Friday, October 26, 2007

Letter in the Guardian published 20/12/2006

Madeleine Bunting's excellent article highlights the shaming reality of Britain's tabloid-driven immigration policies. What asylum-seekers want is a fair hearing and the right to support themselves while awaiting the outcome of their cases. They are not asking for benefits - the vast majority want to work, not only for the money, but for the sake of their self-respect. Denial of work is the surest way to promote prejudice and create an embittered underclass.

Jim Holloway


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Asylum stories - Terminated

Yodit came to me from the Red Cross. They called me as one of a small group of people, largely Christians, who accommodate homeless victims of the asylum system in their own homes.

Yodit turned out to be a young African woman, pretty and sylish, very polite, with good English, but with a weary, defeated air, and clearly nervous about sharing with me, a stranger. She had been living in Home Office accommodation very nearby. The landlord had changed the locks on her room because her money and accommodation had been "terminated" by the Home Office after her claim for asylum was refused. They were "too busy" to let her back in to retrieve her few belongings until the next day, and then wouldn't give her a two minute lift to my place, leaving her in the rain with her carrier bags. She had to spend her last few pounds for a taxi as I was at work.

Over the next few days Yodit unburdened her heart to me.

Her parents had died in a road accident. Brought up here and there, her relatives in time arranged her passage to England; she came equipped with an asylum-claim that the Home Office had no difficulty seeing through, a story about her being discovered in an illegal lesbian relationship. Waiting in desperate loneliness in a hostel, far from every tie of family, faith or friendship, absolutely against her character, like a lost teenager, she fell into bed with a guy from Zimbabwe, who disappeared from her life the next morning, leaving her confused, ashamed - and HIV positive - what seemed to her like justice for her pretended gayness.

Before her diagnosis, she fell in with a guy from her country who really seemed to love her; he expressed his love by insisting to not use a condom. When she was diagnosed, she didn't want to tell him, for fear of losing him, was wracked by guilt at having maybe infected him, and still he insisted, by force, on unprotected sex. As she described her lover, who took money from her whenever she had any, who had had many other girlfriends and maybe still did, the scales began to drop from her eyes, and she saw him for what he was - a user.

Guilt-wracked as she was, I arranged for a priest, a good man who understands asylum and much more, to hear her confession in the rituals of the church she's grown up with but gone very far from; but in truth, she'd already made her confession to me, and saw the rights and wrongs of her life much more clearly, which even made a marked improvement to her health: the hospital hadn't understoodthe stress that made her blood counts worsen so quickly, and now were surprised at her sudden strengthening.

After a few weeks, Yodit moved to London to work. I visited her once, found her working in an unlicenced African bar hidden underneath a shop: as I was shown in, my white face stilled all conversation, but they mostly soon relaxed. I wasn't happy about her working in such a male environment, but she said she was OK.

Our contact became less after that - her mobile phone was always broken....... I've still got her things, rotting in my cellar. I just had one call from her late one night: "I just wanted to say, in all the time I've been in England, the only time I really slept was at your house".

I blame myself for losing touch with her.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Asylum stories - TV man

Happy came to our asylum-seeker hostel from Africa, where people seem delightfully unselfconscious going through life with names like Bigboy and Baby (a 25-year old lad) given by proud parents.
Happy, a short and thin but lively fellow, with expressive facial and hand gestures, was gentle and pleasant with everyone, and always seemed to enjoy plenty of female attention, despite being in his 40's.
He had been an electrical repair man in his former life, so he was delighted when I gave him a gift of a voltmeter and some other basic items whose use I had no knowledge of.
Happy employed himself rescuing dead TVs and videos from skips and fixing them up. He's pass them on to other asylum-seekers for a fiver; more often than not they'd need looking at again after a few weeks, so he was always busy.
Happy was altogether a very attractive sort of asylum-seeker: cheerful, helpful, recycling dead tellies to hard-up people. A focal point in our little comunity.
Of course we were aware that a) he was not allowed to work; b) the repairs could be unsafe; c) the purchasers risked being fined for not having a TV licence; d) he was using our property to run a miniature business.
It always struck me as hard that, while someone on thirty quid a week might pick up a half-dead telly a tenner, they're still expected to find 120 pounds for a licence, the same as if it had cost a thousand.
As for unsafe equipment, these are people that have often faced life-threatening situations in their countries and on their journeys here, let them make up their own minds whether to sit in silence everynight in their bare rooms, or take a chance on a dodgy telly; at least it helps their English.
Charities won't touch electrical equipment now; their insurers insist it must be checked by a qualified electrician before it can be given to someone.
Shortly before he left us, he came to me very emotional. Through a long, painstaking chain of friends and contacts, he had at last found his family, living in a camp in Africa. Their situation was dire, they needed money for schools, for food, for medicine. Like so many, he was saving money from his meagre weekly allowance to send home. It was the first time I saw his cheerful demanour falter. He was proud of his family, hoped that I "his brother" would meet them one day.
It is of course intolerable to the authorities that people save money out of their benefit; it implies that they get more than they need. No doubt right now some petty-minded bureaucrat is reading this - you know who you are - and calculating how much might be saved by cutting a fiver a week from each claimant.
Sadly, not long after finding his family, Happy got his refusal from the Home Office. At this point I'm supposed to tell him about going back and that he has no alternative. His money will stop, and he will be evicted in a week's time from his room/workshop.
Of course, I do explain that the Government will be only too pleased to fund his flight back. But there is also the other option, the one we're supposed not to know about. He could go underground, joining the thousands living precariously day to day, sleeping on floors, working for two pounds an hour, never giving their real name, not even to supposed friends, never knowing if tomorrow they'll be caught.
A little money goes a long way in an African refugee camp; it achieves far more than the foreign aid provided from government hypocrisy and private piety.
So I was delighted when Happy told me, "My brother", that he had found an electrical repai shop in another town that would give him work.
Unfortunately, Happy broke his leg in an accident. I never heard from hm after that, his phone never answered. I'm sure he'd have been in touch. I can only assume that Immigration caught up with him. I hope he's reunited with his wife and children now, but he's a loss to us, and it's a lost income to that far away family he wanted me to meet one day.

