To follow is Chapter 8 in a series that is my personal tranformative journey from my early years. This story began with me living as a long term unemployed single parent with two children with different fathers, never being married. I was definitely on the bottom rung of society. I lived in the highest unemployed town in the UK with the demise of its Iron and Steel, Chemical and Shipbuilding industries, thus experiencing years of poverty and ostracisation. This is the story of how, supported by a strong Christian faith, I deeply analysed and navigated my way through it all, to an absolutely fulfilling life.
In the light of what’s happening in this chaotic world today, I feel moved to tell my story with all its different facets, because my main hope is that the reader will see the human face of the marginalised. Then, hopefully, gain a more compassionate understanding of all those who live on the margins of society. I hope the reader finds clues on how to make connections with people different from them, or to change the top down competitive economic system so all people are justly valued whether they were in paid work or out of paid work.
I invite the reader to pick any chapter and, if it resonates with you, to organise a zoom working group in the New Republic of the Heart community to discuss and explore any particular issue or let it inform the work you are already doing.
I acknowledge that every single one of us has our own unique experience from our own unique perspective waiting to be heard and learned from. This is simply my experience. I’d love to maybe one day hear and learn from yours.
To read Chapter 7, click HERE.
CHAPTER 8 ~ WORKING WITH SANCTUARY SEEKERS
‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
~ Leviticus 19: 33-34 New International Bible
In March 2008 the Independent Asylum Commission completed one of the most comprehensive and independent three year reviews of the UK’s Asylum System ever conducted. The commission concluded that, “The UK asylum system is not fit for purpose and falls seriously below the standards of a civilised and humane society.” These words were spoken by Sir John Waite, a former judge of both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, as well as former President of the Employment Tribunal and chair of UNICEF UK alongside Ifath Nawaz, President of the Association of Muslim Lawyers. Both co-chaired this Commission.
They identified a “culture of disbelief” among decision makers where a ‘cat and mouse’ game was being played to remove failed asylum seekers from the country. The commissioners found that the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) staff often arranged enforced removals at times when refused asylum seekers could not contact lawyers or support workers. They also were found to use procedures that were inhumane and degrading, one of many examples of Britain flouting human rights.
“A 2006 Legal Action for Women (LAW) investigation into Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre found that: 70% of women had reported rape, and nearly half had been detained for over three months. 57% had no legal representation, and 20% had lawyers who demanded payment in advance. Women reported sexual and racial intimidation by guards. LAW’s Self-Help Guide had been confiscated by guards, depriving detainees of information about their rights.” (Wikipedia)
I could definitely vouch for these findings based on my personal experience while supporting asylum seekers. One friend was deported to the wrong country. Another friend who was part of our multifaith women’s group had very high blood pressure while in detention, but was refused her prescribed dose of tablets. We campaigned through Medical Justice to get her out. She was sent straight to the hospital seriously ill. After several weeks in the hospital she was transferred to a detention facility, in a house that she shared with other women awaiting their appeal. She’s now been there for eight years, is never allowed out at night, and is not allowed to work. She told me how common it was for women in the detention center to be raped.
I met with her and other sanctuary seekers from Nottingham two years ago while on a campaigning march. We stood alongside campaigners from across the country to bring publicity to the issues at the detention centre in an attempt to close it down.
A few women standing next to me were pointing to the window of the room where the rapes always took place.
Outside Yarls-Wood Women’s Detention Centre
In response to the negative Independent Asylum Committee report, I joined a core group of people which included sanctuary seekers, the Nottingham City Council, the Rainbow Project, Refugee Action and other homeless projects, to set up ‘Nottingham City of Sanctuary.’ The purpose of this effort was to encourage people, businesses and organisations to welcome asylum seekers in Nottingham and to challenge the asylum myths propogated by the negative tabloid press.
