Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain, reviews Free to Be Me.
As someone who works primarily within the legal framework of the asylum and immigration system, the perspective of the stories I hear can be quite restricted, angled to that legal framework and its injustices. It was therefore a privilege to read Free To Be Me: Refugee Stories From the Lesbian Immigration Support Group.
The book, which is raising funds for the Manchester-based LISG, features stories from LISG members and volunteers, skilfully interviewed and edited by Jane Traies. These stories contain rich narratives of love, pain, brutal treatment, immense suffering, and survival.
The persecution and terrible punishment that the women have suffered are of course a central part of the narratives, as this is the reason that they have been forced to leave their countries. But the women are so much more than that, and these stories provide a window onto nuanced, complicated and diverse lives.
We read about Grace’s role as a carer for her grandson, orphaned by AIDS. In Azanat’s story, the cruelty of humans is unavoidable, but the kindness of a stranger also has its place in the tale. We are witness to terrible treatment from families, but also love and risk-taking such as in Mary and Prossy’s chapters. There is a joy to reading about the development of Sam and Jerry’s relationship, and the jokey bickering in their joint interview. Aphrodite-Luna’s personality shines out through her words. Parts of Prossy’s chapter made me laugh out loud: referring to her partner arriving with refugee status as a “jammy cow”; being outraged by the British practice of pureeing perfectly good potatoes into soup.
But a book such as this cannot just be one of joy and laughter. There are extremely difficult passages of sexual violence, attacks, betrayal. And when the women have managed to escape from this, yet more suffering to endure here in the UK. Almost every woman featured in the book has been worn down and damaged – some to absolute extremes – by the hostile asylum process, and the enforced destitution.
An indictment of the asylum process
The interviewees’ words are a real indictment of that process.
“When I got here, there, that’s when I discovered, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be even more horrible’. I think in my mind I’d thought that, once I got here, that’s it. I’ll only have to explain myself”
Time and again, the women are confounded by the combative and confusing legal process. Many of them know nothing at all about being able to claim asylum, or what will be expected of them. They are disbelieved and refused by the Home Office and sometimes by the courts. Bad lawyers let them down.
“I am nothing here” says Sam.
Thankfully, that is not the end of the stories. Outstanding lawyers step in, members of the public provide a sofa to sleep on and information about going to the Home Office, and support groups become a chosen family and, at times, a lifeline.
The importance of LISG
The thread that runs through the book is the importance of the support group LISG. Sophie describes them as people with “golden hearts”
As the editor Jane Traies discovers, LISG bring “Life and energy into that gloomy space of the [tribunal] waiting room”.
Through a dehumanising process, they bring warmth, love and vital support. The group is a social space where people can be themselves. It is a support hub to get advice and guidance. And LISG provide top-notch legal support that has been instrumental in people getting their legal rights recognised.
You can support the crucial work that LISG does by buying a copy of this book, or setting up a regular donation to their work.
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On reaching the UK, people face a hostile environment. Without help, many will be forcibly sent back to the wars, persecution and misery they have fled.
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