Image by Vee Travers, a volunteer with the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders

This piece is written by Ali Brumfitt about their experience visiting as a volunteer befriender for Yarl’s Wood Befrienders (YWB). Ali now works part time as volunteer coordinator for YWB.

In February I woke up one morning to find it had snowed heavily overnight. The wind had blown the snow drifts about in garden and made pretty patterns. I grabbed my phone to take a snap and message it to a friend who had told me earlier that week she had never seen snow. As soon as I had the phone in my hand I remembered ‘of course I can’t send her a message, her phone can’t receive pictures.’

My friend was in Immigration Detention at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. People in detention are not allowed smart phones. She had an old phone which makes it hard to even send and receive text messages. I decided I would call her later to ask if she had seen the snow out of her window.  I hoped there would be a hint of a smile in her voice. I would have called straight away but she would not be up. She had not been sleeping well. Nobody sleeps well at Yarl’s Wood. In the day, there are distractions, people to talk to. At night people are locked on their wing, so can’t visit friends in other areas of the Centre.

Everyone who has ever had a problem knows the night is when they stalk. I remember the darkest times of my life, when I have laid awake at night with worries. I can’t imagine having worries the size my friend has to carry. I don’t think I would be strong enough. I can’t get my head around how I would cope if I were locked up, with no idea when I might be released. How would I feel if the weight of the legal system was pushing on me to try and force me out of the country? How would it feel to tell a story of tragedy and abuse over and over and over, only to be disbelieved over and over and over?

The next day I was worried the snow would prevent me from visiting. Thankfully the roads were passable. I am glad my friend is well enough for a visit, recently she has had to cancel because she has not been well enough. I had been visiting for several months. Every week a little bit more hope seemed to be squeezed out of her. I was scratching around for places to find hope. We talked about an impending bail hearing. I would make some calls to check people are coming. I would talk to the lawyer and make sure everything was in place. It seemed so little.

We talked more about the snow. My friend told me that the winter here is like summer where she is from, except a different colour. In the UK in winter there are no leaves on the trees, not much growing and the weather is too harsh to go out. Where she is from it is like that in the summer, but it is dust that covers everything and not snow. It was one of only the few times we talked about where she is from.  She often said reading the news about where she had fled from made her afraid. She fled here to save her life. To save her life and build a new life. And the Home Office locked her up.

So we talk about snow. I mean, I am British. When conversation is difficult, you can rely on the British to talk about the weather. She told me some people went into the yard to try and make a snowman, but the yard is small and there wasn’t enough snow. She is glad of the coat that the Befrienders provided for her. People often arrive at detention without enough clothes. People have told us of managing with broken bra straps and having to rinse out the same pair of knickers and wear them every day.  Befrienders are able to provide people with basic items: socks, knickers, tracksuits, trainers. It can help people feel a bit more comfortable and a bit more human.

The next day my friend calls. She is checking in on me. I had mentioned my pipes were frozen and she wants to make sure I am okay in the snow. I am always astounded how often she asks after other people’s wellbeing, despite the weight of her own situation. I am so often inspired by the way that women I meet in detention keep hold of their compassion and care for others, despite so little having been shown to them.  

My friend was released from detention earlier this year. The journey does not end after detention. Detention changes people. It adds more trauma onto any trauma a person is already carrying. And then there is the stress of any ongoing legal process.

The Home Office have now granted my friend leave to remain.

If it snows this year perhaps we will go for a walk in the snow with my dog, Colin, together? My friend knows Colin and often asks after him. Things are very different now. Although, I suspect I will still receive a phone call to ask how I am managing in the cold and whether my pipes are frozen.