Telling the story of how women become asylum seekers

Let the women who come to Britain for asylum from rape and mayhem in their own countries, be heard. The theatre brings their stories to life.

Natasha Walter
26 November 2010

Break the Silence

A few months ago I first saw a play called How I Became An Asylum Seeker in a small community theatre in Manchester. I already knew that the author, Lydia Besong, was not a professional writer, and that the performers, all members of the group Lydia belongs to, Women Asylum Seekers Together Manchester, were not professional actors. But although I’m used to watching expertly constructed plays performed by our most acclaimed actors in West End theatres, I was swept along by the energy and passion inside that theatre.

As the play’s director, Magdalen Bartlett, said of the women refugees turned actors, “The raw power and truth that resonates through them makes the audience believe they are watching experienced performers.” It’s true that the women perform as though there is something at stake for each of them in the story that they are telling, as indeed there is.

Lydia herself sought asylum in this country from Cameroon in 2006 after being tortured for her political activities. She started working on the play with her fellow members of Women Asylum Seekers Together in 2008, and the first performance of the play was 3 December 2009, by which time she had been refused asylum.

On 10 December 2009 she was taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre and held there for one month. A concerted campaign by supporters, including her local MP and the vicar of her church, as well as PEN and other organisations, brought her a lawyer who enabled her to get out of detention and make a fresh claim for asylum.

This too has now been refused; an appeal will be heard on 8 December 2010, just 10 days after the play’s first show in London this Sunday. If it fails, she faces possible detention and even deportation. Given her situation, it takes huge courage for her to continue to perform the play, “But we are dying in silence unless we speak out,” she told me.

Among the women who perform the play, Lydia’s story is not unique, indeed, elements of it are echoed time and time again. Florence Ndlovu, for instance, who takes the main part in the play, sought asylum in this country in 2001 from Zimbabwe. Her claim was refused. “For nine years I waited for my papers,” she told me. “What I went through I can’t express. For all that time I was not allowed to work. In 2003 I was made destitute. All this time I never got any money to buy clothes or have cash in my hand. Anything I got was from charity or from people in my church giving to me.”

Florence is an arresting performer, who manages to convey in an understated manner even those experiences that must be almost unbearable to re-enact. As she explained to me, “What you see in the first scene of the play, the woman whose husband is killed, then she is raped, that is exactly what happened to me.  At first I didn’t know if I could manage to act this but gradually I felt more and more confident. There are women who are suffering the way I have suffered. When I go out there to speak it is not just for me, but for them too.”

The experiences of Lydia and Florence are not unusual among women who seek asylum in the UK. Although this country has an obligation to give asylum to those with a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”, women who flee to this country are often denied asylum due to a culture of disbelief in the Home Office and a lack of understanding of the particular ways in which women are targeted.

Over and over again I have met women who have been traumatised by the persecution they have experienced in their countries, who are then traumatised again by their experiences on being denied refuge in the UK. Destitution, detention and threatened deportation; these are common experiences of Lydia and her fellow performers.

What constantly surprises me is how little people in wider society seem to know or want to know about the experiences of such women. As one refugee in Women Asylum Seekers Together London said to me, “People are blind to what we are going through. They are deaf. We have to shout louder until everybody knows.”

It was in order to challenge this lack of understanding about the experiences of women who seek asylum in the UK that I set up Women for Refugee Women.

This Sunday, 28 November, we will host Lydia’s play at the Riverside Studios in London. It will be part of a larger, afternoon session with Juliet Stevenson, Bridget Phillipson MP and Helen Bamber we have called Break the Silence. We hope for a discusssion between audience, the writer and the producer about what is going on. Above all, we would like more people to understand why women feel forced to flee their homes and that many come to this country for refuge. Their voices and experiences can enrich our world – if we accord them basic hospitality, permit them to work, let them be heard, and allow ourselves to listen.

Here is where you can help, or learn more about, Women for Refugee Women

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