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Sparks of survival

Bruce Goodison, BAFTA-award winning director, describes how he was drawn to tell the stories of young people seeking sanctuary for his first feature film, Leave to Remain.

A few years ago I started to research the lives of parentless young people. I stumbled across the stories of the many children who are forced to flee their homes each year, who arrive alone in the UK and are left to fend for themselves. Learning about their experiences for the first time, I struggled to contemplate how teenagers could be cast away from everything familiar to them, plunged into an alien society and expected to build a life. I felt compelled to explore their stories further.

One young woman I met, whom I’ll call Zaria, had arrived from her home in West Africa following a horrific ordeal. Zaria had been married off at the age of 12 to a Nigerian man, and after one year of marriage fell pregnant with his child. Upon discovering that she was carrying his baby, Zaria’s husband became violent towards his young wife, beating her so severely that eventually she lost her child, less than a month before she was due to give birth. Prevented by her husband from accessing medical attention, she suffered extensive internal injuries and was left permanently scarred, unable ever to have children. As soon as she was able, Zaria ran away from home, hoping to escape. She was soon found and brought back to her house where she continued to be repeatedly brutalised, and raped both by her husband and his friends.

With the secret help of an aunt Zaria eventually managed to escape and made her way to the UK. Telling her story to immigration officials she was granted only a male translator, a Nigerian man, who upon hearing her testimony hissed to her that she was lying. His fellow country-men would never treat someone like that. Her asylum case was eventually refused.

It would be easy when faced with a story like Zaria’s to feel overwhelmed by its horror, but actually what moved me most in this young woman was her effervescence, the spark with which she recounted her strategies of resilience to me. Zaria explained that when in need of strength she listened to her favourite song, Hero by Mariah Carey. She never understood the words but it became a source of solace to her, steadying her in her bleakest times. As she learnt English in the UK, she painstakingly took to studying the lyrics of the song, eventually translating them to French to understand their meaning. Animated, she told me that in the moment of finally comprehending the words, she felt her own story immortalised. A story of survival.

Zaria’s tale and the unfathomable inner resources that enabled her to share it are remarkable. It is she, along with the numerous other young people who have told their experiences to me over the last three years, which have moved me to make this film. Entrusted with such powerful testimonies I feel a responsibility to tell their stories with integrity.

In Leave to Remain I have combined elements of Zaria’s story with those of other people I have met. By doing this, I hope to have removed the burden for my collaborators of seeing their intimate experiences fixed as a single narrative on screen. I also reduce the possible risk to those I have met, by concealing the identifiable elements of their personal stories. I have made the decision to recruit non-professional young migrants to be mentored and trained to act all our major roles. This way, their depth of shared experience will contribute an honesty to the film. Shooting of the Leave to Remain feature begins in November, ready for the film’s cinematic release next year. I hope that by holding a mirror to these hidden stories we can effect change in the lives of these neglected children, and learn something about the country we call home.

You can keep up to date with the Leave to Remain feature film, action campaign and training academy by liking them on Facebook and following them on Twitter. Or, if you would like to support the making of the film, visit the Leave to Remain Buzzbnk page to discover how to contribute.

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'The dream I hope and strive for'

Helen came to the UK 9 years ago  after she was imprisoned in Ethiopia for her political activities. She claimed asylum but was refused, and looks after herself and her three children on £50 a week.

I’ve been in the UK since 2003. I have three children aged one, two and four. Things have got easier for me recently because my eldest goes to nursery just round the corner and he loves it. The past year has been very difficult because my daughter was born premature and suffers from reflux and was in hospital for eight months. My first child was also premature and also had reflux but as he get older he is able to keep much more food down, and is sick less, so I am hoping the same will be true of my daughter.

We live in North London and the hospital was two hours away, so I had a journey for four hours a day with my other two children on public transport. Sometimes my very dear friend would look after the other two so that I could go to the hospital on my own, but often I had to take them with me for the long daily journey. At the time I was living off £50 a week including travel so it was very difficult, but I felt it was very important to make sure the mother and baby have a strong bond and that my daughter should be with me every single day.  There were some premature babies on the ward that didn’t have regular visitors and it was very sad to see them crying on their own without the comfort of a mother. I think the daily journey for eight months was really worth it because after all that my daughter is a happy baby who knows her brothers and me very well.

I had to leave Ethiopia in 2003 because I was in trouble with the government.  I was young and had many ideals and protested against them. It is hard for me to remember the person I was that was brave enough to do that. I was imprisoned and many terrible things happened to me while I was in prison. My family was affected too and we still don’t know what has happened to my father. He has been missing for a long time.