City of Sanctuary started off in Sheffield and now there are many City and Towns of Sanctuary across Britain. We were encouraged to change the name from asylum seeker and its negative connotations to ‘sanctuary seeker’ which was closer to its historical meaning. This simple act helped shift negative public opinion toward sanctuary seekers to be more positive .
Many were destitute on the streets of Nottingham, so a group of us linked with the Church Action on Poverty’s ‘Living Ghost’ campaign and did the ‘Destitution Challenge’. This meant that we lived on the same amount that a sanctuary seeker was given to live on for one week. I lost loads of weight having to walk everywhere without money for bus fares or petrol!
I spoke at church services, taking a ‘living ghost’ with me to demythologize the media’s negative concepts about sanctuary seekers. I also helped to arrange a conference where sanctuary seekers told their stories in front of, among others, local political candidates hoping to win the looming general election. They spoke not only about their experience that led them to apply for sanctuary, but also about the way they had been treated since once arriving in this country.
My friend Amdani Juma, a Muslim sanctuary seeker from Burundi, whose mother was a Tutsi and father was a Hutu, had been caught up and tortured in the Rwandan / Burundi genocide. He volunteered to wear a white ghostly cloth and on it was pinned all the uninformed negative statements about ‘asylum seekers’ that were blatantly promoted by the tabloid press. It was quite a poignant and profound experience when he walked very slowly all evening around the conference tables. Refugee Action provided us with a small pocket-sized booklet that counteracted those negative statements which we distributed to the audience. We also had the positive counter statements pinned around the conference hall as well as a rolling powerpoint presentation that I made showing the findings of the UK Independent Asylum Commission.
I was in Amdani’s support group. At the time he was doing fantastic volunteer work with the Terence Higgins Trust, an organisation that helps people with AIDS. He spoke seven African languages and put a DVD together on AIDS prevention in all those languages. He was very well respected around Nottingham, however he was detained at Harmondsworth Detention Centre near London 150 miles away.
We, including the leader of Nottingham City Council, campaigned in the streets of Nottingham for his release. A colleague from Amdani’s support group and I were charged to drive overnight to London with new evidence for his solicitor before he was to be deported the next day. We took with us boxes with thousands of names on petitions to stop his removal. We campaigned over the internet and even got the endorsement of Noam Chomsky and other celebrities. We had to stop off at the city of Coventry to pick up a video recording from some Burundian refugees of someone being tortured in Burundi. The authorities didn’t believe that Burundian people were still being tortured because Nelson Mandela had recently brokered a peace in that country. But once handing over the evidence, and on hearing news from the solicitor that Amdani’s appeal not to be deported that day was successful, we went to see him in Harmondsworth Asylum Removal Centre.
Before going to Harmondsworth we bumped into an African woman crying on the streets of London. She told me that a friend of hers had been picked up and put in Harmondsworth, and that she had evidence for his case. She was crying because she could no longer reach him by phone. She was afraid he had already been coerced to sign his deportation papers. It was a well known fact around the sanctuary seeker community that vulnerable and frightened sanctuary seekers were often wrongly coerced into signing their deportation papers. We decided, as a long shot, to ring Amdani in Harmondsworth and ask him if he could find out if Leon Petulengo was one of the few thousand men housed there. Amdani immediately replied, “Yes, he’s here. He’s standing right next to me. We share the same room together on the second floor in Room 2!”
We took the African woman to Harmondsworth with us. After being fingerprinted, and going through umpteen locked doors and finally reaching Amdani, we returned to find the African woman weeping at the reception area. She yelled at us that they had already deported him because there was no sign of a Leon Petulengo on the register. I immediately went to reception and told them we had just left him in Room 2 where he was sharing a room with Amdani. On checking the register again, the authorities had left his first name off the register then split his surname and registered him as Peter Lengo. If we hadn’t been there he would have been wrongly deported.
