Ghada, a refugee from Iraq, fled her home country in 2007. She had been persecuted for working with foreigners and promoting women's rights. Here's an account of her experience of the UK asylum system.
"I sought asylum in the UK on my second day in the country. I didn't ask for asylum when I landed at the airport because I was scared they would send me back. I was also very tired and not in the right mental state. Going to my first screening interview was one of the worst experiences of my life. The people who interviewed me first - I could see, I could feel they didn't know anything about my country, where I came from, who I am. They ask you questions. They take a photo and give you a card which identifies you as an asylum seeker. They put on it that you're not permitted to work and the date of your arrival. They ask if you need money, where you're staying, if you need a place in a hostel for asylum seekers. I think after this experience I was even more sick. Coming from Iraq, being persecuted there and coming here to the UK, I was expecting it to be a more friendly place. But the Home Office people were very, very cold. I thought, 'What am I doing here?' I left my family, I risked my life, I risked everything to come here to be treated like that - but I didn't have a choice.
Everything depends on the first interview. They ask what language do I speak? Do I need an interpreter? But they don't ask if I need counselling, if I'm OK, because the person interviewing me is a man. I told them some information but I couldn't tell them everything. I had just arrived and I didn't want to relive being threatened, having to flee my country, the long journey here. But you are expected to reveal everything. A lot depends on how the person in front of you makes you feel. I think they just wanted to do the job and go home. You could come for a political reason, you could have been raped, traumatised, tortured but I didn't see any specially trained person to talk to you. That was the first contact with the government. They make you feel that you broke the law, you're a criminal. I was thinking I didn't do anything wrong in my life, I was just trying to get to safety. It was actually very hard to come here. I left all my family behind, and I felt so guilty. They were in danger because of me and I knew that but I had to leave. If anything happened to them I would never forgive myself. But the UK system makes you think you're accused. You need to prove everything 100 times over.
When you're an asylum seeker you are not allowed to work, so I went for courses, I volunteered, just to try to feel I was still alive. I was only given a weekly allowance of 37 pounds. What are you going to do with that? Nothing. During this time, through legal aid, the Home Office appoints you a solicitor - in my case, someone who was not even there or free to see me. You call them but they're not in the office, they don't know anything about your case. In the end I had to write my statement by myself. And all the time my case was handed over from one to another person at the Home Office.
When I went for my second, longer interview, I was told I needed an interpreter even though I speak English and said I was uncomfortable about who they might assign to me. Maybe it would be someone from my country. I didn't know - because they didn't tell me - that I could have asked for a woman and someone who spoke my dialect. As it turned out the interpreter was a man whose English wasn't good enough. He couldn't understand my dialect and I could see him starting to give me these looks, judging me and starting to put his spin on my story. I didn't feel safe with him. At the end of the interview, I started crying. I thought I just wasted my chance just because of this person. After that, I received a letter from the Home Office saying my asylum application had been refused.
After the refusal, I got my own solicitor. We went to appeal. My court-appointed interpreter didn't show up. The judge wanted to postpone, but I asked him to continue. I said, 'I want to finish this'. If this drags on I'll be exhausted like those asylum seekers whose cases go on for years. So we started. It was so hard. I felt like I was on trial - the judge, solicitor and Home Office all hammering questions. The Home Office made all these assumptions, saying I was a liar and they didn't believe me. I was thinking if only they could come to Baghdad and spend just one hour there. They knew, because it was all over the news, that even until today there's no peace in my country. No one feels safe. The war has created hatred and frustration and kidnapping and killing and torturing and raping.
I waited a month to get a letter from the judge. I couldn't believe it. I had been granted asylum. It was like someone had given me my life back ... and then the Home Office appealed the decision. I was devastated. I just wanted my life to end. I said, 'This is not happening'. This whole process takes five, six months - you can't eat, you can't sleep, you don't know how your life is going to end up. In the end, the judge upheld his decision to grant me asylum and I was finally given leave to remain in November 2008. I was lucky because I was educated and knew my rights and demanded them. Without that, it would have taken years and years.
After you're granted asylum you get a letter terminating the complete package of support - money and accommodation. I was given 28 days to leave the hostel for asylum seekers where I had been staying. I thought, 'What? Where am I going to go? I have no money. I said if I have to leave the hostel, I will sleep in the streets. I will be homeless'. They said, 'That's got nothing to do with us. You wanted asylum, you got asylum, you have to fend for yourself'. I took my bag and tried to find a place in a hostel or shelter. I was very, very vulnerable. To rent a small room required one month's deposit and one month's rent - and references from previous landlords. You can apply for housing benefit, but to get that you need a fixed address. I could have ended up on drugs, in prostitution because men offered me a place to stay, but with strings. Staying in the refugee hostel, you see all these refugees and how frustrated they are. You don't see any life in them. When you leave, when you have something they don't have, they all envy you for it, and then you leave, you leave for what? You leave for the street.
Eventually I found a full-time, paid job. For the first couple of years after getting asylum, I concentrated on living life and it was important to live life, to feel part of this country. It's an amazing feeling. You feel you're integrated into society. I don't feel like I'm an asylum seeker. I don't feel stamped with that as I did before. I also felt it was important to give something back and help other women like me, so I got in touch with Women for Refugee Women, a charity. They had this programme for women who had gone through the asylum process. A group of us got together and told our stories. It made my experience seem like nothing. I thought, 'Wow, I respect you all. How did you manage, all of you?' And yet all of them are very successful now, starting their own charities, their own projects, even their own families and getting on with life."
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