stressing, feeling like I can kill myself because...for me, life just doesn't have sense. Why did I come in this world? I left my country because of the problems, politics and I cannot go back because they are going to kill me. I decided that, if they are going to deport me, why not kill me here? I don't see why I have to suffer all my life because of paper.
Woman 2: I'm from Zimbabwe. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to come and speak to you. I fled my country in 2001 for fear of persecution. I've had so many beatings, maybe six or seven times, where if I look in the mirror I can't even identify myself. I couldn't even spit blood or anything, my mum had to wash me up. I can't even go to the police station - my father's taken me to the police station and in the police station they say 'go and get the people who have beaten you up', and we know the people who have beat me up, but the police won't do anything. And that group still exists even up to now, although one of the leaders, who was part of the gang who used to come and beat me up is dead.
The reason why they targeted me is because I used to deal with art, and with art my customers were mainly - sorry to say this - white people. I even used to come here for exhibitions, I've exhibited at Birmingham Screenfair(?), coming as a business from Zimbabwe with a company called Portray Limited(?) who were sponsoring small companies from Zimbabwe, and I came in here and I exhibited. I've even exhibited in the Philippines and France as well, and I've even come here the other time for an exhibition which was a private one, which had nothing to do with the organisations or whatever. And then thereafter, when the politics, when I joined the opposition party of the MDC-T - I'm sure you all know about Tsvangirai, he was in the limelight, when I joined that, I was now, because I had a sort of mini-curio(?) where people would come and buy cards secretly, so they knew, because back home, people gossip. We could be sitting together like this and they could be passing the message across. They pretend to come and befriend you, and then they go and tell other people. Maybe they just get a drink for it, they don't even get money for that. They just get a drink, or... to give them a pat on the shoulder, say 'oh, you are good', and then they pass on the information. The next thing, they just come and they beat you up.
They've beaten me up in front of my children, I've got three children back home. They've beaten me up in front of my own mother. And my mother is crying and begging. I've gone to the extent of pretending to want to use the toilet to do a number two, hoping that they will say 'we'll leave you'. I say 'please, please, I'm going to piss here, please let me use the toilet'. They said 'OK, go, use the toilet'. They made me sit on the toilet and said 'can you do it? We are waiting'. And they even tell me that 'if you scream, if you cry, it's going to be even worse'. They beat me up with [?] pipe. You know those which are... you see this one? [points] That's what they are like, the round one. They are a large plastic, we have on buildings back home. They will tear those, they will beat me up and they will be going into small pieces. They will take a leather shoe, because back home we've got leather, they will take a leather shoe and they will beat me up, and I'm beaten all over, I can't do nothing. And when you see me after they've beaten me up, you wouldn't even recognise me. You'll feel sorry for me but there's nothing you can do.
Until other people say to me 'well how long am I going to carry on like this? They keep coming back for you, the best thing is to do, why don't you try and see if you can go to London?', I'd been here before, I came here four times before 2001. So I came over here and when I first arrived here I didn't do asylum, because there was an issue if I fled to asylum, that time they would take ten people, and they would send you back home. So what I did is I applied for a student visa. I had an aunty here, so she helped me to go to college, where I went and registered just to do piano, it was just a way of getting me into the system just so I would be legal.
Hereafter, I managed to get a job, and I worked as a care assistant, I even worked...I had two jobs, I worked for T-mobile during the day, from ten to seven, eight o'clock I'm working in a nursing home, in the night care until eight o'clock in the morning. And then at eight I leave to get to my house, I just go home and just drop my bag, have a quick shower, go to sleep for an hour, set my alarm and when I wake up... my day job never knew that I was working at night, but the people I worked with at night, they knew because they used to see me, come in as customers during the day.