Asylum stories - Maria's washing

Maria had been an asylum-seeker from Eastern Europe, who along with all the rest had had an abrupt change 0f status that May Day bank holiday when eight countries joined the EU; no longer liable for eviction from the UK, she would be evicted from her Home Office house, and expected instantly to find work and a new home. While this is most of our people's dream, it's not so easy when you have two kids in nursery, little English, and all your friends are in the same boat.
Maria was a young Roma, with Indian features, always in a low cut full-skirted dress, and with two cute and beautiful little girls. She spoke three languages well, but her English would lead us into many misunderstandings, sometimes but not always amusing.
The first time I met her, unannounced and unofficially, it was to explain that, under pressure from the courts, and actually after the deadline to get out, the government would allow her to stay a little longer to find a job.
I found a woman desperate not to return to her country, overwhelmed with stress, shouting at the kids she clearly adored. In fact, she reminded me, in her looks and her voice and her situation, of someone in my past, who had lived and looked as my mother had lived and looked, in a half-remembered half imagined time.
I made a promise to myself that, of all the Roma families that dramatic spring, I would not allow this one to be defeated and driven out.
And so began a series of visits; she made huge efforts to find work, but it always seemed impossible, and myself I had neither the time not the contacts to find her something, when so many others were in the same situation.
Maria never seemed to trust me - why would she, this stranger, not even from an organisation, just some do-gooder, who would maybe do her harm. I soon saw that experience had made her wary, even of other Roma; indeed I was aware that men from Eastern Europe had made offers to her; and no doubt she had caught my eyes too wandering over her figure.
At the death, I was able to set something up for her, a job to match her circumstances, that would get her into council housing, and secure her in the country. After a miserable time in a homeless hostel with druggies and alkies, abused women and abusive staff, she was rehoused onto a bleak estate, and was happy there.
Suddenly, I noticed a change in her attitude. It had taken months, but n0w she would offer me coffee, sometimes food, and just relax a little, and the little girls were suddenly more playful with me too.
And so did we all live happily ever after, me and Maria and the two little girls? But it wasn't like that at all. She trusted me because it was finally clear that I was really only there to help her, that I expected nothing from her.
On a later visit, she told me that someone had stolen all her washing from the line. I was commiserating, blaming the scummy people around about, too aware of the cost of children's clothing, but she just told me she spent the whole day laughing at the idea of someone trying to wear her clothes. As she said, when you've had the life she's had, this is nothing, although for me it would have been one more thing to add to my baggage of misery.
Rather than the tragedies of a family wrecked by drink, disease, and racism, she chose to tell me about a day in England.
For her asylum appeal, she had had to travel to a tiny town which, outside of the asylum world, was known only as the name of a prison. They tell you not to bring your children, but what could she do? As with courts everywhere, you had to be there for ten AM; as luck would have it, her case was heard last, and she got out at seven with her starving kids and made her way to the station - which was closed for the night.
Not knowing what else to do, she called 999. The first officer to attend either didn't understand or felt it was nothing to do with him, but another one came who drove them over to the next town where the station was open.
Late at night, Maria and the kids arrived in our city centre, confronted by Friday night debauchery in full swing. Of course nobody hurt them, but she was scared. A totally alien world. Some of them were even gay!
Finally reaching home, they found the back door smashed in, and the house trashed. How many times had she told the humorously named "Pukka Pads" about that temptingly insecure lock? Whenever she spoke to them, they shouted at her. As she said, "She lady Manda, very no good".
She didn't even call the Police, just went to bed terrified, listening out all night for intruders, wrapped around her two little girls. Pukka Pads fixed the door next morning, with the same insecure lock.
"So I no cry because take clothes!" she said laughingly.
I pointed out gently that on my first visit, she was crying.
There's a scene in Fistful of Dollars where Clint Eastwood, having rescued the dark and beautiful Marisol, sends her away to safety with her husband and little boy. She asks him "Why you do this for us?" "I knew someone like you once, and there was no-one there to help."
And this feels like the very meaning of my life. For once, only, I am Clint, the Man with No Name, the Stranger, reliving and righting the real or imagined wrongs of my life.
And that is reward enough.

