‘We are just trying to survive’: Female asylum seekers in Manchester create play to help ‘change perceptions’

The women of Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) are united by a common past.

They are children of civil war and survivors of oppression. They escaped corruption, tyranny and instability the likes of which many will never witness.

But most importantly, they are people – ordinary people – and they are still fighting.

Many of the women of WAST are stuck in purgatory, waiting in an indeterminate state for the acceptance of a country they have been forced to look to for security.

WAST provides support for women during this process as well as a secure place for women to talk about the problems affecting them.

Mariatu Sesay fled Sierra Leone after the outbreak of a still-fearsome civil war.

Political instability spilled over the Liberian border in the early-90s, where a brutal civil war raged aggravating Sierra Leone’s own on-going socio-economic troubles and fanning the flames of war.

Mariatu arrived in the UK in 2001 and was greeted with years of insecurity and uncertainty.

“It’s like a limbo, you don’t know what’s going to happen the next day or what’s going to happen the day after that,” she told MM.

“The worst part is the day goes very quickly. Your life is going and you’re getting older, every day you wake up and it’s another day, another day has gone past you without doing anything.

“You are just trying to survive, trying to get somewhere, trying to find a lawyer.

“We all get together in WAST, that’s why this place is really very important for people.”

Lydia Besong, writer of WAST’s upcoming play Still We Rise – intended to promote awareness of the daily and seemingly endless struggles of  female asylum seekers in the UK – left her native Cameroon after her protests against an authoritarian government brought persecution and jail time.

Lydia said the asylum process isn’t straightforward and often doesn’t work as it probably should.

Upon her arrival in the UK in 2006, she had hoped and expected to be treated as the UN charter dictates.

But instead of being granted refugee status, Lydia was detained.

In 2009 and again in 2012, she was taken to the now notorious and controversial Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, which is now the focus of one of WAST’s campaigns – using #SHUTDOWNYARLSWOOD to call for its closure.

Unlike many others at WAST Lydia has now been granted asylum. However, she continues to use her art to fight for the rights of other asylum seekers by raising awareness.

Lydia said: “It’s not easy if you can’t find a group like WAST. There are so many asylum seekers who have been waiting for years in limbo and they don’t know what is happening. They don’t have what we have.

“The day I discovered WAST, it was like I’d discovered a family – a place where I can feel free. It makes you feel strong.

“It makes you have that resilience with the other women, to fight for justice.”

Lydia said that women find companionship and community at WAST and that when they are there, they finally realise that they are not alone.

Now settled in Manchester with her husband and children, Lydia continues to campaign for the rights of others, raising awareness with her writing.

To Lydia, awareness of the struggles of asylum seekers is vital yet lacking in the UK, the media depictions of asylum seekers are often all that the public have to form their perceptions.

 But she believes these depictions are inaccurate.

“They say we come here for the good life, we come here to take the houses and jobs,” she said.

But, upon seeing them on stage and hearing their stories, Lydia has said people change their minds, realising that the life of an asylum seeker is nothing be envious of – it is one of toil, uncertainty and trouble.

“This is not just any fiction,” she said.

“It’s true stories, it is our stories.

“They are not acting up on stage, these are real stories, and this is what they are going through.

“It is telling the truth, letting them know, this is what we are.

“Doing the play, it is like: ‘I am not shy, this is a human right, I am an asylum seeker. I didn’t have a choice, I had to save my life and I am not ashamed.’

“I don’t blame the public. But the media and the politicians, sometimes when there is a big things coming up, they use it to divert people’s attention.

“If you want to talk about economic migrants, talk about them and if you want to talk about asylum seekers, talk about them.

“If we do the play and people come then maybe that perception will change.”

Lydia highlighted how little choice an asylum seeker has in the choice of destination – they have no time to be picky nor do they have the option to choose, they are simply people trying to save themselves and their families from dire situations in the countries of their birth.

Like Mariatu, Dianne Ngoza has been in the UK since 2001.

She fled civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a child and now in the UK relies on WAST for support, particularly as she finds herself homeless.

“All I remember of my country was war,” she said.

“All I can remember is the sounds of guns in my ears.”

Dianne fled to Zambia with her aunt and uncle aged just 6, where she grew up before moving on to South Africa and then Britain.

She said: “People don’t want to know what is going on with asylum seekers because they don’t want to get involved.

“When they see you they seem to be sympathetic but after a few moments they go on with their lives, they forget about you. The moment you talk to them about asylum seekers they get scared.

“The media doesn’t help, they just make things worse and this is what the media want because they want people to think that we are here for benefits, we are here to get the British jobs.

“That’s what they want the people to believe and most of the people they just take that in and they don’t want anything to do with asylum seekers.

“Most of the time it’s just about selling their stories – the media want to tell people what the people want to hear.

“They think people want to hear bad things that are happening. But if they say something good about asylum seekers, they think the public won’t be interested in reading that.”

The group worry that the way that asylum seekers are frequently presented as no different from other forms of migrant blurs the boundaries of very distinct debates.

Asylum seekers are frequently criticised for taking British jobs or benefits even though they are legally not allowed to work and are not included in the benefits system, instead being forced to live off weekly allowances of just £25.

They accuse politicians of using asylum seekers to deflect blame for problems such as the housing crisis, choosing to blame surges in the incoming population instead of looking at their own policies.

“Instead of explaining the asylum system they just pump – in the way that Donald Trump does – simple solutions and answers,” says WAST volunteer, Vicky Marsh.

“Instead of tasking on the public’s perception of asylum seekers, they’ve just gone with it.”

Vicky was keen to add that, especially with the rising tide of climate change issues that anybody could be forced to seek asylum in the future – it really could be anybody.

She also believes that WAST does a great job of connecting with people and proving to the public that asylum seekers are just  regular people like themselves.

Still We Rise aims to fight these misgivings and present a better, more realistic version of what life is like for the female asylum seekers of Britain.

“It’s not like I’m acting, if I’m talking about my story, I cry,” said Mariatu.

“If I’m on stage and I’m crying, I’m not acting, I’m really crying.”

The play gives the women hope, it gives them community and it gives them purpose and, in a world where much has been taken from them with little given in return, their voices remain strong.

To find out more click here

Image courtesy of Lies Journal, with thanks

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