Lemlem was an asylum seeker for five years before she became a refugee in 2009. For two of those asylum-seeking years she was destitute, sleeping on the streets in Portsmouth and then Leeds, which has left her with some long-term health problems. You can read her back story in our first newsletter. We first met Lemlem when she was an asylum seeker. It took two years of hard work for us not just to stabilise her mentally but get her legal help, which eventually led to her becoming a refugee.
Many people assume that when an asylum seeker like Lemlem becomes a refugee – the difference being that refugees are no longer at risk of deportation and they are allowed to work in the UK – life becomes easier, but our experience of working with hundreds of refugees is that this is far from being the case. Lemlem’s experience of becoming a refugee illustrates the difficulties many refugees face.
The key to working successfully with emotionally unstable asylum seekers and refugees is helping them not just with their mental health and physical pain arising out of prolonged stress, but with practical difficulties as well –practical difficulties that range from legal representation to negotiating with debt collection agencies.
Lemlem’s relief at becoming a refugee soon turned to worrying about having a roof over her head, money to pay the bills and food on the table. Like most new refugees, the lack of these basic needs creates new crises in their lives. With our help, she managed to get a house, but it had no furniture, not even a mattress to sleep on. She had no money for weeks so she had no means to buy basic food items, let alone a bed and something to sit on other than the floor. There was no gas, water or electricity.
By the time we helped her sort out all of these things, Lemlem was in debt. Each time a problem arose, which happened nearly every week, she asked us to help her sort it out, whether it was the Benefits Agency, the bank, a utility company or debt collection agency. Lemlem, like so many refugees, quickly descended into the poverty trap, living in a Kafkaesque world which was completely incomprehensible to her. People who promised didn’t deliver, like the man who promised to help her get a fridge.
Meanwhile, the threatening letters kept arriving. For Lemlem, like many asylum seekers and refugees with little or no English, any official-looking letter, whether it is an appointment at the hospital or a demand for payment, can cause extreme stress.
While Lemlem was trying to find her feet after years of hanging by a thread, a bigger worry was casting a shadow over her life: her children – all teenagers - were living a very precarious existence in Eritrea. Our work with Lemlem was far from over despite helping for over two years. Her mental and physical health started to deteriorate again as she faced the twin challenges of a poverty-stricken life in the UK and worrying about her children hiding in a remote village in Eritrea.
Whilst successfully keeping the debt collectors away and the benefits system onside, we contacted the Red Cross to ask them to help bring Lemlem’s children to the UK, which then led to us contacting the UNHCR in London, Libya and Sudan.
It was quickly clear that the children could not be helped until they could prove their identities (not easy, given that they were hiding in a remote village in Eritrea). Even if all of these hurdles could be overcome, there was then the problem of money. Who was going to pay for the visas and the flights to the UK? So we organised a fundraising campaign and succeeded in raising enough money to pay for the legal and administrative costs of seeking asylum in the UK from Africa with the help of churches in Leeds, the City of Sanctuary and Leeds Quakers.
It took over three years and two trips to Sudan before Lemlem succeeded in getting her children out of Eritrea to the UK. Escaping from Eritrea to Sudan was a drama in itself, involving walking down a river at night to avoid being detected by the Eritrean military who shoot without warning; a traumatic encounter with kidnappers on the road to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan and hiding for weeks in a safe house. A BBC correspondent interviewed them in Khartoum about their experience which you can listen to here
|Lemlem and three of her children in Leeds|