I fled for my life and ended up in Britain – without money, without English, imprisoned, and alone

Loneliness affects large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, but we do not hear about it. Campaigns like the current “spotlight month” being run by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness are a good first step, but there is much more to do.

25 October 2017

Flickr/Andre Valente. CC-BY-2.0.As an asylum seeker, I know how frightening loneliness can be, and how difficult it is to escape. You lie in bed waiting for your parents or children to come and say good morning. Then you sit up and realise you’re alone, in your room, again. Alone with the chatter of anxiety, terror, worthlessness and depression all banging about in your head.

You get up and shower, and everything moves in slow motion; the water drops take forever to slide down your skin, and you feel as if you’re drowning in questions: what have I done with my life? Will anybody ever love me again for myself, for who I am?

When I first arrived in the UK, I didn’t speak a word of English. I fled from my country for my life, with no idea where I was going. I came from a small village. I thought I was being brought to freedom and a new life, but instead I found myself a prisoner, locked up for months in a house where men spoke around me in a language I didn’t understand.

When I finally escaped, I found myself on the street; a stranger stopped me and I said the one word I knew, ‘London’. I thought it was a country. He gestured that I was in London, and gave me two pounds. I was alone, in a place I knew nothing about, without a word of the language.

Because I hadn’t been through the asylum system, I ended up in detention.

But the next person I met was a true friend: Grace and her children taught me English. The first thing I learned was, ‘How are you?’. Sometimes I’d say to the kids ‘Give me this’, and they’d say, ‘Say please!’. They liked being able to correct me. I’d ask them, ‘What’s that?’ and they'd say, ‘cup of tea!’ – or they’d take me round the house saying, ‘this is a chair! These are stairs!’ I began to feel at home here. But, because I hadn’t been through the asylum system, I ended up in detention.

After my release, I found a charity where they ran English classes, so I was able to start learning a bit. I didn’t want to be left out when people were chatting around me; that just makes the loneliness worse. Eventually, even though I wasn’t good at expressing myself, at least I could more or less make myself understood, to ask for things I needed.


Yarl's Wood. Flickr/ iDJ Photography. CC-BY-2.0.So I made friends, but that doesn’t always help with the loneliness; their children remind me of my own, their laughter makes me recall my own children, how soothed I was by their voices, how easily they hugged away all pain.

Their children remind me of my own, their laughter makes me recall my own children, how easily they hugged away all pain.

And often, even when I could be with friends, I can’t join them because I have no money. As an asylum seeker, you get less than £40 a week, for everything, and no money for travel or a phone. My friends ask me out; I can’t go. Sometimes I can’t even get to appointments. I missed a hospital appointment because of this, and now I have to go back to my GP to be referred for surgery, all over again.

London is full of places to go and things to do that are free. That is the cure for loneliness. When you’ve been somewhere walking, seeing things, filling your mind and getting inspired, you’re distracted from your thoughts and lifted out of yourself; but I can’t get to any of them.

So I’m back, stuck on my own in my little room. There’s nothing worse than sitting in a room on your own, staring at each corner in turn, especially in shared accommodation. Hearing strangers shouting above or below you, hearing their fights, smelling the cannabis they smoke on the stairs – fearing they will hurt you if you venture into the kitchen or bathroom. Having people you don’t know all around you is worse than being entirely alone.

One of the ways I deal with loneliness is through Write to Life, the writing group at Freedom from Torture, which helps to express my feelings. Meeting different people and hearing their views, hearing what they’ve written about themselves, I find I’m not alone.

Writing boosts my brain and keeps me away from flashbacks, because when you’re writing, you’re talking with the pen to the paper. You concentrate on talking to the paper and it interrupts the bad stuff in your head. It can also be a better way to express things that are bothering you than speaking it out. You can choose your words carefully, and take your time.

I am fairly new to writing and sometimes in the workshops I feel off the topic – as if I've done something wrong. I really don't know anything about poetry, for instance. But I think if I write what is in my mind and other people there are like me, if I write about what I've been through, people in the group might feel touched by my story. Sometimes, even in the group, I’m still alone in my own world. But at least it feels like a friendly space. It feels as if we are all lonely together.

This piece was sent to openDemocracy by Freedom from Torture, the only organisation in the UK dedicated solely to the treatment and rehabilitation of survivors of torture, and the piece is by a member of their creative writing group, Write to Life. 

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