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Mabel: Released, After Three Years In Yarl's Wood

09/05/2017 12:57 BST | Updated 09/05/2017 12:57 BST

After just short of three years in Yarl's Wood Immigration Detention Centre, Mabel Gawanas has been released.

"The Home Office think we are statues, or ornaments, to be kept here, but we are human," she told me when I visited her earlier this year. Mabel, who was nicknamed 'Queen of Yarl's Wood', was one of the longest-held detainees, despite the fact that she has a 7 year old daughter, living in London.

Having met Mabel many times in passing when I was visiting other women in Yarl's Wood, I decided to book a visit with her and speak to her properly. Mabel likes to speak to the press and to campaign groups and told me, "when I get out of here, I'm going to be on the BBC!" Mabel became well-known during her lengthy detention, conducting media interviews via telephone from inside Yarl's Wood. At every demo outside the notorious centre, which has been dogged by scandal since it opened in 2001, and which was declared 'a place of national concern' by HM Inspectorate of Prisons in 2015, a huge banner read FREE MABEL GAWANAS.

Growing up in Namibia, Mabel was sexually abused as a child, and recounted how she was passed "from uncle to uncle". She would run away from the house where she was staying, but having nowhere to go, would have to go back. When Mabel was a baby her mother killed herself by pouring petrol on herself and setting herself on fire. As for the man she refers to as "my so-called father", he was a freedom fighter, and as far as Mabel knows, died in Angola.

Having had a child in Namibia, she eventually managed to escape to the UK in 2006, but had to leave her daughter, Maya, behind. However, once in the UK she was treated as a slave, escaping only to enter into an abusive relationship with a man. She had another daughter, but was separated from her when she was sent to prison in 2011.

Mabel had been sleeping rough and had been prevented from seeing her daughter. Desperate to see her, and, not surprisingly, suffering with mental health problems, Mabel took four pieces of paper from a sheaf of poems she had written, set them alight and put them through the letterbox at the house where her ex-partner and her daughter were living. For this Mabel served 15 months in Holloway Prison.

Unlike many foreign nationals who have been convicted of crimes and spent time in prison, Mabel wasn't transferred directly from prison to immigration detention. She was released from Holloway in November 2012, but on 12th May 2014 she was sent to Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, in Bedfordshire.

Mabel's ex-partner told her daughter's school that her mother had died; he told her daughter that Mabel was in a 'care home'.

"My daughter wrote to me, 'how is the care home?' I wrote back to her, I'm not in a care home, this is a detention centre!" Mabel smiled.

When Mabel first arrived at Yarl's Wood she saw a piece of paper that detainees had stuck on the wall, commemorating the life of Christine Case, who had died at Yarl's Wood in early 2014. Case, who had complained of chest pains, had been given paracetamol by G4S healthcare inside Yarl's Wood, only to collapse and die of a heart attack hours later.

"When I saw that," said Mabel, "I thought, I have to be strong in this place."

And strong Mabel has been. Despite the fact that her life story illustrates she has not been shown much care herself - quite the opposite - she became a mother figure to many women in Yarl's Wood, who came to her for comfort and advice. Some of the women had been in and out of Yarl's Wood three times whilst Mabel was continually detained. "They come back and they say, hey, Mabel, you're still here!"

There were several attempts to deport Mabel; on one occasion she stripped naked and hid in a room which was disused due to being overrun with bedbugs. On another occasion, she was handcuffed and on board a plane, about to take off, when a fellow passenger asked her name. "Mabel Gawanas?" the passenger repeated. "People are protesting about you out there", they told her, in reference to the demonstrators who had gathered at the airport. With that, Mabel began her own protest and was removed from the plane and returned to Yarl's Wood.

When I met her, she was carrying a hand-written petition, asking for the release of a woman who had been transferred to Bedford Hospital having had a stroke in Yarl's Wood. She had already amassed over 80 signatures from amongst the other detainees.

Having been in detention for so long, Mabel had many astute observations to make about some of the Serco guards whose job it was to keep her detained.

She recounted how "one officer called me into the room he was in. 'Don't think because we are working here,' he told me, 'that we don't care. I have respect for you.'"

How did you feel about him saying that, I asked?

"I don't want their pity," she said simply. "I avoid the officers as much as I can."

"Old officers take advantage of new ones," she told me. "Old officers push new officers onto the front line, before they're ready. Some people, they're here a month and then they don't come back."

At the time of my visit, Mabel had been refusing to eat any of the food from the Yarl's Wood canteen, as part of her protest about her lengthy incarceration.

"On Monday, I was in the library when a manager came and said 'I need to speak to you, Mabel.' I shouted back, "What for?" He came and put a chair next to mine and wanted to talk about why I had stopped eating. I told him "I eat chocolate, drink tea, and sometimes I smoke."

She talked of her future with hope. "I want to be a mother to both of my children. I want to have a normal life like everybody else. I don't ask for much. I want to help people, become a human rights lawyer, and help people who can't help themselves."

"When I am released," she told me, "I will be so happy. But I will have mixed feelings, because I will be sad about the girls I leave behind."

"I want to be released in the day," she stated firmly. "So I can go and collect my daughter at the school gates. So everyone will see my daughter has a mother."

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