As one client said:
"When I can't make it to the group, I know the time, so go through the exercises by myself for an hour, just as if I was there, and I feel calmer."
The Icarus Collective have helped us evaluate the impact of all our work on our clients in the last two years, which they described as helping people move "from a position of hopelessness and despair to one in which they feel more capable of managing and coping with their situation."
This includes people sleeping better, managing stress, feeling more positive, establishing new relationships and having a sense of a future. As well as reviewing all our client outcomes, Icarus looked in depth at our training services and our triage system. If you would like to read the full report please contact Kate
Watch a video at https://vimeo.com/55474409 one of the techniques people learn in our stress management groups.
Ashkan isn’t allowed to work. It’s one of the conditions the Home Office imposes on him or he risks being fined up to £5,000 or being sent to prison up to six months. Like other destitute asylum seekers, he has no source of income, so he wouldn’t be able to pay the fine.
You can help people like Ashkan by donating to Solace using the Justgiving link on the right hand side of this post.
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.
|Lemlem and three of her children in Leeds|
I was rooted in the huts of the Dark Continent,
Cheap dirty politics a course for rooting
Democracy, decomposing, degrading.
People incubating poverty, possessiveness
Other belching, boosting, balancing
Justice shattered, in shambles
Justice swept by storm.
I visited the labour ward
Raising children, the biggest portion of my life
Raising children, a lion’s share of my support.
People dined together, family friends,
The sun stunning, shimmering.
England is my mansion today:
I dine with my table and chairs, buzzing,
Thinking of my fractured family.
My unconscious mind connecting
Fogged dreams far across the sea,
A chorus of music: “mum we miss you”.
So many things went wrong with
Where I belonged and with my belongings.
I see them landing in the country of safety
I reached the destination tired and torn.
The journey paralysed by fear
Yawning yet not yelling
Blooded but not beaten
The journey punched a stroke.
As issues and concerns driving
On my little balance of life
Left me behind several decades
With a brain of an alien.
You may not perform miracles
But you can support
We can’t change the law,
Which was made by the people for the people,
But we can twist the situation
In the struggle of reunion
Margaret Katula is a member of the SOLACE reading group. Currently led by Rachel Webster and Oliver Cross, this group has been reading selections from a poetry anthology entitled Being Human and from a nineteenth-century novel entitled Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne.
of the body that is no longer
my body but the body
of the congregation that prays for me
it is the winter of the new day
of my birth when gifts are made
and hands grasped in the other
country of my birth that I left
to live with dogs and talk with djinns
and beat on the door of the house
of exile where still I am refused
my breath is an hydraulic ghost
my voice has drowned in my lungs
the soul between my vertebrae pleads for release
the snow on my lips is supernatural bread
I leave you to think of my sister and mother
I leave you to ask what happened
I leave you to find a home for my cat
I leave you in the knowledge that I lived
Most, too, have had long, tortuous journeys overland to get to the UK. Common emotional problems include anger, fear, fear of their anger getting out of control, fear of the Home Office, fear of demons, acute anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, bereavement at the loss or disappearance of close family members, nightmares, being punished by God.
You can read more in the stories below and the astonishing story of Reza on page 14 of our 2011 annual review, which you can download here: http://www.solace-uk.org.uk/images/pdfs/SolaceAnnualReview2011.pdf
The unaccompanied children we see are usually referred
(and accompanied by) a social worker. This was the case with Hassan, aged 17.
Like many other unaccompanied minors, being separated from his family is very
painful for him and he struggles to cope emotionally on his own. He suffers
from nightmares and is often in tears. Hassan has a sense of hopelessness, not
knowing whether his family are dead or alive.
Like other unaccompanied children at 17, Hassan is about to face the full force of the UK asylum system where he risks deportation. Underlying feelings of anxiety have become acute because of the fear of being returned to Afghanistan. This manifests itself as a sense of uselessness and lack of control over his life.