He was finally released after receiving his friend’s evidence. He was put in detention in the first place because his house and shop had burned down along with all his ‘permission to stay’ immigration papers. The authorities didn’t believe his house had burned down, and because he couldn’t produce his papers he was to be deported. The evidence his friend produced was a picture in the local newspaper of his house burning. These incidents proved to me that the many negative findings of the UK Independent Asylum Commission Report were true. As for Amdani, he was moved from one detention centre to another and finally got his Refugee status about six years later. Currently he has set up his own organisation in Nottingham that supports the African community.
One Pakistan woman was about to be deported because the authorities could not find a reason why she should stay. She could not find the words to tell them how she had been raped by soldiers in the country she was fleeing from. It was too much for her to talk about with anyone. At the 11th hour she finally opened up to her church minister and was supported in going through the immigration system again to finally get her refugee status.
I met a sanctuary seeker, Clarissa, who was trying to appeal her failed application. Most sanctuary seekers fail their first application but often pass on their second attempt. Unfortunately many sanctuary seekers gave up after the first attempt. After being here for three years she was made destitute living on the streets. She lived with me for a short while, then eventually left to live with her boyfriend near London. He beat her up because she couldn’t pay rent, and hospitalised her. Then she was put into Yarls-wood Women’s Detention Centre, which was the last time I spoke to her. I later heard she had been deported.
This experience absolutely saddened me. Partly because of this and similar experiences, one Christian organisation that I worked with, the Rainbow Project based in St. Stephen’s Church, recognised the problem of nearly a thousand destitute sanctuary seekers on the streets of Nottingham. A house was gained from Southwell Church of England Diocese to set up a Sanctuary House for vulnerable destitute sanctuary seeking women and their children. This was to be the first of a few houses. The Rainbow Project linked into other refugee and homeless agencies in Nottingham and together we formed the Arimathea Trust, named after Joseph of Arimathea in the Bible. The first house was called ‘Jo’s Place’. Although the house was secure, there will always be ongoing costs for heating, lighting, food, etc. because none of these sanctuary seekers are allowed to work to pay for anything. The Arimathea Trust is now a charity.
NOTE: Since retiring and leaving this project, the Arimathea Trust has gone from strength to strength and is still up and running with houses for men as well.
In today’s world and the consequences of natural disasters and war, there will be more and more people uprooted from their homes from across the world. It’s already happening at a fast rate. I want to emphasise the wonderful opportunity we all have in welcoming sanctuary seekers. They have certainly broadened my horizons. I count it a great blessing and privilege to be involved with them to see their dignity and courage in trying to build a life in the wake of so many horrific experiences. It’s been my joy to get to know many of them including the several families and individuals that lived with me at different times. I was introduced to their diverse colourful cultures and exotic cuisine. Sometimes I felt the world lived in my home. It was a brilliant feeling. Some sadly were separated from their families who were dispersed to different countries across the world. Husbands and wives and children found it very difficult to come to terms with living separate lives not ever knowing if and when they would be reunited. In all of this they had to live so frugally, always with the threat of deportation, not being allowed to do paid work even though many were professional people with many much needed gifts to offer our society. All this opened my heart to compassion. Also this opened my ears to listen to first hand true personal horrific experiences which negated the often untrue negative Asylum scare stories bandied about in the tabloid press.
Be aware that this was a two way thing, not a one way thing by me just helping them. They helped me far more to open my eyes to the reality of the world. They taught me the meaning of courage, perseverance, patience, and support for each other. I was always impressed by their complete vulnerability in putting their every hope in God, whichever God they worshiped. Being stripped of everything, their palpable deep trust in God made mine feel lacking. I’m hoping that this chapter will encourage people not only from the UK but also those from other countries to make themselves more aware of inhumane asylum policies that desperately need changing. Make a start by looking up the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and compare government policies.
I hope people find just a few clues on ways to help the inevitable growing numbers of sanctuary seekers of today. With the climate crisis affecting all countries across the world, it is not inconceivable to speculate that many of us could one day become a sanctuary seeker ourselves.
To read Chapter 7, click HERE.