Every morning, I look in the mirror and smile. I choose to be happy because I don’t want people to see my vulnerability, otherwise I know people will take advantage and wear me down.
For over two years now, I have been waiting for a decision on my asylum claim, to find out whether I will get refugee status and be free to live and work here. People at college tell me that I’m always happy and that’s what I want the world to see. Going there to learn has kept me sane, it’s a way of making me see that I can be somebody.
The reality is that asylum is like a prison. You’re tied down, you don’t have any say of your own, no freedom.
My childhood in Nigeria was a happy one, until my father suffered a stroke that left him paralysed. We moved to a rural part of the south where my parents were from, so that family could help my mother look after my father and us. After his death from a second stroke, she soon fell ill and died too. We then saw the ugly side of our relatives, who blamed us for our father’s death and said we were witches. We were forced to go through some gruesome experiences, rituals that scarred me physically and mentally. They told me that I had to get married and forced me to go through female genital mutilation (FGM), in readiness for the ceremony. The man was far older than me and my sister and I decided to run away to Lagos.
We stayed with a friend of my father’s. They were a kind and welcoming family, but didn’t have money to support us. I worked in a Buka, a small restaurant, washing dishes and serving food. It was the owner, an older woman, who heard my story and said “I can help you”. She said she’d bring me to the UK where I could get a job and send money back to look after my sister, who was just 11 at the time. I decided to trust her.
After we landed at Heathrow, I was taken to a house in south-east London. The woman who had brought me to the UK make me swear an oath that I would never betray her. She made me drink something and made incisions to my private parts. She told me I would work to pay back the money I owed her and if I tried to run away, she would kill my sister.
For almost eight years, I was sold to men, passed around like a slab of meat. I was abused, hit and spat at. There was no escape, we weren’t allowed out alone, I had no money and nowhere to go.
Eventually, there was an opportunity to run and I took it. I was finally free from my traffickers, but I found it very difficult to go out. I felt like they were still watching me. In Nigeria, we grew up with idea of Juju, like Voodoo. I had taken an oath not to betray her, that I would die if I was not loyal and obedient. My relatives had said I would not amount to anything, that I was cursed. I believed them. Those voices lived with me for many years.
I met the man who would become the father of my children at a party. We started dating and after a year, I moved in with him. Coming from a place where it had been so cold and loveless, meeting someone who was kind and loving was the best feeling.
When the abuse started, I stayed. We were together for eight years.
But as my son and daughter got older, I knew I had to leave. I was worried that they would grow up thinking it was normal for men to abuse women. I didn’t want my daughter to believe that women are worth less. Or for my son to see his father hitting his mum and think it was ok.
The last time he hit me, my daughter did not see, but she heard everything. I left him. He would still come to visit the children. But after three years, he came less and less, and eventually stopped.
I took some advice about my immigration status and in November 2015 applied for asylum and to be recognised as a victim of trafficking. We were moved to Bradford in December. I thought that once I went to the Home Office things would be better and I wouldn’t have to fear anything anymore.
But you can’t work and you can’t provide for yourself, there is a lot of anxiety about what will happen next. There was a time when I would just stare at the floor, waiting for the mail to come, for the letter from the Home Office. It helps to keep busy, I go to college and to Refugee Action’s families support group, which helps us see that we’re not the only ones. Counselling has been a big help and I feel like I can deal with life. Sometimes I do wish I had a magic wand and I could just change things. I’ve been a captive for too long.
But I’m not going to let everything I’ve been through ruin my life. My daughter is now nine and my son is seven, I want to be a role model for them. There are people out there who still don’t know what FGM is, that trafficking and modern slavery exist in this country. My greatest hope is that I will get a positive decision and be able to work for my family and put my mind to good use, contribute to society.
*Rose is a pseudonym to protect her identity. Rose is sharing her story as part of Refugee Action’s campaign for a fair and effective system for people who seek protection in the UK, #StandUpForAsylum. For more information visit www.refugee-action.org.uk/standupforasylum.