At the end of 2012 turned 18. Hassan was completely isolated with no electricity in his house with no money to live on. Although he is entitled to support from Social Services, his Social Worker has been off ill with no one to replace the support worker. Hassan had been going hungry and felt unable to look after himself.
At Solace, we have worked hard to get his support back in place, so that he would at least be warm and fed. We have also tried, through the Red Cross, to trace his parents, but with no luck.
Therapeutic work in situations like this is very difficult. It is more important, for obvious reasons, to get his immediate physical needs met and support him where we can (e.g. with his claim for asylum). It is unlikely that he will make progress with his mental health until he is in a more stable environment (i.e. has refugee status), but we can and do work hard at preventing him from deteriorating further and he appreciates our help and feels welcome at Solace.
Omar arrived in the UK in the middle of last year and turned 17 in December, 2012. Omar is from Syria. He feels very homesick and misses his family terribly. He doesn’t know their whereabouts or whether they are still alive.
Omar is suffering from acute anxiety which, as with so many of the people we support, is accompanied by physical manifestations of anxiety. In Omar’s case severe palpitations and sweating. As with so many other people in his situation (including Hassan in the above case study), Omar has regular nightmares and so avoids sleeping as much as he can, which adds to his low mood.
All these problems – again depressingly familiar to us at Solace – are exacerbated by sub-standard housing. He has a leaking roof, mice, mould, insects that bite him and have infested his clothes. He has no vacuum cleaner or cleaning products.
At Solace we try and help him sort these problems out by liaising with the housing provider, putting pressure on any agency that is providing a sub-standard service.
Working on Omar’s behalf, of course, builds trust and with trust comes the possibility of opening up and helping him address his mental health problems.
Some of the people we help at Solace have young families. In many cases, this means a single mother with a young child (or children). Many of them have fled domestic violence in countries where women have no protection and many have suffered from sexual violence. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by a hostile asylum process in the UK and state-imposed poverty (as a result of UK Government policy), including poor housing (see http://harehillshouse.blogspot.co.uk ) and lack of utilities, furniture and other facilities (see https://vimeo.com/54981354). Letters from the Home Office refusing asylum are more common than those which grant asylum.
Physical pain often accompanies emotional distress where physical ailments often feed off emotional distress in a vicious circle of deteriorating wellbeing.
It is hardly surprising that in the face of all these difficulties, a mother (or mother and father) often struggle with parenting however old the child. In many cases, a young child ends up, in effect, caring for a parent. The anxieties of the parents are often picked up by a child. Problems may arise at school or just making friends. A child in these circumstances may be very lonely and emotionally starved which will often lead to problems later on in life.
Our aim, as with all our clients, is address as many of the problems they face as possible which means liaising with schools, health workers, social services, midwives, GPs among many others. Teaching parents parenting skills may be one of the interventions we provide, as well as opportunities to play with toys which they might not otherwise have. Home visits, activities groups (women’s group and bibliotherapy group) and outings are also part of the mix to help support emotional wellbeing.
The difficulties described above are not exclusive to asylum seekers, but apply to many with refugee status as well, because so many of them find it difficult to get work and so often to continue to struggle in poverty. See Mana's story below.
Mana is a mother with a teenage son who came to the UK a number of years ago from Iran after a history of domestic violence. Mana was originally living in Bradford but they were forced to move because of racist violence and bullying of her son at school.
Mana and her son have a difficult relationship at times. Both suffer from physical pain. Mana suffers from migraines, shaking, vomiting, anxiety crying fits. Mana’s son has thyroid problems and difficulties breathing.
We have supported Mana and her son for a couple of years intermittingly. Mana comes back to Solace when she is in a bad emotional state which usually follows a setback of some sort – an appeal against a housing or benefits decision. Refusal letters of one description or another are a depressingly regular feature of her life (and others we help). All of these relatively small adversities can add up into something much bigger and affect mental and physical health.