And then I went on, went on, went on like that , and I was still involved with activism in this country. And I used to approach lawyers, and lawyers... I even approached one lawyer who was like a family friend, and he was not kidding, he said to me, he called his assistant lawyer to the counter(?) and he said to me, 'If I were you, don't bother to seek asylum. Just stay away, just stay out of trouble. Because if you do, the way they are doing it, I wouldn't advise it. Just stay out'. But I said 'but, you know, I need to do something about it'. He said 'No - at the moment stay out of view'. So I kept on waiting and waiting, and then my application was refused one time for student visa because I didn't take my course, and Home Office contacted me, they were calling the college, and the college didn't even send me the letter to say that the Home Office needed more, further evidence from me. And then when they sent my passport back, I went to the college and I said 'what is this?' and they said 'this is what has happened' and I went to court then, and they refused my application for student.
Then, from there I had no choice but to now get into it, an asylum seeker that's always been involved in politics, that's when I started. And when I went to one solicitor in Croydon, he told me 'you're going to go', he just quickly typed a letter, he said 'they're going to detain you, and they're the solicitors for the detention centre, and they're the ones who are going to deal with your case'. I was so scared. I went home, I couldn't even sleep with that letter in the house. I tore it up and put it into the bin. Any time someone passed through the corridor, I'm hiding. If anyone knocks on the door, I don't open the door. I only open the door if you knock on my phone. I would say 'if you don't know me, you can't get my mobile. You can knock as many times as you want on that door, I will never open the door'. Because, and the next thing was that they ended up stopping me from the job because they were asking me for my passport. So I kept on saying 'uh, it's still with the Home Office', because I wanted to continue with the job. Until one day the administrator wrote to me and said 'if you don't present your passport on this date, I'm sorry but I'm going to have to stop you'. One day I went to work on a Sunday on my night shift, and I was supposed to work again on the Monday but I realised my name was not on the rota. I didn't ask anybody to say 'why is my name not on the rota?', I just didn't show up that Monday.
And then my day job, my boss knew that I had an application with the Home Office, I can't tell him that I've now changed it to asylum, so I kept on going to work. Sometimes I'd go to work without a handbag, because I can wear jeans at work. So I'd have my mobile phone, my keys in the back pocket, thinking that sometimes, the Home Office must come. Anytime I see somebody, my heart is pumping, you know, it is beating, could they be from the Home Office? And only when they leave do I feel relieved. And then sometimes you hear so many stories from people, they say 'oh, UK Border Agency was just down the road'. I came to my boss, my boss said 'I can never find anybody who can replace you'. He called me, he said 'let's go downstairs. Are you OK?' - I used to cry at work, I didn't know it was depression. Whenever they want to try and talk to me, I used to cry. And my boss said 'what is it? Are we doing something wrong for you? Is there anything?' and I can't even talk to the extent that he would say 'OK, go back to work'. And they tried you know, and I'm crying so much in front of the customer that I just go back to the office to the toilets and they follow me, and they say 'what's wrong?', I used to say 'nothing' because I couldn't share my story with them. Then my boss one day said to me 'you know what, is there's something going on?', then I said 'I'm scared. My application is still pending'. And my boss said 'I don't want to see you suffer, and I know you are a hard worker. What I'll say is, as of now you can stop coming, and then if things go well one day, come back, you are welcome to come'. And I said 'OK'. And I'm still waiting as we speak.
The Home Office, they don't even communicate with you. They only communicate with your MP. They've only communicated twice so far, after my MP has written to them to say 'we want to know because we are sick of guessing', because they have never refused my application. I would rather they refused me, because I have so much evidence, but my solicitor says 'no, we don't want to give them so much, so let's hold on to it, and then whenever they refuse you'... I've been in newspapers, |'ve been in magazines, I've been on TV and in so many things, people back home have seen me in newspapers and they've even approached my mum, and my mum just denies it and says 'I don't know what you're talking about'. And then when I phone my mum, she says 'I told you to stop'. I say 'mum, I can't stop'. But then my mum says 'but you know what, you are putting us in trouble here'. I say 'I know'. I even told my children, every time I'm on the phone I say 'be careful. Make sure no one ask you any questions. Make sure you don't take anything from anyone'. Even last night, I phoned my daughter, I could hear something, I said 'where are you?'. She said 'I'm in church'. I said 'you're at church? How many times do I keep telling you?' she says 'mum, we are safe here, because when we leave the church we have a letter from the police, because you can't move around, we've got to have a letter'. I said 'what?'. She said 'well if you have a letter, to show them, because people are not allowed to walk around at night'...I said 'OK'.
