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Many of these women fled their countries to escape sexual abuse, only to face the same horror again in the UK as asylum seekers.
The fear of being deported means that they do not report it to the police, but one effect of the revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein is that they have now begun to talk about their experiences with each other.
At 37, Grace has never had consensual sex.
“I’m not the only one, there are many more women like me,” she says, hunched over and looking at the table. She points to the wall that separates the small meeting room from her friends in the adjoining room.
“We are the most vulnerable women in the United Kingdom.”
For her it is normal that misery and exploitation go hand in hand, her whole life has happened to her.
Grace arrived in London at age 17, in 1998. She was born in West Africa, but does not want to reveal in which country she fears endangering her relatives.
“I come from a very, very poor family,” he tells me. So poor that at age 15 Grace and her sister, 17, were given in marriage to a man older than his father, in exchange for a dowry. They moved to a palatial house in the capital, with their other five wives.
For the first time the sisters did not have to worry about their next meal, but that was the only thing they did not have to worry about.
“It was not a good life, I suffered a lot, ” he says.
Grace and her sister were subjected to continuous physical, verbal and sexual abuse by her husband.
They were also forced to take part in superstitious ritual ceremonies that he believed would advance his political career, which included drinking animal blood, a disgusted account.
The girls depended on each other and were afraid that if they spoke their family would be harmed.
“Our husband was a powerful man,” says Grace.
After two years of marriage Grace and her sister came to a breaking point. They trusted a compassionate uncle who told them he would help them leave the country .
It would be assumed that they had escaped, he told them, and no one would admit helping them.
He took out visas for them, took them to the airport and gave them one-way tickets to London.
The uncle had an old friend who would pick them up at Heathrow airport, he told his nieces. A good man who would take care of them .
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Live with families
“When we got to the airport there was a man standing there with a sign with our names on it,” says Grace. “It looked like death standing up.”
His uncle’s friend was suffering from cancer. He had not revealed this before, he said, because he was willing to do his friend a favor and provide temporary shelter.
He told Grace and his sister – who were then 17 and 19 years old – that their cancer was terminal and that since he was not a rich man, he would not be able to support them after his death.
Instead he would introduce them to friends from his local church, mostly other immigrants from West Africa, who would help them find accommodation.
She died three weeks later and, as she had anticipated, Grace and her sister, who had no legal right to work in the United Kingdom, moved in with the families they met through the church.
“Migrant families in this country, who are poor and work long hours, look for young, single women to take care of children and do housework and cooking,” says Grace.
“My sister and I moved with different families, we depended on them to get food, clothes, everything.”
Grace did not have her own room. He slept on the couch in the living room, waiting for everyone in the family to be ready to go to bed before resting. He had little privacy and made sure not to disturb the family.
He soon discovered how insecure he was.
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“The man of the house came down at night when everyone was sleeping, he started using me to get sexual pleasure,” he says.
“He knew I had nowhere to go, and I did not know anything about the legal system, I could not go to the police because I was afraid of being detained or deported, I was at his mercy, he said to me: ‘ Who are you going to? tell? ‘”.
“I could not talk to his wife about it, I was worried that if he did not believe me he would kick me out of the house, what could he do in my situation?
He learned that his sister was in a similar situation. Both were trapped . But there were even bigger problems ahead.
When the children of the family grew up to school age Grace was informed that they no longer needed her and that she would have to leave.
While waiting for another family from the church to welcome her, and depending on friends to eat, Grace slept on park benches and on night buses.
She has lived in more than a dozen homes during her 20 years in the UK and almost everyone has been sexually abused .
“I slept on floors and sofas, and if there were male visitors who spent the night, they almost always raped me.”
“At night I tried to close the door with drawers to try to stop the men, sometimes it worked, sometimes not, in the morning, in front of their wives and children, they acted as if nothing had happened.”
“This did not happen only once or twice with one or two families, it happened many, many times.”
In 2008, a tragedy occurred. Grace’s sister had been talking to a man she had met in an online chat room. She told Grace that she was going to meet him. He never returned .
“I was in hell,” says Grace.
He called the hospitals and asked friends who had a stronger immigration status in the UK to go to the police to report her as a missing person.
So far, no information has emerged. Grace has not heard from her sister in 10 years.
Feeling more alone than ever, Grace continued to move from family to family until she no longer had new job offers.
“I had no home, I spent the day begging or I was going to sit in the libraries or in the parks.”
Then, one day, a miracle happened.
“A man approached me in the park, I knew him from when I moved to the UK, he said, ‘You’ve grown old, Grace.’ I said, ‘Yes, I know.’
“Then he said: ‘There are people who can help you.’ I replied: ‘I am a slave, who can help me?’ He said: ‘There are places and people who will help you, I will take you with them.’ “
He took her to a refugee center in London, where the staff listened attentively to his story and offered help in solving his problems.