When Mbole came to the UK on 18 February 2000, he was hoping that the hell he had been through in the Congo was over and he could start a new life, free of worry and persecution. But it was not to be. When he died suddenly twelve years later on 10 February, 2012, he was still an asylum seeker waiting for his umpteenth appeal against deportation to the Congo, where all his Congolese friends and Mbole himself knew that he would not survive for long.
Most of the last two year’s of Mbole’s life were spent in detention centres, not because he had committed any crime, but because the Home Office were determined to deport him. Mbole and his friends and allies were equally determined to prevent that from happening because they all understood that being sent back to the Congo was to all intents and purposes an outsourced death sentence.
The Congolese authorities take a particularly dim view of Congolese nationals deported from the UK. Many of them are tracked as soon as they arrive at the airport and then picked up by the military and dumped in jails where they are tortured and killed. Mbole understood that this was the fate in store for him if he lost his right to remain in the UK.
Mbole escaped from the Congo in 2000 after his entire family, including his parents, wife and two children, were all killed because of his father’s political involvement with a Rwandan group. Mbole was kept alive so he could be incarcerated in jail and tortured to extract information from him.
Months of torture left their scars on Mbole, both physically and mentally. He suffered from chronic back pain and his leg never fully recovered after he was stabbed in jail. His body had all the signs of being tortured and his mind was clearly troubled by all of his experiences.
Like many victims of torture and persecution, Mbole suffered from memory loss which was both a blessing and a curse. When he first sought asylum in the UK, the Home Office did not believe his story of persecution and torture. Immigration judges took the view that he was not a ‘credible witness’. They dismissed a medical report by an expert, which added weight to his claims that he had been tortured.
I first met Mbole at Solace in 2008 after he had recently arrived in Leeds, having spent several months in prison in Scotland. He told me what had happened to him and why he needed Solace to help him. He showed me the holes in his body and arms.
In the three and a half years I knew Mbole, he was detained four times, for months at a time, while the Home Office tried and failed to deport him. On each occasion, his solicitor’s submitted a bail application on the basis that he had committed no crime and was unlikely to abscond. ‘Where would I run away to?’ he asked me, shrugging his shoulders.
Mbole was the only client at Solace who I went to court with and acted as a surety, not just once, but four times. On one occasion I was asked by the judge why I was prepared to risk £500 as a surety for Mbole. I told the judge that when I first met Mbole, I was taken aback by the horrors that he had lived through and that he was being punished for no reason.
Mbole was a kind, gentle man, who, when he had the opportunity, liked to go out of his way to help other people. He was a regular church goer with a strong faith, who also worked at Oxfam as a volunteer. Whenever anyone helped Mbole or showed him some kindness he always said ‘God Bless You’, which included a judge on one occasion who had just ordered his release from detention.
Mbole was easily recognisable around town and on the bus with his colourful hats and clothes. At one of his many court appearances I suggested to him that it might not be a good idea to wear the hat with the colourful flowers. How about the red flowery shirt with the brown leather tie? No, not really a good idea, Mbole.
Mbole was glad that 2011 was over and he looked forward to a fresh start in 2012. His immigration case was awaiting a decision in the High Court – the last chance saloon. We still don’t know whether he would have been successful or not, but at least in the last few weeks he was feeling hopeful.
The last third of Mbole’s life was one of relentless persecution, either by the Congolese authorities or the UK asylum system that never believed him. In the end, aged forty four, Mbole’s body was ground down by all the adversity he faced with the full power of the State lined up against him for years on end. But he did score one victory. They never succeeded in deporting him.
God bless you, Mbole, and may you now rest in peace.
Tears flowed and blocked my sight,
I wallowed in the thoughts of yesterday,
A fraction of yesterday that was happy,
Happy yesterday decorated by sunshine,
Laughter oozed out like water from a broken cistern,
I blossomed in that career like a flower in spring,
Endless voices of children a huge part of that yesterday.