But anyway, back to the situation in this country. Later, when I stopped the job, I went to the Refugee Council in Brixton to try and apply for support. They refused me, they called me to [?] House for an interview. I was sitting on a very, very tiny table like this [gestures], with this man from the Home Office, this lady who was training and and interpreter. I didn't need an interpreter, but maybe they got an interpreter to make sure that I'm really from my country, so the lady was speaking to me in Shona, and I was speaking to her, and then she'd interpret but it was taking even longer because I would still talk on my own. I tell you, I started having a runny stomach, during the interview. I asked for a recess twice, I said 'excuse me, can I go to the toilet?'. They said to go, I went, ooh - runny stomach. That happened twice. When I left that interview, I went home straight away because I thought the runny stomach, I never had it, but when I got home it was all gone. And then they wrote to me two weeks later or so, to say 'you have been refused under' - it's what they call section 55 - which means that you didn't seek asylum when you first entered, in the first twelve months of entering the country. They say 'we cannot give you...we think you can still survive on whatever means you've been surviving on'. Because they knew, the Home Office knew when I applied for asylum, I told them that I'd worked.
They've got my history, I've got National Insurance, I've contributed in both jobs. So they know. So when they refused me in that letter, they said 'no grounds of appeal' - you can't appeal their decision. So that means there's nothing I can do about that. So I've never received what they call section 4, you'll see people talk about section 4 or whatever, therefore you have to end up living on handouts. You have to go to this charity, maybe they give you groceries, you go to that charity maybe they give you hygiene packs where they give you maybe body foam, shampoo, they give you sanitary towels, and then you go to that charity... so like now, with WAST... I used to see women going there and I'd say 'oh, I speak English, I don't really need to go there'. Then one day I said to this woman 'well, let me just go and see' because [?], and I speak French like her [points to woman 1], so I went, and Kate is the teacher, so I was just so interested, so I was like 'oh, this is good', there's some of the things I never knew, maybe about this country, or maybe certain words, I don't really know their meaning, you can just say something about them, I just found like, there was more depth in it, so that's when I started saying 'you know, I might as well study this English'.
And to be honest with you, I've known so many asylum seekers who are suffering right now. They are actually being ill-treated by people who have PhDs. They say 'no problem, come and work for me' - because they know they don't have papers - there are women, I've even tried to say to them, 'these people are fooling you, why don't you go and..and do this..', they say 'oh no, they took my passport, they say they're going to help me'. And they are staying in the house, and they can't even do anything. I know one woman who was working for a doctor, and I don't know, the wife, she's got some degrees or some PhDs, whatever, and she's told me, she was working at the house as a maid, she lives in the house, they've got a computer in the house, she's not even allowed to touch that computer. They go to work in the morning, but they say she's never allowed to use it. So when she takes their child - they've got one child - so when she takes the child to school, she just sneaks in to the internet cafe to just check on the emails, and then she just goes home, and then she says like at weekends, this is like today on a Saturday, we meet outside our embassy, where we do demonstrations, we've been demonstrating since 2002, and until things are OK in Zimbabwe, we will never stop.
