By Sophie Gower
It was early on a wet Tuesday morning that I met my client, Miriam* at the entrance to Sheffield train station, where she was waiting anxiously to get the train with me to London. I was accompanying her to the Bangladeshi embassy where she was required to go for an interview in order to continue with her asylum claim. The Home Office had granted her a travel warrant to cover the cost of the journey, but she had never been to London before and speaking little English would have definitely struggled to find the embassy alone.
As the train pulled off, I wondered how we were going to fill the two and a half hour train journey since Miriam’s English was fairly limited and I didn’t exactly have much in common with a Bangladeshi asylum seeker who had been through the horrendous ordeal of trafficking. But surprisingly I was able to chat to her about the day and a little bit about ‘safe’ topics like the weather and her family back home. After a while, she was happy to flip through a newspaper someone had left behind and look out of the window at the countryside whizzing past, whilst I read. I wondered whether she was thinking about her case and how long it would take to get an outcome – it had been 6 months already, which is a long time to have your life in limbo.
When we arrived at St. Pancras, we were caught up in a wave of people all marching towards the ticket barriers and I saw Miriam looking around in awe at the huge station roof above us and all the hustle and bustle going on. Fortunately, I knew where we were going and showed Miriam where we had to go on the tube map. She was a bit confused as to why we had to change trains twice once we’d already got to London. I’d forgotten how overwhelming it must seem to someone who has never been on the London underground before!
We eventually came out at the right tube stop and then using the GPS on my phone (and after a few wrong turns!) we found the right building with a grand entrance and the Bangladeshi flag flying high above it. We went through some rather intimidating doors and waited to be seen at the reception desk. A very smart lady in a Sari greeted us and I explained we had an appointment for an interview arranged by the Home Office. The lady told us to go back out the doors and round to a side entrance, which would take us to the visa section where we would be seen.
We followed her directions and found ourselves climbing down a rickety spiral staircase into the basement. I had previously spent a summer in India, and as we walked through the double doors it felt like we had walked straight back into the Indian subcontinent! There was a vague ‘queue’ of visa applicants of all ages, running up to an old fashioned wooden counter with various signs written in English or Bengali around the walls and Bangra music blaring out of a speaker. Miriam looked a little nervous so I tried to reassure her. After about 10 minutes, we were shown through into an office where a very smartly dressed official greeted us from behind a huge mahogany desk. He looked at Miriam’s letter carefully and then pulled out a form explaining that he would have to ask Miriam a series of questions in order to complete the form. He proceeded to do this in Bengali whilst I listened. It was a bit disconcerting not knowing what she was being asked, but I gathered it must have been about how she came to the UK because she started crying and I had to check if she was ok to continue. After about half an hour he explained that they had all the information they needed and would now liaise with the Home Office directly. We were free to go, so we left the embassy and went and ate our sandwiches in a nearby park where I asked Miriam if she was ok about the questions the man had asked her, and she said told me how hard it was to talk about the past all the time.
It is so difficult for our clients who regularly have to re-tell their trafficking story to various professionals. It can be extremely distressing for them and even re-traumatising but these are the systems they have to function within, so we support our clients and help them cope as best they can. Reflecting on my day afterwards, I wondered at the bizarre situation I had found myself in, sitting in that office feeling like I’d just walked on to another continent, listening to a conversation in Bengali that I couldn’t understand. I realised the importance of simply being there with Miriam that day. Sometimes we are powerless to make the systems better that our ladies have to navigate, but at least we can journey with them through it and that is a hugely rewarding privilege.
*name and identity changed.