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It was a typical cold October day in London when Marchu Girma stopped in front of a room of 35 asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa, including Grace, and told them the news that had been in the headlines around the world.
Several famous actresses had stepped forward to accuse Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of being a sexual predator.
The story achieved the rare combination of becoming viral on social networks and dominating both the main news coverage and the chat at the dining table.
Thousands of women, from all walks of life, shared their own stories of abuse and harassment that they faced at the hands of powerful men. They used the hashtag #MeToo.
“I remember the moment in the room when I told the women about Me Too,” says Girma. “It was a ‘oh’ moment, they suddenly realized that they were not alone, and that sexual harassment had happened even to white, powerful , famous and important women.”
“It was no longer a shameful secret that they had to keep to themselves.”
Girma is one of the directors of Women For Refugee Women , a small organization that helps women seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. Originally from Ethiopia, Girma went through this same process when she was 11 years old.
“Women find us by word of mouth,” she says. “They talk about us in the church, in detention centers, through other charities.”
“It is a private and protected space for them, and all the women who come to us are going through the process of seeking legal asylum and seeking solidarity.”
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Cycle of abuse
Once a week, the women come asking for advice, a lunch and classes like English, crafts, drama and empowerment.
It was in an empowerment class that Girma told them about Me Too. Then, for the first time , the women talked about the abuse they had suffered.
Many said that sexual harassment was not just something they fled in their home countries, but a reality of their lives here in the United Kingdom.
One woman described an occasion when she cleaned a house for a client who first ordered her to take off her clothes. Others, like Grace, had stories of sexual violence within their informal living arrangements.
“The asylum process is defective and harms a victim of sexual harassment or abuse,” says Girma. “If you do not have a legal status you are not considered a person in the eyes of the law.”
“These women have endured a prolonged and continuous cycle of abuse: they flee sexual violence and enter directly into a life of abuse while in the UK.”
The situation is worse for those who live in the country without having applied for asylum.
“We have heard cases of women who report abuses and are held in detention centers or even deported to the countries where they come from, where they must again face the deadly situations they were trying to flee from.”
“The current system prevents these women from reporting sexual violence and predators know it,” says Girma.
According to the Oxford Migration Observatory, there are hundreds of thousands of undocumented or “irregular” migrants in the United Kingdom.
But even women who have applied for asylum and have legal status may not be sure of their rights and hesitate to approach the police, says Girma.
“What are you going to do?”
It’s been 10 years, but Grace’s friend, Yanelle, still dreams of the worst night of her life.
Political dissident in West Africa, she was arrested, thrown in jail and then raped in groupat gunpoint by a group of police officers.
After her release, the friends of her political party helped her to go to London. Initially he moved with friends and then found work through families from a local church.
Like Grace, Yanelle received a roof over his head and food in exchange for child care and cleaning.
She started the refugee process immediately but received bad legal advice and her first request was rejected.
However, Yanelle was luckier than Grace, she says.
Her employers groped her but did not force her to have sex.
When one threatened her, saying: “What are you going to do? Who are you going to tell? If I did something and you denounced me, the police would arrest you and send you back”, he did not consider it sexual harassment.
It was not until years later, when she had worked and lived with many other families, and had stopped dozens of other advances from other employers, that her thinking changed .
And this happened on that October day, when she and Grace sat in the empowerment class at Women for Refugee Women , listening to stories about Hollywood actresses who spoke out publicly.
Maybe a man who made persistent advances without his consent and touching his body was not something to dismiss as insignificant, he thought.
” We never talked about abuse before Me Too, in the culture I come from it is not common to talk about sexual harassment so freely, but when we saw important women talking, our mentality changed, and we learned that we all had some experience in the subject. harassment, “says Yanelle.
“It seems that we, as women, are at a moment in history where real global change is possible, and it is important that this change be extended to the most vulnerable women in our societies,” says Marchu Girma.
“We need the collective will, and brotherhood and solidarity must reach women like Grace and Yanelle as well.”
At 37, Grace has the ambition to be able to earn her secondary degree. He wants to help people, He hopes to become a midwife. Now he lives with a “lovely couple” of 80 who met through a refugee hosting program.
He still has no legal right to work in the United Kingdom and has no income. He gets his meals from a food bank and wears donated clothes.
He still hopes one day to find his sister. He also hopes to receive asylum soon: he has submitted three applications since 2013 without receiving a rejection, and now he goes for the fourth. The difficult thing is to prove that she has been in the country for 20 years, because there are no documents to support it.
But he has hope. He has friends with whom he can talk and they listen, she says.
Yanelle is also applying again for refugee status. She still dreams of the gang rape she suffered but since she heard about Me Too, she shouts at the rapists and tells them to leave her alone.
Sometimes they fall back and leave their cell. Sometimes, in her dreams, she is not rapedat all.