Asylum Stories - Love and Cruelty

Mr Ahmedi had always been a bit awkward: demanding things that, though not unreasonable in themselves, were not allowed by the various bureaucracies that controlled his life as an asylum-seeker.
He makes life difficult for us; one time he had been too sick to collect the weekly sixty quid for him and his wife from the Post Office, so he'd sent her and they'd refused to pay her; because he didn't get a doctor's note or get it sorted by the end of the week it became a "backdating issue"; it's tiresome to explain that this means that, as they had survived to the end of the week without the money, the Home Office now doubted that they really needed it at all; that he needed to request a backpayment by fax, but that the Home Office had not yet decided a policy on backpayments, and therefore no decision to pay up was likely; it's wearying to hear stories of money borrowed from other asylum-seekers which now can't be repaid, and of scarce friendships thereby threatened; and all the time we have the doubt that maybe he couldn't get to the post office because he was working illegally on the side, and we have the near certainty that if he hasn't been working up to now, he'll do his best to find work in future to avoid this humiliation.
Mr Ahmedi is a funny mix - stocky, muscular, close-cropped hair, bullet-headed, always softly spoken with me, but often brusque with my female colleagues. His wife, though not afraid to speak up, is always careful to give precedence to her husband, and I too am careful to respect the cultural conventions: while I try to include her as much as possible, I address myself mainly to him. Anything else would cause discomfort, mistrust, perhaps misunderstanding.
Mrs. Ahmedi's contributions were often to gently set straight her husband's misapprehensions, or to remind him of things forgotten as he gets carried away with the injustice of things, or just to reassure him that seemingly big problems are not so important, the role indeed of wives everywhere through the ages, smoothing men's ruffled feathers, letting them feel important, carrying the real burdens of life on uncomplaining shoulders.
Mr Ahmedi used to be a leading sportsman in his country, not fit enough now, too old, too tortured, too podgy from his wife's cooking. Over his first year with us, we helped him find a coaching placement (unpaid, of course) with a very considerate local club, where he was highly appreciated, and which helped him with his anxiety and depression. It was remarkable to see this tense, preoccupied, defeated man become someone new, or perhaps his old self, when discussing the technical minutiae of the game with fellow enthusiasts; I always thought it must be such a relief for his wife to have him out of the house, and with something on his mind other than torture and asylum and injustice.
Mr Ahmedi had been with us nearly three years now. After the ritual initial decision from the Home Office, he had appealed, and the Court found in his favour; three weeks later had come the thunderbolt, the counter appeal from the Home Office, and the case now rumbled on through months and years of frustration and misery and enforced idleness.
Mr Ahmedi started to find that he could no longer focus at the club, he started making mistakes with the equipment, felt humiliated though perhaps no-one even noticed, and eventually gave up going; predictably, his stress levels escalated, his mental health visibly declined, doctors could do little.
I called on the Amhedis for a routine visit, booked in advance as usual because he's basically a proud and a private man, whose honour would be threatened by his wife receiving male visitors.
I immediately noticed an unusual atmosphere between the couple, normally so conservative; they were almost lovey-dovey, touching hands, exchanging glasses and soft words.
Even more remarkably, for such an honour-stricken husband, he sheepishly revealed what had been happening. He had been angry because hi wife had not cooked promptly enough for his hunger, then he refused to eat and even through the food away. Harsh words had been exchanged and tears had flowed. They had evidently been making up in the way of couples the world over.
My female colleagues found his behaviour blameworthy in the extreme. But I felt his pain as well as hers, that he had felt compelled to confess his misdemeanour to an outsider.
But beyond that, I blame this cruel system, that piles stress upon stress, year after year, and then exposes the cracks in a loving marriage to the eyes of the system's servants, inviting judgment.
Have you or I never behaved badly with a partner? I am privileged to look into this private world, and watch two people try to reconcile emotions and expectations, and in difficult circumstances to make sense of their lives. And if they succeed, they will have done better than me and maybe than you.