As I tarried by the banks of river asylum,
The garment of beautiful yesterday fully changed into
A flowing gown of depression and psychosis,
In my mind’s eye is a distorted lens,
Life seemed worthless and meaningless,
END IT, the only song I hear,
Medication and therapies my daily bread,
In this limbo, a ray of light appears
… three years leave to remain,
With an irreparable mark for life.
Months after she had escaped to the UK, and uncertain of her own future, Nathalie still had no idea what had happened to her family, but she gave us the name of a priest she had worked with in the Congo who we looked up on the Internet where we found an email address.
In early 2010, we were desperate to find someone who could confirm Nathalie’s story of what had happened to her in the Congo to help her claim for asylum. Our first contact with the priest was an email which arrived just in time to persuade an immigration judge that Nathalie’s case had credibility. Without the email form the priest in the Congo, Nathalie’s chances of staying in the UK looked very slim. The email arrived while she was in the immigration court to decide her future.
While Nathalie’s claim for asylum in the UK was not resolved for another few months, we had also asked the priest if he knew the whereabouts of Nathalie’s family. For weeks we heard nothing and then in July 2010, the priest sent an email saying that he had found the family living on the border with Angola, in the south of the Congo, along with many other displaced Congolese refugees.
It was many more weeks before the priest managed to arrange a time when Nathalie’s husband and children could come to his house at a time when Nathalie could contact them by telephone. Electricity cuts and problems with the Internet in the Congo didn’t help matters.
The priest asked us to call his house at 3.30pm, Congolese time. It was now months after we first established contact with the priest and Nathalie now had leave to remain in the UK.
Nathalie hadn’t slept for days because of the anxiety stirred up by talking to her family again. She came to Solace where I called the priest. She wanted me to speak to him first. She was feeling so anxious that she was shaking in the chair next to me.
Nathalie had worried that her children wouldn’t know who she was. By the time she spoke to the elder of the two, who was still only 5-years old, she was kneeling on the ground in front of me with her head in my lap.
Nathalie asked him: ‘Did you miss me?’ ‘Do you know who I am?’ her son asks her if she is big or small – whether she is an adult or a child, in other words. He then asks her if she is going to bring him some black pudding that evening.
Black pudding touched a nerve with Nathalie because she used to bring her eldest boy black pudding, which he loved. Nathalie repeated the words ‘black pudding’ several times while sobbing in my lap.
Half an hour later the call ended with Nathalie’s head still in my lap, sobbing. She then drank four litres of water and sat down, exhausted, staring into space.
In September 2011, the family were reunited and living in bed and breakfast accommodation.
You can read Nathalie's back story in our latest Annual Review which you can download at www.solace-uk.org.uk
One of the traumas facing asylum seekers that is rarely recognised is the way they are treated in Britain, not only by the media and by many of the people who live around them, but above all, by officialdom, as a result of government policies.
A standard letter from the Borders and Immigration Agency (a Home Office agency) to an asylum seeker begins with the greeting ‘You are liable to be detained’, a threat that is carried out even when no crime has been committed. Like dangerous criminals, however, asylum seekers, including women with young children, are all too often raided in the middle of the night by the Police and sent to a detention centre without warning. Several of our female clients have experienced this treatment in the past year.
The failed asylum seeker’s ‘crime’ is that the authorities do not believe them when they say they have been persecuted, or, to use the jargon of the courts, their ‘evidence is not credible’. For many asylum seekers, it is very hard or impossible to prove that they have been persecuted, especially when, as one client told us, he had to leave his country in a hurry, after government soldiers had tried to kill him.
Our experience of working with asylum seekers at Solace is that the inhospitable treatment they frequently receive here in Britain often exacerbates any mental health problems that they may already have. The vast majority of our clients have felt or continue to feel suicidal. Whilst many of them have benefited enormously from the service we offer, which makes their lives a little more tolerable, progress is all too often reversed by the heavy hand of officialdom as a result of punitive government policies.
