Mariana claimed asylum in the UK, but when she was refused she and her young son became destitute. For years, she had to rely on the kindness of strangers for their survival.

I know that I am lucky to be alive. I escaped from the civil war of Angola after my father and brother were killed because of my father’s political activism. I would have been killed if I had stayed and so my father’s close friend got me on a plane bound for the UK.

Women for Refugee Women Our Life on the Streets

Destitute women in London; photograph by N Yemane

At first it was fine in the UK because I was studying and living in a shared house with other asylum seekers but then in 2000 the Home Office wrote to me at an old address inviting me for an interview. Because I didn’t know about the interview they refused my claim in my absence. I tried to get a lawyer to help me, but he said that I had to pay him £2000 and I had no way of finding that sort of money.  So when my appeal hearing came up  I had no legal support – it was just the judge, the home office lawyer and myself. I found it really hard to speak, it was so frightening.  Three weeks later they refused me again and said that I didn’t have the right to appeal against the decision. The day I received this letter my legs were so weak. I was sitting down reading the letter again and again.

Then I become destitute. I was not entitled to any support or housing, so I was  moving from friend to friend and having to rely on food parcels from charities. I had to get rid of most of my belongings because people became less welcoming when they see you arrive with a lot of things. Once I took a big suitcase to a friend who was letting me stay for a while but when I left she put it out on the street and the council took it away.

In 2006 I became pregnant but my boyfriend was unhappy about it and left me when I was only 20 weeks pregnant. At this time I was staying with a lady with two children. I was helping her with her children and housework. Something went very wrong with my birth; I was bleeding and in so much pain and I had to have an emergency caesarean. When I came round from the birth my baby wasn’t with me – they told me he was in an incubator and they didn’t take me to see him. I didn’t know how to insist, so I was lying there longing for him. It was three days later that a nice Irish midwife put me in a wheelchair and took me to the special baby unit. As soon as I held my son my life changed. Before, I had only thought about myself. But then all I wanted was to protect him and love him.

When I came out of hospital my friend could not have me there anymore so I went to social services. I walked in holding my son. He was just three months old. I didn’t have a pram so I carried him everywhere. The manager of the social services told me that they cannot help failed asylum seekers. She said that the only support they can provide was to take my baby to another family.  That made me so frightened that I felt sick. I got up and somehow made my way out of the room. I remember leaving the office and walking down the street, crying and holding my baby and wondering what I should do.  I could not give my baby son to a stranger.

I went to another friend, but she wasn’t really a friend. She told me I could sleep on the floor, and gave me a blanket. It was cold and hard and my son and I were awake much of the night.  In the day I didn’t have a key to her home so I was walking the freezing streets. My back hurt very badly from the birth and I still had high blood pressure, so I often felt faint. But I had to walk and walk all day, or sit on a park bench, or maybe in a library for a few hours.

One day a nice lady noticed me sitting at the bus stop in the morning and then again in the evening and asked me what was wrong. She told me to go to a place called Sisters Home, which provided accommodation for refused asylum seekers who are pregnant or have children up to one year old. When I got there they told me there was no space. I was so desperate, that I begged them to let me stay even if it is in the living room. This was the first time my son and I slept in a bed, and it was a sofa bed. When he reached his first birthday it was a sad occasion for me because I knew we would have to leave and I would be destitute with him again.

Again we stayed with friends or people I met at the church. I was grateful to each of them for giving us shelter, but you are not treated well if you have nothing. Once I was staying in a family and I was looking after my son and six other children, and then the mother would shout at me if she came back and the dinner wasn’t ready. During the day we were always outside. That made us vulnerable. Once a neighbour  assaulted me but I couldn’t call the police. I thought I would be arrested if I did. As my son started to walk and talk it became even harder to make sure that the people we were staying with did not get irritated by him. I had to try and keep my son quiet and not let him be a normal child. One lady I stayed with would shout at my son whenever he cried. I became anxious about him making a noise, even if it was the happy, sweet sounds that babies make. This was our life for four years.

Mariana’s name has been changed.