She was 13 when she arrived in the UK. She was looking for a place of safety. This is what she found
The Guardian, Saturday 24 November 2007
I came to this country five years ago, a desperate young teenager, alone, in search of help and safety. The last thing I expected was that I would end up sleeping on the streets in one of the richest countries in the world, hungry, cold, tired and bleeding. If, by telling my story, I can prevent the same thing happening to just one other woman and her children, then it will be worth speaking out.
I arrived in England on August 29 2002. I was 13 years old. My mother died when I was 12, and I became a domestic worker in Kampala, Uganda, because I needed to support myself. But I was raped, first by my employer, who threw me out when I told his wife, then by armed rebels, who broke into the house where I was staying in the night and assaulted me.
Somebody helped me to escape and told me I would be safe in Britain. All I had with me when I arrived were my passport, my birth certificate and a few clothes. As an unaccompanied minor, I should have been allowed to stay in the UK until I was 18, but they didn't believe my age so I was only granted the right to stay for two years.
I didn't understand much of what was said to me at the airport, where I was interviewed, but I was so happy because I thought, "Now I am in England, I will be safe." I was put in a house in west London, with some other young people, and went to college. I worked very hard and did well and although I was shy and very quiet to begin with, I soon made friends.
I really wanted to stay in this country and continue my studies, so in 2004 I applied for an extension. However, I was away, on a trip to Suffolk organised by social services, when I was called for an interview at the Home Office and I didn't get the letter about it.
The next thing I knew, I got a letter refusing the extension in 2005. I appealed, but on the day of the hearing I was 10 minutes late getting to the court because of heavy traffic. The duty barrister allowed my claim to be withdrawn, so the process of removing me from the UK started without me really having had a chance to put my case. I kept trying to get another solicitor, but none would take my case.
At college, I had met a man who became my boyfriend. I didn't know much about sex and babies, and I became pregnant. I love my children now, but I did not want to become a mother so young. By the time I realised I was pregnant, it was too late and there was nothing I could do about it. I had my daughter, Chantell, in March 2006. I very much wanted to carry on studying, and I completed a foundation and intermediate course in health and social care in the same month my daughter was born.
I was pregnant again when my claim was refused in September 2006. My boyfriend had left me by now. Then, in March 2007, all my benefits were cut and I was thrown out of my flat with my one-year-old daughter. I was eight months pregnant and I had no money, nowhere to stay.
My college friends tried to support me, but they didn't have much themselves. They would give me £1 or 50p to buy biscuits and a drink for Chantell. At one point, she had a really high temperature and was very sick and I didn't have the £2 I needed to buy her Calpol.
I contacted the council and spoke to a manager from social services. He started shouting at me, "You are an illegal immigrant, an asylum seeker. We're not going to help you." I was so badly in need of help that I slept on the pavement, with Chantell, outside Hillingdon hospital.
I was allowed into hospital for a few days to give birth, to a little boy called Colin. The social services gave me pink clothes for him, even though he was a boy, but they were the only clothes I had. Chantell had been taken into foster care while I was in labour, but they brought her back to me and we were put into a bed and breakfast, but only for a few days.
I stayed briefly with a friend, but soon I was sleeping out on the streets of Brixton, south London, without food, without proper clothes, struggling with a sick one-year-old and a newborn baby. I had Chantell in a pushchair and I covered Colin in a big black jacket. I was in pain, bleeding heavily, and I couldn't walk. I was desperate. I had £10 in the whole world.
My only chance was a college friend who now lived in Brighton. I bought a ticket and we got on the train. When we got there, they put us on the train back to London because I hadn't paid the full £40 fare. I got off the train at Crawley and managed to slip through the barrier. I was looking for a bus to take me to Brighton. I ended up sleeping outside. I was very cold, very hungry and very tired. It was raining. Passersby heard me crying and called the police.
The police called an ambulance and they took my children away to Brighton hospital. I was taken to a local police station. My breasts were engorged because I had just had a baby and was feeding. A doctor saw me and asked if I wanted a breast pump, but I never got one.
I was still bleeding from the birth. My clothes were filthy. For three days, I was given no shower, no clean clothes. I was just given food three times a day. Every so often, a police officer would slide open the hatch and say, "Are you OK?" That's all.
I was transferred to Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire. I arrived at midnight. I told them I had just had a baby and had been separated from my kids, but they just gave me a paracetamol. I was distraught. My children weren't with me. I was crying all the time. I couldn't eat. They put me on antidepressants.
During the two weeks I was there, no one organised for me to see my kids or told me how they were. Whenever I asked one of the officers, "Please, I have to see my kids. I am breastfeeding. I am in pain," all they said was, "Have a paracetamol." I was told to take drugs to dry my milk. But I wanted Colin back, I wanted to breastfeed because I knew it was best for him.
Eventually, another woman in Yarl's Wood wrote a fax for me and sent it to the Black Women's Rape Action Project. A woman called Cristel Amiss called me back. She was shocked to hear my babies had been separated from me and said she would contact her breastfeeding network. She was in touch with me every day after that. One breastfeeding expert, Sheila Kitzinger, got Lord Avebury, a Liberal Democrat peer, to write to the minister for immigration.
Around the same time, one of the officers at the centre came to me with a smile on his face. "Good news, Janipher. We have booked you a flight back to Uganda." There was only my name on the notice of removal directions. I was distraught at the thought of being deported without my children. I know of at least one woman who is now back in Uganda while her children are still in foster care in this country.
I was frantic. I had one week until the plane left with me on it. I called Cristel for help to have the flight cancelled. They sent out an email to lots of people, many of whom sent protests to the Home Office, and thankfully my children were returned to me that week. Chantell was like a stick, she had eczema, her nails were too long. Colin was like a small rat. He was losing his appetite, he was very sick. The children had not been bathed the whole time they were away.
Yarl's Wood is a real prison. There is a lot of racism and intimidation from the staff. You are locked up for 24 hours a day. They take your phone. You have no access to the internet. It's a horrible place for kids. The food is awful. It is the same every day - days-old reheated jacket potatoes, partially cooked fried eggs, food with hair, dirt and worse in it. There never seems to be enough and the serving people are rude. I saw a lot of people suffering. I personally knew one woman who had tried to commit suicide and I heard of other women who wanted to take their own lives out of desperation. While I was there, we went on hunger strike in protest against the conditions.
Lawyers with Birnberg Peirce got involved in my case and worked with campaigners to stop my removal and to issue a fresh human rights claim for me to remain in the UK. Finally I was released - to yet another bed and breakfast and then, after another big battle, they offered me a one-bedroom flat. That's where I'm living now. I have financial support while I await the outcome of my asylum claim.
I am terrified of going back to Uganda. When a failed asylum seeker arrives at Entebbe airport with a deportation order, they are often handed over to a security organisation. Children over three are taken away from their parents. Those detained frequently disappear, never to be seen again.
I am now 18 years old. I would like to have the chance to stay here, bring up my children and train to do something useful. When my mother was dying, she used to say to me, "I lost all my family and I have no one. If you get a chance, Janipher, be a doctor or a midwife or a nurse. Help people if you can." And that's what I want to do.
As told to Melissa Benn
· BWRAP can be contacted at the Crossroads Women's Centre in Kentish Town, London, on 020-7482 2496