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.