My sister was regularly raped and on one occasion, when she was being raped in front of me, I tried to intervene, but I was beaten unconscious by the guards who hit me on my back with their rifle butts.
I came to Britain in 2005 after escaping from prison where I had been sent with my sister for being involved in a demonstration against the Congolese government, which I helped to organise. My father had been beheaded by government officials for organising the demonstration and I went into hiding with my family, where we feared for our lives. We did not even attend our father’s funeral. A month later, my sister and I were captured by government troops and sent to a dark, stench-ridden dungeon. Every day I was in there, I was beaten with sticks, punched or kicked.
My sister was regularly raped and on one occasion, when she was being raped in front of me, I tried to intervene, but I was beaten unconscious by the guards who hit me on my back with their rifle butts.
An Italian priest helped to release us from prison and he managed to get my sister and me on a plane to England. I still don’t know how he got us out of there.
When we arrived in England, I was in bad shape physically after my experience in captivity. My case for asylum was rejected because the authorities didn’t believe my story. Despite not being able to speak English at the time, I made an appeal against the decision, but on the day of the court hearing I was in hospital, vomiting blood, and suffering from internal bleeding as a result of the torture I had suffered in captivity.
The Judge insisted I went to court, but seeing that I was the worse for wear, he sent me back to hospital. But the Judge also said that if I was going to be in hospital for a lengthy period, the appeal hearing would go ahead without me.
When I was eventually called back to court to make my appeal several weeks later, I was still feeling unwell and I had no legal representation. I asked the Judge for more time to recover but he refused my request. With no knowledge of the English legal system and a poor grasp of English, my appeal was rejected.
The High Court rejected a further appeal by me and I then became a failed asylum seeker with a high risk of being detained or, worse, deported, which would mean almost certain death for me.
My life went from bad to worse. My sister, who as a minor, I had been legally responsible for, ran away. The consequences for me of her running away were dire. As a failed asylum seeker, no longer with any dependants, I was made homeless and penniless. I slept on friends’ floors; hid for four nights in St. George’s Crypt with an Iraqi asylum seeker, without anyone knowing I was there. The alternative was to sleep on the streets.
Eventually, I was provided with a room in a house with other asylum seekers, but I was, and still am, a failed asylum seeker who could be detained or deported at any time. I still do not know where my sister is.
Two years ago, when I was using the Internet in a library in Leeds, I discovered that some soldiers had been to my Mother’s house and had interrogated her and two of my aunts about my whereabouts, but they did not know where I was.
My mother and her two sisters were then raped and brutally murdered. Then the soldiers took my wife and three children away to force me to come out of hiding.
For the last two years, despite extensive enquiries, I have had no news of my wife and three children and I fear the worst.
I was feeling completely depressed and suffering from anxiety. I felt life was not worth living. I desperately needed some help.
Solace really helped me get back on my feet. The therapy helped me be strong again. It was not just the therapist who helped me but all the people working at Solace who gave me a lot of support and very helpful advice. I felt really welcome at Solace by everyone, so much so that I have recommended that friends of mine in the same situation as me come to Solace for help.
I have made a real effort to integrate in Britain. I have learnt to speak English and passed all my English exams; I am actively involved in my local church and involved in many voluntary activities; I am studying an MA in Activism and Social Change at Leeds University. I am not allowed to enrol on the course officially because I am an asylum seeker, but I am happy that I am allowed to be a guest student. I would not be doing any of these things without the help I received from Solace. I cannot underestimate how much Solace has helped me.
I’m still a failed asylum seeker and life is a struggle, sometimes a real struggle. I pray that I will be allowed to stay here, but whatever happens to me, I will always carry the burden of what happened to me and my family in the Congo.