My family paid a lot of money to get me out of Ethiopia because they thought that I would be killed if I stayed. I didn’t really know where I was going - just that it had been arranged that I should go somewhere safer.   When I arrived in London the man who was accompanying me took me to a café and then he said he was going to the toilet and just disappeared. I was so frightened. I didn’t know where I was and had no money and didn’t know what to do.  I felt completely lost and without anyone who cared about what happened to me.

I was taken to the Home Office in Croydon to tell them my story and a group of us had to sleep outside in a doorway waiting for it to open. When I finally got to speak to someone and she asked where I had stayed the night she didn’t believe that we had slept outside. From then on she didn’t believe much of what I said and my English wasn’t good enough at that point to be able to explain the situation I was escaping from.

I was taken to a place in Crystal Palace and then to Dover, but my case was refused. My friend let me sleep in her room and she wouldn’t let me walk by the window because I had no status and we were afraid that I would be seen and taken into detention and then sent back to Ethiopia. It was after that that I met my children’s father. He was the wrong man for me, I see that now, and we are not together any more. But many women make this mistake, and they are able to rebuild their lives after that. I am now trying to make what is called a fresh application for asylum. It is very hard to do this because to do so you must present fresh evidence, How do I prove what happened to me nearly ten years ago?

I think what is so difficult is the indecision. It really damages your confidence and I need to build a life. I want to work and contribute. I would like to be an independent person earning my own money. I am not allowed to work, but that is the dream that I strive and hope for.

I know that I have a very happy looking face, with a big smile and dimples which my kids have all inherited but inside I sometimes feel so afraid for my and the kids’ future.  Some days I feel very depressed because I don’t want us to be stuck like this in limbo.

Helen’s name has been changed. She told her story to Sophie Radice.

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“If you tell anyone, we will kill you and your husband”


Frances Harrison, author of Still Counting the Dead, explains how Sri Lankan refugee women are living in fear.

All I had was an address in East London. The interview was set up by a series of lawyers and priests and I still don’t know the woman’s real name. We sat in a tiny back room of a terraced house and she told me, a complete stranger, the story that she’d never told her mother or husband. Then, understandably, she never wanted to see me again.

Manimolly, as I’ve called her, is a Sri Lankan Tamil who has sought asylum in Britain. Growing up in the capital Colombo, the civil war between the Tamil Tiger rebels and the predominantly Sinhalese army was just a distant backdrop to her early life. Her family was  from the Tamil minority, but she didn’t come from the conflict areas and she was about as apolitical as it’s possible to be in such a situation.

Yet her entire life crashed one day in May 2010, a year after the guns had gone silent and Sri Lanka was supposed to be at peace.  Policemen came to Manimolly’s house, looking for her husband who was travelling for his work. He came from a family connected to the Tamil Tiger rebels and the police wanted to question him. They dragged Manimolly screaming into the waiting van, leaving her sixteen month old baby with her mother. They beat her and interrogated her, but Manimolly didn’t mind that as much as what happened after midnight. She was taken to a residential house to identify some suspects and then locked in a room. Next door she could hear the policemen getting increasingly drunk and singing in Sinhala.

Two police officers raped Manimolly, handcuffing her to a chair. They didn’t know she was forty days pregnant at the time and she started bleeding heavily. “If you say anything or tell anyone we will kill your husband and kill you. Nothing happened here. Do you understand?’ the men warned as they drove her back to the police station. There the Sinhala police women just brought sanitary towels to mop up all the blood, unsurprised by Manimolly’s condition. Two young girls sharing the same cell had clearly been through the same treatment.

Manimolly was released when her husband surrendered himself to the police. They then tortured him, instead. Manimolly tried to kill herself  - twice. She stopped looking after her baby. Her family guessed what had happened to her. The stigma in Tamil society against rape is so intense that, shockingly, suicide is often considered the only honourable way out for a woman. This shame creates a second form of abuse for survivors. Manimolly was extremely fearful that someone in the Tamil community in London might find out she’d been raped because then, she said, they’d all gossip about her. She only agreed to see me if I was alone  – there were strict instructions not to bring a translator, even a female one.

As we spoke, Manimolly’s husband tactfully took their toddler out of the house to buy sweets. He knew what we were discussing and supported her decision to speak out, but she has never spoken even to him about it.  Manimolly says she is still frightened of every man she sees, and still doesn’t want her own husband to touch her.

