Rebel soldiers came when I was a young girl in Uganda. My two brothers were taken away; my father resisted and was killed. I was left alone with my mother, who had diabetes but couldn’t get any medical treatment. She died when I was 15.
I had to leave school because I had no money, and so I married a boy who was a soldier. For me, as a woman then, it was the only way to be protected.
Much later, we moved to Rwanda: in 1996, two years after the genocide, by which time I had three children. My husband became a big shot under the new government, in the protection unit with Bizimungu.
When the interim government was toppled by Kagame, my husband came under suspicion. On one fateful night they came and he was cuffed, beaten and taken away for good.
There were rapes, beatings, lootings. My daughter and I were both badly affected. She was twelve years old.
I called a friend of my husband who me took us in, and got medical treatment for my daughter. But it wasn’t safe for me to leave the house. I had to make this terrible decision: to leave this friend to look after my children. Being with them would attract attention. The only way for me to be safe and for my children to be safe was to leave them behind, find a safe place and then bring them to safety.
I travelled through Tanzania on a truck, dressed like a Somali, on a fake passport. In Nairobi, I got a plane at night and then landed at Heathrow. I went to Cardiff and claimed asylum there. That was in 2002. You can imagine, coming from Africa, how strange it seemed. It took me six months to make any progress in finding my children. The number I had to call for my husband’s friend was dead – I didn’t know how to go about tracing them at all. A friend from Uganda went to Rwanda and found the government had also taken my husband’s friend. And no one knew where the children were.
It took three years before I had news that they were alive.
Around that same time, my asylum application was refused. I was arrested and put in a police cell for four days, without a shower. They asked me to sign some papers: I refused. If I had signed they would have removed me from the country and taken me – God knows where. Because I refused to sign I was put in detention.
The Home Office said you can go back to Uganda. You can relocate. They put me in detention ready for removal in 2005. I had no papers. I said: what proof do you have? Where are you taking me? They took me to the Ugandan embassy but having married a Rwandan man, I had forfeited Ugandan citizenship, and they would not issue papers. So I was put back in detention.
It was only for three months, not long compared to other people, before I was released while appealing for leave to remain. I was lucky, I got a solicitor,
In 2007 I spoke to my children for the first time. They had been hungry; my daughter had tended for her siblings, fetching water, selling goods, trying to get food. I had to arrange for someone to get them from Rwanda, to take them in. It’s terrible not to know how your children are eating, what they are going through. I left my children when they were young, now they are teenagers. Before the war they had never suffered; and now they had suffered, alone.
My girl is really traumatised. She’s 20, an adult now, but there is no counselling out there, and she won’t speak. My elder son is 18, at uni now in Kampala, and the third is 16 – doing well, but I don’t know how long this person is going to keep them. I can’t have them; I can’t be with them; but now I’m the only relative living for them.
I can’t go back to Rwanda; I can’t go to Uganda. Last year I got my status, after five years of trying. I have leave to remain, but outside immigration rules. And that means I can’t be with my children. To have a chance, I would have to rent a three-bedroom house on my own, and get a job paying over £20,000.
So now I’m fighting for the right to family reunion. At least I have hope – I have a solicitor, at least I am hopeful that if I win that case I could see my children. I can’t function without my children: I am broken in half.
This is my story but this is also the story of so many women. We’ve got a self-help group at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town, helping women like me with their cases. It’s really very hard because legal aid has been cut. Only three women out of 40 there have managed to find legal aid – and one has won the right to bring her children.
We check up on each other so we know quickly if someone has been put in detention, and we help them to get advice if they are taken away. There are legal clinics in detention but they don’t help much. Most women who are in detention are rape survivors coming from war torn countries, they are traumatised – they have been through hell! What can they do?
If you are an asylum seeker you’re not allowed to work. You can’t afford a lawyer and can’t represent yourself – the law is so complicated. So now we get together and read the cases, see what the solicitor did wrong, lobby MPs and put in a fresh claim – and sometimes we have won!
I think most people don’t know what we are going through. We are mothers, like any other mother. We love, we live to be there to protect our children, but we can’t. There should be some changes - for heaven’s sake.
If they could only allow me to be with my children, so we could be a happy family again … Maybe that would heal all my wounds.
As told to Gwyn Topham, the Guardian, for Migrant Voice