First person

15 January 2008

Waiting for asylum in Glasgow

Fleeing from the war in Somalia, Sofia sought refuge in Britain. She has been raped, left destitute on the streets of Glasgow, is HIV-positive, and cannot find her two daughters, whom she believes may yet be stranded in Somalia. Six years after her arrival Sofia is still waiting for a decision by the British government as to whether she will be granted refugee status. Meanwhile, she lives out a precarious existence in a run-down block of flats and volunteers to work with the stream of refugees that continues to flow into Glasgow. Here, she tells her story.

I was raped twice in Somalia and I fled from the war. The government don’t recognise the tribe I am from as part of the country. I was forced to leave my two daughters behind and an agent brought me to Britain in 2002. He brought me to Glasgow. I didn’t speak any English at that time and he told me not to speak to anyone. 

He took me to a hotel and raped me. I didn’t know what time of the day it was when he told me we had to leave the hotel; he told me he needed to check if the place where we were supposed to be going to was open. He bought me a cup of tea and told me to wait on some steps in the street. I waited for over an hour, but I knew he wasn’t going to come back. 

Then I saw a woman who I thought might speak my language. Luckily she understood me. She took me to the Refugee Council where I received help. They found me a place to live and helped me with my claim for refugee status. 

It was when I went to see a doctor that I discovered I was HIV-positive. I felt so sick; it was like I was dying. I just wanted to be with my daughters. Now I am on drugs to keep me healthy, but they make me bloated.

I had been in my accommodation for six months when I was called to an interview at the Home Office: my claim for asylum was rejected. The National Asylum Support Service cut all my support and I was left with nowhere to live and no money. It was too dangerous for me to return to Somalia – it still is.

From this moment I was destitute. I didn’t know where to go. I couldn’t stay with the friends I had made because they were refugees on support and were prohibited from having anyone to stay in their accommodation. With nowhere to go I spent my days drifting around the city. Some friends risked their own security and let me spend the night with them, but I could only go to them late in the evening and I had to leave early the next day to make sure no one knew I was staying there. Thanks to my friends I was able to eat. 

After two months of living like this, I was told about a charity called Positive Action in Housing, who help refugees who have been made destitute. I went to them and they found somewhere for me to stay for a few days. They put me in contact with a lawyer who helped me apply for a type of support called Section 4. It’s the only help left for an asylum-seeker whose application is refused under the case for human rights. They also gave me some money to buy food. 

While my case for Section 4 support was in progress I was still destitute. Positive Action in Housing arranged for a volunteer to accommodate me; I stayed with her for almost two months. I’m so grateful to her as I would have had nothing while I was waiting for my claim to come through. During this time I began to volunteer for the Citizens Advice Bureau and also in the office of Positive Action in Housing. 

Eventually I was granted Section 4 support. It gives me accommodation and £35 in vouchers each week to spend in ASDA supermarket only. I’m a Muslim and I can’t buy Halal food in this supermarket. Sometimes I can’t find the right size clothes in ASDA either: I need a winter coat and I can’t find one to fit. 

I had been in my accommodation in the YMCA for a year when they said they had to remove all the single people from the building to make room for families. They moved me to a different area of Glasgow where I was the only refugee in a whole block of flats. My flat was firebombed twice and I experienced terrible racial harassment. I lived in fear for my life. I reported the incidents, but it took one year for the authorities to find me somewhere else to live. 

Although I had this horrifying experience, I have seen relations between locals and refugees improving in the past few years in Glasgow. Many local people in Scotland are very supportive of refugees.

I don’t know when I will be granted my status as a refugee. I have a family – my daughters, who are now 18 and 21 – and I also have brothers. I don’t know where they are. Sometimes, when I think of my girls, I feel like I’m going crazy; I can’t sleep at night. If I could work I would have more access to organisations that could help me find them. At the moment I can’t travel out of Glasgow (to London, for example) to begin my search. 

While I am waiting for my case to be resolved, I spend my time doing volunteer work: I volunteer for the British Red Cross and provide orientation for new refugees arriving in Glasgow. I also volunteer at the day surgery in the YMCA – again helping new refugees and giving them advice. Some people arrive with no clothes, so I take them to a charity shop to help them find things to wear. I also volunteer as an interpreter for refugees arriving from Somalia.

It has been six years now since I arrived in the UK. I come from a country where there is war and I can’t go back. I am still waiting to be recognised as a refugee; only then I will be able to work and create a life – and find my children.

• Sofia, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was interviewed by Ann Scholl.

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