My husband was an army commander for the Uganda People’s Defence Force, which was set up by the government to defeat the LRA. My husband was involved in covert missions against the LRA and because the rebels never gave up without a fight, many of them were killed in the skirmishes. Often the LRA would retaliate by killing innocent civilians, including my parents who they killed in 1999.
One day in October 2002, one month after my husband had returned from a particularly gruesome encounter with the LRA, we were woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of gunfire and shouting. The next thing we knew, our front door was being kicked down by what sounded like a large group of angry men. My husband rushed out of bed with a pistol he had kept in a drawer by the bed. He confronted the group of men and as they hurled abuse at him I rushed into the room next door where my children were screaming.
I was terrified. I pulled my children close to me and we crept into a wardrobe, cowering with fear. I heard a number of shots in quick succession and could hear the men screaming abuse and insults at our whole family and my husband in particular. I then heard loud thuds and thought they must have overpowered my husband and were beating him up.
The mood in the room next door then changed and I heard someone ask ‘where is the woman?’. They soon found us and pulled us out of the wardrobe. They pulled me away from the children and hurled me on to the floor where they proceeded to rape me one after another. I do not know how many raped me, but I do remember my children sobbing behind their bed.
Suddenly, all the men in the room panicked and ran out of the room - some of them treading on me in their rush to get out. I could smell smoke and knew our house was on fire. I cried to my children who were so petrified they could not move from behind the bed. I somehow gathered enough strength to drag them out of the collapsing building.
I later learnt that my husband had been shot in the head and that his body had been badly mutilated by multiple beatings from rifle butts. I also learnt that the attack was retaliation for the successful mission led by my husband the month before.
With the help of my husband’s best friend, I went into hiding with my two daughters in another part of Uganda. They kept asking for their father, but they were too young to understand what had happened. I was hoping that we would be left in peace, but it was a forlorn hope. Less than three months after my husband had been killed and I was raped, I returned to our new home one day after coming back from church and found our flat had been ransacked and all our belongings were strewn all over the place, including smashed crockery outside the flat. A badly shaken neighbour with a bruised face warned me that the LRA were looking for me and they had attacked him instead, hoping to get information out of him about our whereabouts.
Leaving your country for an unknown destination is traumatic. I did not know I was coming to Britain. It could have been anywhere as long as it was safe for me and my children. But as an asylum seeker in Britain, I soon discovered that it was far from being a warm and welcoming place and I was presented with more traumas.
No one seemed to understand the traumas I had faced and I was refused asylum in the UK. The threat of being sent back to Uganda made me suffer from terrible anxiety and my physical health deteriorated. While I was trying to recover from all my traumas, my house in Leeds was raided in the middle of the night by immigration officials in April 2005 and I was sent to Yarlswood Detention Centre for a month. It was a traumatic experience and reminded me of the time when our house was raided by the LRA rebels 18 months before.
After I was released from Yarlswood, I was referred to Solace for counselling. I was struggling to cope with life when I met Anne, my therapist, at Solace. I had lost hope and life no longer had any meaning for me. Since going to Solace, my state of mind started to improve. The counselling really helped me. But then, in April 2007, I was raided at dawn for a second time and sent back to Yarlswood for four months with my children. Like the first time I was detained, I had committed no crime. It was a real setback for me and once again I lost all hope and was petrified of being deported.
Throughout my time in the detention centre, Solace worked with my solicitor to get me out. Anne came to visit me and offer me support. I applied for bail as that was the only way they would release me. Anne provided surety for me, which I really appreciated as there was no one else to help me.
Solace has always been there for me, especially in the dark times. All the staff are welcoming, friendly and understanding and for me it is like a second home.
At the beginning of 2008, while I was still being subjected to stringent bail conditions, I received a letter from the Home Office saying that I had been granted refugee status, which is a huge relief for me. It came completely out of the blue. Hopefully, my nightmare is over, but I am still going to Solace to try and heal my wounds.