She can't attend, because she's got to be at home. I try to say to her 'try and talk to them'. She tried and then they said 'oh, we need you here', they've got visitors coming, and she's underpaid. And she's got no choice. She hasn't got a GP, she hasn't got anything, she's just an asylum seeker. And she was a schoolteacher, she taught my niece, who is married and who lives in Luton. And she taught her when she went to school. There are so many Zimbabwean asylum seekers, there's so many asylum seekers from all over the world, who would [?] back home, but now... we can't do anything. I could do... even some people when I speak to them they say 'you used to go to England, you used to do things, why don't you do it?' I just say 'I don't know, it is a long story'. Because people don't understand.
But my mum and my family, they do understand what you go through. Just last October I lost my young sister, she was only 27. She had cancer. Liver cancer. That was diagnosed in 2007. She died. She was taken home, I couldn't go. I was left here, crying, on my own, but... I can't be there. She used to be a pillar for me, whenever I was nervous, whenever I was scared, I would call her and say 'someone's knocking on the door', and she would say 'no no no, don't be scared', and I would say 'you can't say that, someone is knocking, is banging on the door'. From then, if someone calls me with a private number, I will give it to her and say 'answer the phone'. She would answer and say 'who is this?' - because I'm scared, who is that? Maybe somebody knows my number? When people ask, when we meet, 'can I have your number?' I say 'no, I don't have a number'.
We have to try and hide. When people, even when people go to some meeting, you don't even say bye to people, you just disappear. Because when we have the Zimbabwe meetings, we have intelligence people there, working for the CIO. Here you call it MI5, but back home we call it the CIO, who are there, and some people who know them will say 'oh, you see that one?'. Sometimes they even take their photos. And sometimes they will come and say 'why did you take our photo?'. So we know that we are being watched. Even when my sister died, people back home from MDC, they were told from here that one of our members has lost her sister, they said 'oh, we want the address, we want to go', I told them no, I said 'sorry I can't' and then I phoned my brother and my brother said 'you can't do that, we'll be a target', and I promised my mum at one time, I said to my mum, and my daughter was the one who opened the door and they were saying 'yes, this is the house, this is the house' and my mum came up and my mum said 'what?', they said 'oh, you are from the opposition', my mum said 'no, I'm not from the opposition, I'm from Mugabe's party'. They said 'we have seen you in the opposition. We will be back'.
My mum, the next morning, she went to the chairman for ZANU, which is Mugabe's party, to say 'I had people coming to my house. You know we are always with you, we are not on the opposition'. So they came and asked them and the chairman said to my mum 'don't worry, we will talk to the people, they won't come back'. They have to go to the meetings. Sometimes you phone and my mum says 'they intimidate'. Sometimes I'm phoning my mum and she tells me they are intimidating. They are forced...to have to attend these meetings. Because if you don't attend the meetings that means you are on the other side. So even if you are on the opposition, you still have to pretend like you are...like we are with them.
Only on one day when you go to vote, that's when you know where to put your X. My young brother, there was a time at...I don't remember which election, not 2008, but the other election that was done when I was here...and he was in the queue and they came and took him from the queue with another group of boys. They detained them without charge for two days and then the elections are gone. So we never have the chance to vote. When I speak to my brother, my brother is always... I want to say 'oh these elections, make sure you don't go', my brother says 'I'll always go', and my mum says 'I will make sure he will never go', and he says to me 'you will never ever vote'.
So this is the situation whereby you cannot really stand up for yourself. You cannot say things the way you want. But when I'm here, I do stand up for myself, because I know I am protected. But you can't be protected to some extent because they can still come to you and they can still go back to your family. And the Home Office, they know all this, but they won't do anything. I remember there was a time when I was in a magazine, this guy, he's a neighbour, he saw the magazine in Ethiopia, and I'm here. He came back, he phoned my late sister, because they were friends, and said 'your sister, she's in this magazine and I saw it in Ethiopia', so my sister was calling me screaming 'you're in a magazine!' and I remember I was like, 'what?' and she was excited and I'm going 'oh my god, he saw it in Africa?'. I was so scared. And then the guy told me, I was like 'OK'. So I went and looked for the magazine everywhere and it wasn't in the shops and they were saying 'oh that one, we've sold out of that one'. So I asked him for the telephone number for the company and I had to go and I told them 'I'm in a magazine' and they said 'ah, we've done so many stories on Zimbabwe'. They called the agent and the agent was like 'I wouldn't remember', I said 'listen, I'm in a magazine, I have been assured that I am there'. Because I was at Downing Street when that photo was taken, demonstrating, and they said 'OK, you see all these boxes?'. I said 'I don't mind' - I had to go through all those boxes. So they gave me a [?] on the floor, and I looked in two and I said 'yeah, I'm in this one!' and they said 'take as many as you can carry'.
