This is another section from my work-in-progress exploring the refugee crisis past and present. The book explores the lives of three women – Lina, Caro and Tina. Lina is a young women living in the UK. It’s spring 2016 and she reads a news story about a young lesbian woman called Tina from Belarus who is imprisoned in Yarls Wood and facing deportation. Despite being beaten up and outed in her home country, the Home Office refuses to believe that Tina is gay. Outraged, Lina sends out a tweet asking if there’s a petition she can sign. When it turns out there isn’t one, she and two women she meets online set up a campaign to prevent Tina’s deportation. In this chapter, she and the two women (Salma and Kiki) travel to Yarls Wood to meet Tina. Yarls Wood is a detention centre that houses women refugees and asylum seekers. The descriptions of the building are based on footage from a Channel 4 News expose on the treatment of women detainees, and reports from the charity Women for Refugee Women .
At Yarls Wood
‘Oh my god,’ Lina says, as the taxi drove past the dilapidated barn-like structures stranded in the lush green fields. ‘It’s even worse than I imagined it to be. How can they be allowed to keep people in there?’
‘That’s not actually Yarls Wood,’ Salma says. ‘Those are just some barns.’
‘Oh,’ Lina replies. ‘Oh, right, of course’ She laughs. ‘What an idiot.’
Kiki laughed with her. ‘Yeah, Yarls Wood is pretty fucking horrendous but it’s not actually a shed. Look,’ she points at the official looking building with tiny barred windows speckling the cladding. ‘That’s it.’
‘I came to a protest here last year,’ Kiki says. ‘The women were trying to push their hands out of the windows to wave to us. The windows don’t fully open. So they were pushing their hands through this narrow crack. To let us know that they heard us.’
‘Why don’t the windows fully open?’ Lina asks.
Salma gave her a pointed look.
‘Oh,’ Lina says. ‘It really is a prison, isn’t it?’
Kiki laughs again. ‘It’s a joke, right? Like they are somehow protecting the public or the surrounding area from women who just want a safe home. That they need all this wire and shit to keep Britain safe from rape victims and FGM survivors.’
A shudder of cold terror shakes Lina’s slight frame as they drive through the first row of barbed wire fencing. It’s designed to scare me, she thinks. The whole building is designed to make you feel scared.
She squares her shoulders, pushes her fingers through her hair. So I won’t be, she determines. I won’t let them scare me.
‘Remember,’ Salma says, as they walk up to the front door. ‘We have a legal right to be here. They do not have a legal right to turn us away.’
Lina smiles meekly at the security guards, presenting them with the smile she hates, the smile that says she’s small and insignificant and won’t cause any fuss. Her voice takes on a higher register as she answers their questions, presenting her ID with a little, self-deprecating laugh, trying to make herself as helpful as possible. They tell her to stop smiling for the biometric scan and so she smiles at them before obeying. She smiles again as they search her bag until her cheeks ache with the effort of stretching her lips over her teeth. She starts to blush, becoming too self-conscious about her smile, and then she blushes even more at the worry that the initial blush makes her look guilty of some crime that only guards who treated rape victims like criminals could dream up.
She looks behind her at Salma. She’s not smiling. Her face is impassive. She doesn’t look meek and childish, but professional and adult. Kiki, meanwhile, is going one further than Salma and positively scowling. Lina thinks it’s only the possibility of being banned from seeing Tina that prevents Kiki from staging a complete revolt – unfurling an anarchist flag, singing the Internationale and smashing up the biometric scanner as a final act of rebellion.
The guard opens a cupboard jangling with a mess of keys. Lina steals a look around her – taking in the dull painted walls, the rows of chairs that resemble a hospital waiting room, the CCTV room lit up with screens that offer men unprecedented access to the minutiae of women’s lives. She notices the paint chipped on the door frames, rubs her foot against the squeaking linoleum floor. The place smells of cleaning fluid and canteen food and too many bodies.
‘Unbelievable,’ Salma mutters as they follow the diminutive guard with neatly-pinned up hair down the corridor to a barred gate with a heavy lock. A sign blared out in upper case sans serif font: LOCK IT. PROVE IT.
’It’s unbelievable,’ Salma repeats; the gate clanging shut behind her. ‘It’s like going into a prison. What do they think they’re doing, having all this? These women should be living out in the community. They’re no danger to anyone and yet this whole set-up is like visiting a violent high-security ward.’
Lina tries not to stare at the women queuing along the walls. Many are black, some Asian, some Middle-Eastern, some white. They were dressed in comfortable clothes or saris or traditional dress. Three younger women joke between each other, others stare silently ahead. One woman in a wheelchair rests her head in her hands. Lina feels a lump forming in her throat, tears pricking her eyelids.
The three follow the silent guard up the stairs, past a bright abstract print, the colours of which only served to highlight how dull and lifeless the centre was.
‘In here,’ the guard says, opening the door to the visitor’s room.
