Worldwide, more people are on the move right now than have been at any other moment in history. Many have been forced to flee their homes to seek safety and freedom from persecution. Millions of the world’s refugees are women and children, yet women’s voices are often unheard.
Women face specific challenges when they flee their homes; they are more likely to face sexual abuse and can often be pregnant, nursing, or caring for very young children.
To highlight the plight of refugee women, I recently joined CARE International UK and Women for Refugee Women at an event in London entitled ‘Listen to Women’, at which refugee women were invited to tell their own stories – supported by celebrities – to shine a light on the experiences of women caught up in conflict.
To a packed crowd of public and politicians, actors Juliet Stevenson, Anne-Marie Duff and Tanya Moodie leant their talent by reading the verbatim testimonies of women refugees unable to be there in person: women who, right now, are languishing in refugee camps or fleeing through Europe. Their readings were haunting. Here is one of the testimonies from a refugee woman originally from Eritrea who was forced to flee her country alone, aged 13.
I am Helen. I was born in Eritrea, my mother died when I was young. There were religious divisions in my family, and my father was persecuted. In the end he fled and I ended up having to flee too. At the age of 13, I went to Sudan in search of my father and ended up staying there for 12 years. I lived in hiding, because I didn’t have any papers. An elderly Ethiopian woman took me in. I worked for her all those years without pay but last year she told me I had to leave. She knew some traffickers who said they would take me through the desert, through Libya, to Italy, and she made the first payment for me.
We crossed the Sahara desert in a lorry, travelling day and night for 15 days. It was so sandy and hot. Sometimes the men were forced to get off and lie on their backs in the desert. A bright light was shone into their eyes so they couldn’t see, and then we women were taken to the back and raped. All of us. They didn’t use any protection, nothing.
We had brought food and water and we thought we had what we needed. Then the lorry we were in broke down. There was no shade – we were burnt by the sun, and the constant heat made us more and more thirsty. One man lost his brother, and a woman I had known in Sudan also died.
We tried to bury our friends. The men dug and we women wept. Those friends of ours were buried in a shallow grave – it wasn’t really a burial. The sand will not cover them long.
When another lorry came for us in the desert, we thought we were being saved, but these men were traffickers, and though they took us to Libya they then locked us up, to torture us further for money. Some people were shot dead in front of our eyes. They did it to use as a threat to us – to say that if we don’t bring money then tomorrow it would be us instead. We would be dead.
They gave enough food so we wouldn’t die, but not much – we were always in the balance between life and death. The men who held us would burst into the room at any time, and pick out a woman. They would do whatever they wanted with you, and then return you to the room.
I thought I would never make it out of that prison, because I had no family I could call on to send money for me. The thought of living like this indefinitely was intolerable. I said to the guards, please shoot me, do not let me suffer another day like this. But my fellow prisoners saved me. When they were asking their families to save them from the prison, they also asked for extra money to get me out of there.
We were lucky. The boat behind us, which had over 400 people in, sank. I knew some of the people on there. But the Italian sea guards met our boat and took us to Italy. A couple of the people I was with said that they were travelling on to the UK, and asked me if I wanted to join them.
I went to Isbergues, a camp near to Calais, and lived there for two months. By now, I realised I was pregnant, and I was desperate to reach a safe place for me and my baby. In Isbergues life was hard.
There were no toilets, no showers. There were a lot of us and space was tight, five of us on one mattress. But there was only one thing on my mind – that if I got to the UK I would reach a safe place where I and my baby could have a good chance at life.
So I came to this country hiding in a lorry. At the border the lorry was searched and the other 29 people were found and had to get off. I was under the flooring so they couldn’t find me. Unknowingly, the police were walking on top of me.
When the lorry stopped I got up and knew there was something wrong. I was in pain, and when I got off, I saw I was covered in blood. The lorry driver shouted at me when he saw me, and said he couldn’t do anything to help. I begged him to show me to the nearest police station. At the police station I told them I had come from Calais, and that I was pregnant. They took me to the hospital, but I had lost my baby. From the hospital, they took me somewhere else, where the Home Office interviewed me. Then I was brought here to Leeds, to where I am living now.
What happens to a man on this journey? The most is that he is whipped and tortured. I would have rather had the same fate. But I believe no women pass through the Sahara to Libya without being raped. I would have rather that they whipped me than made me be a plaything for them. What they forced me to do… I know it will be an everlasting fire inside me, burning for the rest of my life. It is like the fire of hell burning inside you.
Now, I live in a hostel in Leeds. I am given meals but I do not get any money and I am not allowed to work. I have no change of clothes, no shoes, I cannot even go out and buy sanitary towels because I have no money. I am not complaining because I have been in situations that were much worse. Even though I passed through all that suffering, I am here now, and I am thankful for that.
I want to be educated. I didn’t have much opportunity for learning in my country. I stopped going to school when I was 12. I hope I can study, but now I have become forgetful. I don’t remember things. Hopefully my head will start working better. I would like to become a nurse.”