And as we speak, I suffer from chronic pain from the beatings, but I try to hide it. I don't show it to people. I hardly can wear shoes, I just wore shoes because I'm coming here. I wear trainers. Because I can't... I have problems, and the doctors all say, they only say that there's nothing they can do. I'm on 200mg of painkillers, I take three times a day. 200 in the morning, 200 in the afternoon and 200 in the evening. And I also have to take co-codamol, and I have to take anti-depressants. There was a time I went to see a scar specialist in Harley Street, because I insisted to my solicitor that I've got scars, so my solicitor said 'OK, we'll send you there'. That man, he used to be a scar specialist, or I don't know what he used to do in the Metropolitan Police. It says on the papers that he wrote, on the report that he gave. He said 'I can't really imagine how somebody felt beating you like this, with all these scars'. And he's the one who wrote the letter, which he gave to me, and said 'can you take this to your GP?'.
I didn't know what it was. I was crying throughout the investigation, the assessment. When I went to my GP, I just saw this lady who had first come that day, and then she read the letter and then she gave me attention, I was crying, she gave me tablets and said to take them and come back in two weeks. Then I went and showed my other sister, I've got two sisters and my other sister, she was doing bio-medical science and pharmacology, so when I showed her she was like 'these are anti-depressants' and I was like 'huh?'. She said 'yeah', so I said I wouldn't take them. She said 'no, you ought to take them', so I started to take them and she knew I wouldn't take them sometimes, she would be like 'did you take your tablets?' and I would be like 'yeah, yeah', but she said 'you know they will actually help you'. So I started taking anti-depressants in 2007, and I'm still seeing a psychiatrist. There was a time when I was seeing a psychiatrists in a trauma centre ward at Barts(?) Hospital, I was having every week, trauma centre, and they call it psycho-trauma, and then I'm seeing a psychiatrist. And they have to, every time the psychiatrist is reviewing me, and the Home Office, they don't know my trauma, they think this has happened after, but they're still holding on to my case. I would rather they refuse me, and then we can move from there. So there are so many people the same, who are living in limbo, they don't get any help. You see them on the street, you don't even know what people are going through.
Q & A
Kate: So, we have some time for some questions. Does anyone have questions about the asylum thing in the UK? [to audience member] Yeah, go ahead.
Question 1: [to one WAST speaker] Sorry, what's your name?
Kate: Sorry, we're not doing names because of confidentiality.
Question 1: Oh, sorry. But, to the lady from Cameroon...What's your current situation with your asylum application?
Woman 1: I've been here since 2005, and they refused me... the first time was November 2006, when my asylum was turned down, and I'm still waiting. The last refusal was last February, not this year but last year, when they put the fresh application back. Yeah, I'm still waiting.
Same audience member: I'm sorry, I don't want to be too intrusive, but where are you living? Who's helping you in terms of accommodation and food?
Woman 1: Just friend to friend. Today here, tomorrow there, and you have to do anything for them to let you stay. You have to wash, washing up, cooking, take the children to school. If you refuse one day because you are going to English class, they will say 'OK, go out. You have to go'.
Question 2: Can I just ask about access to legal support? For example, for you putting an appeal against your asylum decision? How easy is it to get legal support for your case, or is it really difficult?
