openJustice: Opinion

I gave birth during coronavirus as an asylum seeker

The doctors were good to me but my circumstances caused problems during the birth and beyond. I came to the UK for safety but I feel far from safe.

26 August 2020, 11.35am

I’m writing this from the third floor of a hotel just outside London. Next to me are my husband, my five-year old daughter and my new baby son, who is two months old. We are asylum seekers and I’ve just given birth during the coronavirus pandemic.

We are all together living in one room, in one of the many hotels and hostels the Home Office has placed us in this year. On the floor below, sex workers and their clients come in and out of the rooms, day and night.

Long before the pandemic started, I was living a life in lockdown. We arrived in Britain in 2018 and have been waiting for our asylum application to be processed ever since then. Up until a few months ago, we were living on our own savings and were renting a private apartment, paying for my daughter’s nursery fees, paying our own bills and council tax.

Those savings have now run dry. Though we are willing and able to, my husband and I are not allowed to work while we wait to hear the result of our asylum application. We didn’t come here to steal people’s jobs or take their money. We want to live freely, to work and bring up our children. We have skills and we know we can contribute.

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I’m sitting on one of the two bunk beds we have in the room. They’ve been pushed together. We only sleep on the bottom of the bunk beds because we are too scared to sleep on the top. The baby’s Moses basket is right next to the gas cooker we cook our meals on. I’m always worried something hot will spill onto one of the kids.

One of the hardest things to deal with during the pandemic has been the lack of space. Lockdown was really bad for my daughter. There is no space in the room so she had to play on the bed but she can’t even stand up on it. She was crying a lot.

Still, that seems easy compared to the birth of my son. He was born prematurely, in May, by Caesarean section. But before I talk about that, I want to tell you how we got here.

I am from Syria, a country I had to leave after my father died, with the civil war raging around me. I moved to a refugee camp in Jordan and from there to the Gulf, where I met and married the man who later became the father of my children. My husband was offered a job in a western country. He applied for a visa for me twice but it was rejected both times because I am a Syrian national and as such was treated as a terrorist.

We faced a lot of hostility and racism – everywhere I went people judged me because I was a Muslim from Syria. My mental health suffered terribly and I even tried to take my own life. After that, my husband had to be with me all the time.

We went to the UK looking for safety and freedom, thinking that our right to life would be protected and that we could find some peace after years of trauma.

I became pregnant – it wasn’t planned. We didn’t want to go into Home Office accommodation. Every day I was getting more and more scared. I was 34 weeks pregnant, thinking: How can I bring a baby into the world to suffer like this? We had no choice but to apply for asylum support after waiting for almost two years and spending all our life’s savings here in the UK.

At the same time, lockdown began. Not only was I pregnant, I was sick – an ongoing illness I get in times of stress had returned, leaving me unable to move and relying on medication. My GP was in Norwich, but we were already being moved to London.

The first place the Home Office put us in was a hotel in the centre of the capital. We were on the third floor, there was no lift and we were sharing the toilet with another man, in the middle of COVID-19. The room was infested with bed bugs.

We had no cooking facilities and were given food but it was not fit for human consumption. The cheese was off, the bread was dry, everything was out of date. We even invited Home Office officials to come and taste the food once. My daughter couldn’t eat it and was suffering from weakness. This was just before I gave birth. We had no money at all.

I went into hospital because of my chronic illness and spent a week there. The fever was in my stomach and the doctors were worried. I tested negative for COVID-19. The doctor was trying to contact the Home Office to get me moved but they sent me back to the same hotel as even the doctors couldn’t reach them.

Between 35 and 37 weeks, the baby stopped growing, probably because of the stress. I was feeling so scared. We went back to the hotel and the next morning I went in early for a C-section. My husband was with me for the operation but because of the pandemic he was only allowed to be there for two hours. The baby was safely delivered and I spent the next two days alone in hospital. The doctors were very good to me and everyone was very nice.

I went back to the same hotel but was moved to the ground floor because I couldn’t get up the stairs. On the fourth day after my C-section, the Home Office told us we were being moved to another hotel, on the edge of London. I was in bed and couldn’t even hold my baby – all I could do was feed him and put him down. The sudden move was physically very difficult and stressful.

Again, we were being provided food but it was so bad we couldn’t eat it. This went on for almost three months. We were given no financial support at all so we couldn’t buy any food from outside. I was having to breastfeed without eating anything. My daughter asks for so many things I can’t give her.

A midwife has only visited me once since I gave birth. Although my medical records were transferred, I wasn’t contacted by the new health visitors for quite some time. The baby has only been weighed once outside the hospital.

Apparently the backlog of applications for asylum is much bigger because of coronavirus. The delay has trapped us. We didn’t come here to take charity, but here we are sitting on the third floor of a brothel, scared for our safety, wondering if things will ever get better, wondering how long we will be forced to exist like this.

[As told to Charlotte Threipland and Oscar Rickett. Some details have been changed.]

Click here to watch a short video about how one charity are helping vulnerable women giving birth during covid.

This story is part of our series The Unlawful State: Stories from a Pandemic where we lift up the voices of those whose lives are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus crisis. We also find out what civil society are doing about it. Click here for more.

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