By Jess Anslow, Coordinator of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders.
Visiting women who are being indefinitely detained in Yarl’s Wood IRC is challenging.
It is challenging because you witness injustice. Injustice coming from a country that is known and admired across the world for its justice. There is justice in the criminal courts, and justice for victims of violence and justice for the wrongly accused being set free. Yet when it comes to Immigration detention, there is no justice…well not that I can find anyway.
“You there! Yes you, foreigner! You are guilty until you can prove to me otherwise. You are guilty of lying about the murder of your son; about your sexuality; about your rape.”
Sounds absurd doesn’t it. But this is the reality for immigration detainees, for thousands of men and women who come to this country hoping for safety and respect. Unfortunately, rather than respect and safety, they get labelled a liar and are detained.
Our natural instinct when we meet someone in need is to try and help, try to solve their problem. But, for many of us who visit IRCs do not have the answers and may not be able to help in the way the detainee wants. This I find challenging. Being a befriender is about recognising your limitations and being comfortable and committed to the simple task of listening.
Visiting women who are being indefinitely detained at Yarl’s Wood IRC is emotional.
It is emotional because you sit with her, hold her hand and wipe away her tears. You listen to her past experiences, and share her pain. You hear her voice breaking as she talks about her children that have been taken from her by social services due to her detention, and about children left behind.
‘Befriending’ creates a really special relationship. You visit someone for the duration of their detention and may therefore be seeing that same person every week for a very long time. They may see each other more than the befriender see’s their own family. My role is different, as I generally only meet a detainee a couple of times before passing them on to a befriender. But, there are those women that I have met where real and long-lasting friendships have formed.
One of the things I find hardest is seeing the deterioration of your friend’s mental health and wellbeing. It never gets easier.
Many of the women have experienced rape, domestic violence and torture, yet it seems that being detained is the thing that is slowly destroying them. After all that they have been through, it is the cruelness of indefinite detention that they find the hardest to cope with.
I remind myself that although her story is not my story and her experiences are uniquely her own, that it is OK to cry.
It is OK to feel frustrated to the point of bursting. It is OK to get emotional.
Visiting women who are being indefinitely detained at Yarl’s Wood IRC is inspiring.
Every day I am inspired by their bravery. They inspire me to live a life of kindness and to continue to walk the path of peace and justice. I try to put myself in their shoes, and to imagine living the life they have lived, and I wonder how I would cope. Not half as well as they have done I am sure.
I imagine myself as a woman the same age as me, but having not been afforded the privilege of being born in a quiet English town, to a good family and given access to free education. Instead, I was born and raised in abject poverty; kidnapped; sold into sexual slavery; forced to take hard drugs and contracted HIV. I somehow find the courage to run away from my abusers, and come to the UK for safety. This in itself is hard enough to bear, and then I find myself detained, under lock and key, with absolutely no idea as to when I will be allowed to return to the place I call home – if ever.
No, I wouldn’t cope at all.
We are aware that long term detention causes a plethora of mental health issues, notably depression and anxiety, and yet, even through the darkness that engulfs them, the detainees that I meet are managing to cope; sometimes it is easy, but more often than not, it takes guts and the strong will to survive.
Inside Yarl’s Wood IRC, there is such a strong sense of community, of sisterhood. Women from all countries are living together, supporting one another, and encouraging each other. This inspires me.
Knowing that the women sitting across from me with her hair done up, her make-up on and a smile across her face, is actually feeling like a shadow of her former self; inside she is wailing, she is struggling to breathe, she is vulnerable. Yet, she manages to show me the strength that brought her here and to hold her head up high. This inspires me… She inspires me.
And on the next table, a woman that is speaking so openly and is physically showing her pain, crying out to be touched. She has been stripped of those social barriers that teach us to be strong. She too inspires me.
When I sing, I sing for them.
When I speak, I speak of them.
When I shout, I am shouting about them.
Befriending is challenging, emotional work and we do it for them.