Woman 1: Yeah, when I made the fresh claim, they said I should apply for Section 4. When I tried to apply to Section 4, they said they were going to send me outside London, but the Medical Foundation said 'they can't send you outside London, we're seeing you every week'. They don't accept, what they call NICE, and they said I should keep waiting. To wait and wait and wait. I've been to Red Cross(?) and they still say I should wait. I'm still waiting.
Same audience member: Can I just make an observation? If it wasn't for the asylum process, Natalie wouldn't be presenting this today. Because my mum is an asylum seeker. [Crying] Sorry... I'll say it in a minute... It upsets me that people are treated like you're treated, when you've come for safety. It really upsets me. My mum was lucky. She came to this country because it wasn't safe for her to continue living in her own country, and she couldn't go back anyway. She went to Germany, this was after the war, she went to Germany, and then because this country needed workers, they didn't care if people were asylum seekers or not, they just needed workers. And then it didn't matter what your background was, where you came from, whether you'd been treated well, not well, whatever. And that enriched this country, you know? We've got people like Natalie putting on events like this, because this country let an asylum seeker in. It really, really, deep in my heart upsets me when people are just treated so badly by the asylum process. It's awful. And if there are things that we can do, just let us know. Just let us know what difference... I know we're probably, in this room... well, we wouldn't be in this room if we didn't care and we probably would do as much as we can to spread the word, to give information... and to put stories forward like this. I know we haven't got pictures but we've got the words, and the more people can understand what individuals actually go through, and cut through the rubbish that you see in the media about asylum seekers, [sarcastically] coming here because they're going to get a bit more money, or things like that... because it's rubbish, this is the true story, isn't it?
Woman 2: Yeah, they're saying asylum seekers just come because... we can hardly, sometimes, even... you know, I used to see Kelvin Mackenzie, and I used to think 'Oh, he talks sense', until one day he started saying 'just round up all the asylum seekers and send them to their country'. I was like 'this man! How can he talk like that?!' And from that day whenever he talks I just say 'let him finish and let's see what the next person is saying' because the moment he said that... he treated us... he talked about us as if we were bags of potatoes, that you can just grab, and then just chuck them, just take them to their country. And sometimes, I'm so much into politics, I watch all those political shows, even tomorrow morning, I'll wake up in the morning and watch those shows. They're asking people, they'll say... sometimes they're asking people - I'm sorry to say this - like your parents who were asylum seekers, then they were given refugee, and then then they give birth to you in this country. Then when they are asked 'what do you think of asylum seekers?', they say 'they should be sent back to their countries'. [laughter] And I say 'oh my god! What's wrong with this woman? She's even forgetting where she came from!'.
Woman 1: I just want to go back to what happened to me when they refused me the first time. I didn't feel myself. I found myself in the hospital, when I was sectioned for 31 days. They said I was having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and was psychotic. I didn't understand what that was for. I'm taking antidepressants [?]... I don't even know, I can't even explain it... [audibly upset] I didn't come here to look for a better life. I was a nurse in my country. I worked for six(?) years before having this... they just don't believe me, I just don't know what to do... I don't know... and the way they treat me... it's just better to kill us. Because I can not go back.
Woman 2: When you go to the Home Office, to Croydon, the first day I went there, these big huge men said 'you take her bag' to the security at the main door. So he took my handbag, and then they say to me 'so, when did you come?'. I told them. 'So, how have you been surviving?' I said 'my sister's helping me'. He said 'well, you know we're going to cancel your sister's stay in this country'. Then he said to me 'where does she work?'. At that time she was at university and doing part time, and I said 'she works at Tesco'. He said 'how many hours?'. I was like 'huh! All this information he's asking me!', then he says to me 'can you find out?'. So I took my mobile, I started calling her but she'd gone to work that day, so she wasn't answering her mobile. I phoned the solicitor, I was so scared, I said 'they're asking me these questions and they're saying they're going to cancel her visa', I was crying. He said to me, 'don't worry'. So even though they are holding my bag, I wanted to run away. But I can't run away because they had my bag.