Sitting at the table was a young white woman, her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail with a velour scrunchie. Wearing blue jeans and a striped T-shirt, a much-worn cardigan pulled protectively around her, her face shines with confidence and charisma.
‘I’m Tina,’ she says, her voice warm with friendship as she stands and reaches out her hand. ‘It’s so good to meet you.’
The room is lit with strip lighting that gives everything in it a harsh glare, causing Lina to blink in discomfort. The scratchy wool coverings of the chairs are worn in places, the wooden arm rests starting to splinter. She takes hold of Tina’s hand. ‘I’m Lina,’ she says. ‘Thank you, so much, for meeting with us.’
‘Thank you so much for coming,’ Tina says, a smile revealing straight white teeth. ‘I’m sorry it’s not so nice here. And you have had to come a long way.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Kiki echoes. ‘Sorry that you have to live here.’
Tina shrugs, a nervous tic shuddering her right cheek. ‘Please,’ she says. ‘Sit down.’
‘I’m Salma, we emailed,’ Salma says, taking a seat and gesturing to Kiki and Lina to follow suit. ‘Are you still happy to talk to us about your situation? And we can talk to you about our plans, and find out from you how we can help?’
‘Yes,’ Tina says, nodding with energy. ‘Yes, that is what I want.’ She looks down at her hands, her cheek muscle convulsing again. ‘I thought I was all alone, before. And now you three women are here and I don’t know how to say thank you.’
‘Don’t thank us,’ Salma says. ‘Let’s see what we can do, first.’
Lina leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees. ‘Tina, we know what happened to you in Belarus,’ she says. ‘So you don’t need to tell us that again, if it is painful to you. But if you can tell us what you need, and if we can agree ways in which to get it…’ her voice trails off.
‘We think we can get press coverage for your case,’ Kiki takes over. ‘If you would agree to that.’
Tina looks up at the three of them. ‘Would press help me get a solicitor?’ she asks, pressing her hands tight together. ‘To represent me, so that they can prove I shouldn’t have to go back?’
‘You don’t have a solicitor?’ Lina asks, unable to hide the shock in her voice. Tina shakes her head. ‘Okay, well…’ Lina looks to Salma and Kiki. ‘That must be something we can help with.’
Salma nods. ‘Yes, absolutely. That is definitely something we can find out about.’ She flips open her iPad, types out a few things. ‘I know a charity that might be able to help with legal representation. But Tina, first, can you tell us a bit more about your situation here, and what you need.’
Tina nods, digs her knuckles into her eyes.
‘It is a hard thing,’ she says. ‘To talk about.’
‘I know,’ Kiki says. ‘So only tell us what you feel comfortable telling us. And we will only share what you feel comfortable sharing.’
Impossible, thinks Lina, her eyes already sore from the lights. Impossible, to feel comfortable telling anything in a place like this.
‘So you know,’ Tina says, ‘about Belarus. What happened to me there. It is a very hard thing to be gay in Belarus. You grow up knowing what fear is. But I can’t help it, you know?’ She smiles at them. ‘How can you help who you are? I was a teenager in Belarus and I like girls. That’s what happens. It is just something that happens.’
‘How did you feel,’ Lina asks. ‘When you realised you were gay?’
Tina shrugs. ‘I don’t know, I don’t know if I realised, it was just something that was part of me. I had crushes on girls, I knew I didn’t want to be married to a man, I wanted to be with a woman.’ She pauses, a cloud passing over her face. ‘I think it was realising that this was a bad thing in my country, that was the process of realisation. That it wasn’t as simple as knowing who I was and knowing how I felt. It was everyone else.’
Kiki nods. ‘What does it mean, then,’ she asks. ‘To be gay in Belarus.’
Tina laughs, rolling her big round eyes to the ceiling. Lina notices with distaste that some of the ceiling panels have patches of damp on them.
‘What doesn’t it mean!’ she cries. ‘You can’t get a job if people know you are gay, you lose your chance at education, you lose your friends, you lose your family – you lose everything. Imagine you are a teacher in Belarus and you are gay – no one will allow you to teach their kids.’ She pauses, rubs her knuckles into her eyes. ‘You know, they want to bring in a law that means you have to promote marriage – it’s like the law in Russia. You can’t have a gay teacher in a school when that is the law.’ She pauses again. ‘I had a place at university to study to be a teacher but I couldn’t go after the attack. I didn’t feel safe. I couldn’t go to the police. The police beat up gay people.’
The four sit in silence for a while. Tina opens her mouth to start to speak again, then closes it. They wait.
‘I fell in love,’ she says, her voice barely above a whisper. ‘Me and this girl. We were in love. And then her parents find out and they come after me. They accuse me of doing all sorts of things, that it was my fault about Barbara, that I had turned her or made her unnatural. They banned us from seeing each other. So I never saw her again.’ She looks up at them, and Lina can see the eyes that were so bright with welcome are now bright with tears. ‘Do you know how it feels, to be forced apart like that? For no reason? We were in love.’ She shakes her head, a bitter smile on her face. ‘We were in love,’ she repeats.