Manimolly and her husband sold everything they had to come to London on student visas. Once here they claimed asylum. Back home the Sri Lankan police have continued to visit their house and even detained Manimolly’s elderly father-in-law for three months when they couldn’t find her husband.

The Sri Lankan government and their supporters argue that it’s safe in Sri Lanka since the war ended in 2009, and that only those who have a background of political activity or armed struggle are at risk. Manimolly’s case unfortunately shows how the wider violence against Tamils has not stopped.

At the end of the war, horrifying photographs and videos appeared online of dead, half naked, bound Tamil women, their breasts exposed. They were female rebels and the comments on the videos by the soldiers strongly suggested sexual violence. But it’s not only the defeated rebels who’ve encountered rape. It’s housewives like Manimolly, grandmothers, female aid workers, wives of humanitarian workers – women who are gradually finding their way abroad in the hope of safety and anonymity.

Unfortunately, safety is hard to find even if they make their way to the UK. They may be refused asylum even if they have evidence of persecution. Recent research by the Refugee Council found that a third of the women accessing one of their  projects were Sri Lankan, that nearly all had been tortured and raped, but that nearly half had been refused asylum in the UK. Freedom from Torture and Human Rights Watch have documented that failed asylum seekers who are removed to Sri Lanka may be tortured on arrival.

These women therefore live with uncertainty, fearing they could be deported  back to Sri Lanka. They recount their traumatic experiences to lawyers and immigration officials, but keep them secret from their extended families and friends. Some women even fear going to counseling organisations lest they meet other Tamils who will automatically know why they’re there. It’s a very lonely life.

Frances Harrison is a former BBC foreign correspondent. Her book of survivors' stories from the end of the Sri Lankan war, Still Counting the Dead, is published by Portobello Books on 4 October.  

Women for Refugee Women We Are Women We Are Sisters

Standing up for refugee women

Natasha Walter explains why she set up the charity Women for Refugee Women and discusses the dangers of being a female asylum seeker.

A few years ago, when I was working as a journalist, I met a woman called Angelique, who had come to this country from the Congo. Sometimes you really do have a life changing encounter, and Angelique was one of mine. She had come here as a refugee – she had been imprisoned in her country because of her father’s political activities, and repeatedly raped in prison.

When she came here, though, she had been refused asylum, which meant that she was expected to go back to the Congo. Because she just couldn’t do that, she stayed here in a legal limbo, with no right to work and no support. She had ended up on the streets of London, walking around from church to charity in search of food and a bed for the night. She had become pregnant while living like that, but even pregnant she had remained homeless, dragging herself about the streets until she could literally walk no further and had been taken to hospital.

I sometimes wonder why it was that meeting Angelique had such an effect on me. Maybe it was because I’d recently had my first child. Never had I been more grateful for the comforts of my life and the support of my partner. The idea of women in our country being left as vulnerable and isolated as Angelique was during her pregnancy horrified me. Or maybe it was because I’d long been out there talking about women’s rights, and I suddenly realised that if you were concerned about women’s equality you couldn’t ignore the massive human rights abuses that lots of women are still facing across the world – which for some women might even mean being raped or tortured or trafficked and having to flee to your country to seek safety.

I couldn’t forget Angelique, and the more I looked into the issue the more I realised she was far from alone. Too many women who cross borders fleeing persecution struggle to find safety. Women for Refugee Women advocates for these women. We recently published our first report: Refused: the experiences of women denied asylum in the UK. Some of the key things we’ve discovered are:

  • Nearly half the women we spoke to who had come here seeking asylum had been raped;
  • Almost all had been turned down for asylum;
  • Of those refused more than half had ended up destitute and more than half had contemplated suicide.

Those are depressing figures, and just as saddening for me personally is that I’m still meeting women like Angelique every week; women who have fled terrible abuses, including sexual violence, forced prostitution and female genital mutilation, but who get refused asylum and deported or detained or left destitute in the UK.

Obviously I’m not saying that men don’t have a hard time too in the asylum process and I’m also not advocating for open borders. But we do have an asylum system here that in theory should mean that women fleeing serious human rights abuses should be treated with dignity. Other women are now speaking up for women refugees; take a look at our short film in which supporters including Juliet Stevenson, Joan Bakewell and Livia Firth say why they are standing up for refugee women. In it, Mariella Frostrup says: ‘‘Women who have crossed borders and fled persecution have suffered fates that we can barely imagine. A civilised country would give them a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives." That’s all we’re asking for – a fair hearing for women fleeing persecution. For women like Angelique it would make a world of difference.

This blog was first published on Mumsnet.