If they didn't have my bag, maybe I wouldn't have sought asylum up to today. Because they scare you. And they really embarrass you. They have this staff, over there, then they have other people who are coming into the building, who are going through the security check, so people are just hearing the way you are being treated. Then you go inside, and you wait and wait and wait and then they call you, you go to this desk, and they start to talk to you. The men who I spoke to that time, the second man, he was kind, he was checking the notes and everything, and until I left he was fine. Then the day I went, after two weeks, for the screening interview, I was sick, because I was asked two hundred questions. My lawyer insisted that he wanted a copy of the interview, so they gave me a copy and it was also recorded so that the tape could be sent to... they told me that the tape was going to the solicitor, and they gave me a copy of the interview.
So when I showed my solicitor, he was like 'you did very well, you know, with all those questions. They should have given you your papers in there'. But then he said 'anyway, there's 85% chances - but that's what they do in the asylum system, they will deny you, then you have to appeal, that's the norm'. I said OK, then we waited and waited and waited and nothing. Then they said that... because the letters that had been sent as well to the medical foundation before, then they wrote, then they said 'we're waiting for a report from the medical foundation'. So then the solicitor communicated with them that 'no, we told you that she's being seen by a psychiatrist at the hospital, not at the medical foundation, because the medical foundation referred her to the GP who has now referred her to the local psychiatrist then [?]'. Then the solicitor who wrote letters, sometimes you get a different solicitor who's now taking your case because that solicitor is now dealing with something else, so I told them and they said 'OK, no problem'. They write letters, the Home Office never reply.
Until one time when they said to them 'we are going to ask for a judicial review', that's when they replied. They sent an email and said 'we are going to make a decision on the 12th of June' - last year, because she said 'I am going on maternity, so I will make a decision'. That 12th of June, my solicitor was on holiday, so because I have the number, you know, they say you can speak to your caseworker, I said 'ah, I'm going to phone'. Because you know [?] with postmen, you know the time that the postman comes, when he's late you're like 'what's happening?'. Sometimes I'd wait outside, the postmen started to suspect there's a very important letter that you're waiting for, because every time you're outside you know, waiting to see what he brings. And then I phoned, by myself, I was so nervous, I was [quietly] 'my name is blah blah blah', and she asked 'what is your Home Office reference?', I told her then she said 'oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I've already given your case to someone else because today is my last day'. And that was it. Then my solicitor came back so I phoned and I said 'well, I phoned and this is what she said', and she said 'right, now I have to write'... then she communicated with them to say 'can you please advise us who is now dealing with the case?', and they don't reply.
Then I went to the MP - this is now the second time - the MP said 'yeah, no problem, we can write a letter'. They write a letter and then after six weeks they reply they say that 'her case is in the amount that we are dealing with in 2011'. And this was in 2011, so I was just hoping for anything by December, I'll get, you know, my paper. And now, I don't even know which 2011 they were talking about. Because the last government was saying 2011 and the current government, I don't know if they were talking about any year or whatever, but they were saying... well, I don't know what they're saying. So it is just so confusing, to be honest with you. It really is confusing.
You don't even know where you stand, and especially these days, people don't know what's going on. But we hear about the stories. People being rounded up in secrecy. And people have to work. If you find a job some people will say OK. Sometimes people have to use false documents. You can't blame them. I don't blame them, because you need to survive. Because you can't go out into the street and say 'please help me with 50p, I need to buy bread when the shops are closing because it's cheaper then'... you can't do that. They won't give it to you. And if you're a druggie and on the street and begging... they will give you money, but if you want it for a good purpose, to buy food, they won't give it to you. When I see a druggie on the street who wants to buy more drugs, they've even got benefits, they're even living in their own accommodation... they will give to them. But you try it, you'll never get anything.
