“The government gives me £35 a week to buy food… During the lockdown, my kids do not receive free school meals”

As a refugee and single mother, lockdown in the UK is hard. #HumansofCOVID19

Jáfia Câmara Maria S
28 May 2020, 2.48pm
A picture on Maria's wall

My name is Maria*. I am an asylum-seeker single-mother who escaped to the UK because I felt unsafe in my home country.   

My life in the United Kingdom before the pandemic 

I arrived in the United Kingdom two years ago. It was hard for me because I am a single mother. I am alone with my two small kids. Initially, the accommodation and support I received as an asylum-seeker were horrible. I had to share a house with strangers who liked to drink alcohol and smoke. It was depressing. It was horrible. My living conditions are better now, but my children and I have faced many new difficult challenges. 

Financial Insecurity 

The UK Government gives me £35 a week to buy food for myself and my two children. The Home Office has only considered giving money for food, but refugees and asylum seekers need other things too like hygienic products, especially for the kids. Also, I have to pay for my phone because I need my phone. My kids are growing up and they need more things. They are eating more, and the prices of food have increased. During the lockdown, my kids do not receive free school meals.

I think the Home Office should give a little bit more money. If they do not want to give more money, they should give asylum-seekers permission to work so we can support ourselves. Working would help me keep my mind busy and prevent me from thinking too much about my problems. 

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I have had the opportunity to go to college to learn English and I do not have to pay for this education. I just need to show proof that I am an asylum seeker and I can study English and Maths for free because the government pays for it. If I wanted another profession or career, I think I would have to pay for that. When I arrived in the UK, I did not speak any English. Just ‘hello’ and ‘how are you.’ That’s it. But I have been in college now for almost two years and I have learned a lot. I have met a lot of friendly and kind people from different cultures at the college.  

The English classes are twice a week for 3.5 hours each day. But I would like to go at least four days a week because I would like to improve my English. I would like to study more, and maybe become a nurse. So, I would like to have access to more English language classes to improve my English. Improving my English would help me help my kids with their school homework and make it easier for me to talk about my health when I go to a doctor’s appointment. I would like to learn more, but I am not allowed to study more hours at the college as an asylum seeker. 

There have also been difficulties at my kids’ school. My kids were doing well at school when they were going. They learned a lot and now they speak very good English. My kids like their school, but at the same time, they have faced many difficulties. They would like to participate in more activities at the school like their friends do. My kids want to do some extra-curricular activities that need to be paid for, but I do not have money to pay because I am not allowed to work. I would like my kids to do swimming class, football class, but it is hard for me to give that opportunity to my kids because I am not allowed to work. The support from the Home Office is just for food. It is sad because my kids’ friends do different activities, but my kids cannot because I do not have money to pay for them.

Many times, I asked their school if they can give additional support for children who can’t afford to pay for these activities, and they say they don’t have enough support from the government and they must charge for everything. The school charges for the uniform, if they plan a trip to the zoo or any other place, or to join a sports club they charge. The school charges for everything.  

Asylum Process 

Sometimes, I want to leave this and go back to my country, but at the same time, I cannot do that. I cannot go back because my life and my kids’ lives are unsafe over there. I need to wait because I made the sacrifice of leaving my relatives in my country. I left my friends behind. I left everything over there. I left my life there and now I am here.  

I was told to report to the immigration office every month. But the last time when I went there, I explained to them that it is hard because I must pay for my kids’ bus tickets, which are expensive. So, they told me they are going to ask me to report to the immigration office every six months. 

Sometimes I feel like I want to kill myself, but I have my kids. I need to stay strong for them. It is so depressing this situation and to still be waiting for my asylum claim. I have waited for two years now. I waited for 14 months to receive the first decision about my asylum claim, which was a negative answer. I want to appeal their negative answer and had a court date scheduled for this. But I got a letter [from the Home Office] three weeks ago saying they will reschedule my appeal date. They do not know yet when the new date will be. Now I have to wait and report to the immigration office every six months. My court date to appeal the Home Office’s decision was cancelled because of the coronavirus and the lockdown. 

Life in the United Kingdom during the pandemic 

My life has been difficult during the pandemic and the lockdown. When I was able to go to college to learn English, my mind was busy, and I did not have to spend as much time thinking about my problems. I was not depressed when I was studying because my mind was busy. But now in this situation with the coronavirus, and the difficulties with my asylum claim, it has been a horrible time because it is depressing and stressful. 

My kids’ school is giving classes online. It is difficult for me and for my children because I do not have a computer, I do not have a laptop, and I don’t have a tablet. I just have my phone. I have been helping my children do their homework on my phone. It is difficult because it takes time for the kids to learn, it takes time to explain to them how to do their homework. I have two kids and they are in different classes. So first, I help one of my kids with homework, then we have to wait to start with the other one. It is hard with one phone and it means I need to top up my phone more often because the data goes fast. Before, when [my kids] were going to school, I needed to top up my phone for £10. Now I have to top up at least £20 pounds for two weeks. It is difficult for me and for my kids. I would like to get at least one tablet. So, one of my children can work with the tablet while the other one can study on my phone. It would be better for me, and for them. 

It is very important for my kids to continue to learn online and do their homework. Their teachers give points if the homework is completed. The teachers said that doing homework and getting these points can help my kids pass to the next level. I believe the school will do a diagnostic assessment in September. If the diagnostic assessment says my kids are not ready for the next level, so maybe they do not pass, and they stay at the same level. The teachers do not keep in touch with me and my children. They just send an email with the homework assignments and instructions. We need to take pictures of the homework and post it on the online class website. The school knows about my situation. But I do not think they can do anything for me. 

I would like my kids to continue to learn. They need to learn, and they need to study. But I am not going to send them back to school soon because the corona virus is still going to be here. Kids do not know how to keep distance from each other, they do not understand the restrictions. So, they will be close together, they will be playing together. Even if you explain these things to the kids, they forget, and they will still be playing together and in physical contact. 

Social Support

Before the lockdown I could go to the local organisations that support refugees and asylum seekers. I could go to English class; we could talk to different people at the organisations. Now they are closed. They help us a lot. And not just with food. They help us learn English. They are like friends to us. I can talk to them, I can tell them how I feel, and they help with a lot of things. I was going to church before the pandemic and I have met so many nice people at church. I had never met people like that in my country, they are so kind, so friendly. There is a lady from church who calls me to ask how I am doing. They do the church online on Sundays and do Bible study online on Wednesdays, so that is good, but I only participate once every two weeks because of my internet. It has been sad because these places are closed. My kids want to go out and they want to learn more but it is so much harder now. 

My life in the UK beyond the pandemic 

Now I have to wait for my asylum process, and I do not know about the future. I do not know what is going to happen, but I just want to keep going especially for my kids because I am mum and dad for them. So, I need to continue strong and stand up for them. 

*As told to Jáfia Câmara. Maria is a pseudonym.

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