A personal view from Cath McGee, Refugee Survival Trust, Manager of the Destitute Asylum Seeker Service (DASS)
Joy to the World! That’s the Christmas message, but winter in Scotland doesn’t always feel joyful. While so many of us rush around buying gifts for our parents, siblings and children, for those separated from loved ones it must be very hard to bear – even more so when there is no family around you to share and celebrate the birth of your baby.
Winter is hard for all of us, but it’s particularly difficult for women seeking asylum in Scotland who are caring for a new born baby or just about to give birth. These young women face challenges much greater than the Scottish weather: poor living conditions, a tiny income to support themselves and their baby, the anxiety of not knowing what happened to family left behind and uncertainty over their future.
I heard a chilling tale from one young woman – I’m calling her ‘Mary’ – about her experience as a new mother that wouldn’t sound out of place in one of Charles Dickens’ Victorian novels.
Mary became homeless after her asylum claim was refused and although she was newly pregnant, she was not entitled to any benefits or Home Office support. She ‘sofa surfed’ with friends and acquaintances and when she had no place to stay, she found warmth and safety in the waiting rooms of some of Glasgow’s A&E departments.
Three months into her pregnancy, a local charity, Refugee Survival Trust, helped Mary with temporary accommodation until she moved back into a Home Office flat just before her daughter was born. When she returned home from hospital, the boiler broke – leaving Mary with no hot water. Later, when carrying her daughter and shopping upstairs to her second floor flat, someone stole the baby buggy. Mary and her baby relied on support from charities that provided her with extra food, toiletries and a 10-week bus pass, helping her get out and about during those difficult first weeks of motherhood.
She currently lives with her daughter in a tiny, ground floor flat. There’s damp in the cupboards, no heating in the bedroom and the washing machine is broken. Her future is still uncertain.
I felt angry and ashamed listening to Mary’s story, knowing that although shocking, other asylum seeker mothers are facing similar challenges and getting by with minimal support.
And what does Mary think about her tumultuous year? Is she angry or resentful about what happened to her?
“No,” she says. “Although I have difficulties and problems, I’m so joyful because my baby will soon be one year old and I’m just so happy. I just think about moving on, going forward.”
Mary’s story has taught me that even in the most difficult and uncertain moments of life, the birth of a child can bring joy and hope. I wish Mary and her baby a safe and peaceful Christmas.
Refugee Survival Trust’s Christmas appeal is for our ‘Bumps to Babies’ bus pass scheme for women seeking asylum in Scotland who are pregnant or are new mothers. These bus passes help tackle the isolation faced by young women seeking asylum in Glasgow and enable them to access vital support services. You can make a donation here.
Cath’s article originally featured on the Justice and Peace Scotland Blog.