This is why people now, if not because of the charities, I don't know where we would be. Charities are actually our pillar in the country at the moment. Especially when they refuse you support, you don't even know how you're going to survive. And some women - myself, I haven't done that, I wouldn't do that - there are some women now who have resorted to prostitution. They find this man, they kick him out, they find another man, so that they get money to live on. Their poor children back home... in Africa you have to pay school fees, in this country you don't pay anything for school, education, whether primary or secondary, but in Africa you have to pay for everything. From nursery school, you pay. If you go to the hospital, they won't see you, even if you are dying, you have to have something.
So if they phone you and say 'your child has been injured at school', you have to start phoning people, 'please can you help me, this is the situation'. Sometimes people will say 'OK, I can help you', but they know you're not going to be able to pay them back, so some will say 'OK, I will call you back tomorrow', but they don't call you. And that child is in trouble back home, then maybe your parents speak to you and say 'oh, we have borrowed some money, so that we can take the child to the hospital', then the hospital will say 'go back home', they will threaten you, they will start sending debt collectors, They start sending debt collectors and debt collectors, it's not like here where they write you letters. They just turn up and say they're coming to take all your property in the house. And then people just say 'oh no, you can't', and they just say 'OK, can you come maybe before the end of the day, to make the payment? Or else we are coming back'. Then they are going around, borrowing money, and that money needs to be paid back, and you are not working.
So other people that think 'oh, but she's been in London for all these years' - for other people, they've got papers and they are working. So they will be comparing you. But your family, they know. They understand because you tell them 'look, the situations are different'. We don't know how they are getting their money, maybe they have got their papers or maybe they are working. Me, I'm not working, that's my situation. So every time, even my mum... I think if she was here my mum would be on antidepressants, maybe an even higher dose than myself, because every time I phone my mum she always says [sad voice] 'oh, you have changed, I'm praying for you'. I say OK, because I know what she's going through. She's always worried that...'OK, when she was here, my daughter, she was doing this'... I was like, people used to have respect for me. I employed so many people, so many artists, I had a big house in Zimbabwe. I had artists staying in my cottage. Coming, they'd stay two weeks, and they would do their work, I'd buy their stone, I'd buy their metal, they'd do the work, I'd pay them and they'd go. I've got all my works in all the galleries in Zimbabwe. But now...it's all gone. I can't do it.
Kate: I guess we're probably about to wrap this session up, I want to make a couple of points - one thing that we haven't really mentioned that is worth talking about because of the obvious question that comes up is 'what solutions can we offer?'. There was a temporary project that I know you guys know about where they basically decided to see what would happen if they front-loaded the system, and when people arrived in this country seeking asylum they immediately offered them comprehensive legal support, And what of course happened was they they were then able to deal with the cases within three or four months of people arriving. And it turned out, completely unsurprisingly, that this actually saved the UK government money, because the system was sorted out and people were either given papers and allowed to go out and work and get jobs and take courses and build a life in this country, or at least if the process wasn't going to go anywhere it was done quickly, and it was completed, and they had a chance to appeal, and it was all done with a front-loaded legal system, rather than leaving people in limbo for... I mean in some cases at least a decade. So that was one thing I was going to say, and then, in terms of what can be done, Women Asylum Seekers Together is one group, there's the Refugee Council, there are lots of organisations out there supporting women in the asylum system and asylum seekers in general. Certainly if you put your email addresses down we can give you lots more information about that. Some of the women from WAST London have recently done a really fantastic photography project, where they've been given cameras and taken photos of their lives. There's now an exhibition called Home Sweet Home, it's been on in the House of Commons, and it's been on at various venues around the UK, and if you know a space, we can pack the whole thing up and we can send it to you, and we can send you speakers to come to a launch event, and we can send you information packs about that. It's a great way of raising awareness in whatever community centres or organisations you might be a part of. [To WAST speakers] Is there anything you want to say before we finish?
Woman 1: I just want to say thank you to all the organisations, the charity work, who help. God bless them and they should continue to help. Thank you.