Salma shakes her head. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she says. ‘Was she the same girl who you were seen with?’
‘Yes,’ Tina says. ‘We saw each other in secret. We were careless but that’s what it’s like when you are in love, isn’t it? You don’t care about anyone else. You think you are invincible. But they knew about us, or, at least they knew about me. I didn’t know who these men were. They caught up with me, called me a lesbian bitch, hit and kicked me. Then they took down my trousers…’ She stops. ‘I passed out with the pain. When I woke up, they had gone and there were these scars on my legs. And all I could do, was go home.’ She pauses. ‘You understand, I couldn’t go to the hospital? Because then the police come… and then they can hurt you.’
Lina digs her nails into her forearm to stop herself from crying. She doesn’t want to cry. It is not for her to cry.
‘Three months after the attack I come here on holiday,’ Tina continues. ‘With my mother. I told her about my girlfriend, about Barbara. I told her about being gay. And my mother took my plane ticket home and left me here. That was the last time I saw her.’ She stops, covering her face with her hands. ‘That was the last time I saw my mother. She left me here and I never seen her again.’
‘What happened when your mother left?’ Salma asks.
‘I was so alone, I had no where!’ Tina continues, her voice rising with the indignation of it. ‘Then I meet some people… I had friends here that had come from Belarus before. I go to them. I made friends with a woman… I met her, she worked for a charity. It was her who told me to claim asylum. I’d been living here for a year, I got a job cleaning a restaurant, cash in hand. And no one had told me I needed to claim asylum. No one had told me that.’
She pauses, smiles at them again. ‘It was amazing,’ she says. ‘To see people like me living in the city, holding hands, kissing on the street. All the things I wanted for my life. No hiding, no shame. It was so freeing. Because that is what everyone wants, isn’t it? To live free, to be the person they know they are, the person they know they can be.’
Kiki nods. ‘You had never seen that in Belarus?’ she says.
Tina shakes her head. ‘Always hiding. And here, in London I mean, everyone free and loving.’ She pauses, presses her hands together. ‘Why should anyone be denied that? Surely we all have the right, to live and to love free.’ She looks up at Kiki. ‘Are you gay?’ she asks.
‘Yes,’ Kiki says. Lina smiles at her.
‘What was it like for you?’ Tina asks.
Kiki shrugs. ‘It was still scary, to tell my parents,’ she says. ‘But they got it straight away. They said they’d guessed. Everyone was really supportive. Even my Jamaican grandmother liked my last girlfriend. And you know, being gay in Jamaica…’ she tails off. ‘But no, nan said we should get married.’
Tina claps her hands together. ‘Why didn’t you?’
Kiki laughs. ‘Because she dumped me!’
‘Oh no!’ Tina says, giggling. ‘Well, you will find someone better.’ She pauses. ‘Where was I? So no one told me I needed to claim asylum. I had been here a year and no one told me until I met this woman, Sophie. And so I go to the Home Office.’ The muscle kicks in her cheek again. The laughter had stopped. ‘There is a man, and he wants to know what happened to me in Belarus.’ She looks up at the three women. ‘It is hard to tell to a man.’
Salma looks furious. ‘You are entitled to speak to a woman,’ she says. ‘They should have told you that.’
Tina shakes her head. ‘They don’t tell you anything,’ she says. ‘I have a friend here from Cameroon, she was raped. At the Border Control the man makes her tell him in front of everyone else in the queue. She ended up in here because she couldn’t tell him properly what happened.’
‘It makes me so angry,’ Salma says. ‘They are supposed to let you know your rights.’
‘It’s hard to tell a man,’ Tina repeats. ‘I try, but it’s hard. I can see he doesn’t believe me. Then there is another interview, this time with a man and a woman. They say that my story is inconsistent with what I told the first man. I shake my head, tell them no, this is what happened. They make me take off my trousers to show them the scars.’ She pushes her knuckles into her eyes. ‘That was very hard for me because it brought up all the memories. And they ask me again and again the same questions. Because they don’t believe me. They want me to make a mistake. They don’t understand that it is hard for me to remember because I passed out. It’s hard to remember when things are that frightening.’
‘Yes,’ Lina says. ‘It is.’
Tina stands up and walks over to the window. The sun is still bright outside, spring emerging in the trees beyond the barbed wire. ‘They say it is not a prison,’ she says. ‘But they count you in every day, and you are not allowed to open the windows. And all the time you hear keys.’
‘How do you feel, being here?’ Lina asks.
‘Yesterday a woman jumped from the stairwell,’ Tina says. ‘And was taken to the hospital. Last week a man walked into my room without knocking. The week before that I had a migraine, I keep having these headaches, and the doctor told me that I was lying and that migraines weren’t going to stop me from being deported. Last month they took a woman to the courts and she refused to go, so she took all her clothes off in protest. They took her anyway, in just her underwear.’ She turns back to face them. ‘That’s how it feels to be here.’
Photograph by Darren Johnson