First of all, may I wish you a happy New Year! Secondly I would like to set the scene for second my column by telling you a few facts about London and its boroughs; there are 33 boroughs that make up London, though some don't use the name borough in the title for example, Westminster is called the City of Westminster and Kingston is Kingston upon Thames.
What was very confusing for a newbie like me, as I was in 1974 is the fact that most of the boroughs take their names from one of the districts in the borough, coming from outside of London that really confused me.
I came to London to with my wife Pauline and our family, to take charge of some local church communities, one of which I was told was in Islington, so I went to Islington and couldn't find anything that resembled the address, and that was before Sat Navs.
When a local looked at the address on my little bit of paper, I was told, "Oh, that's in Finsbury Park." I then explained that I had been told that it was in Islington. "Yes, it is," he replied. "Finsbury Park is in Islington." I then exclaimed, "But I am in Islington!" The patient local then explained that although I was in the district call Islington, Finsbury Park is actually in the borough of Islington actually quite a distance from the district of Islington. Very confusing! Now I live in Wood Green in the borough of Haringey, but just down the road is Haringey, also in the borough of Haringey.
I am telling you all this so you will get a picture of how complicated it can be for someone in London for the first time, and this affects my story.
Like many big western cities, London has lots of refugees and asylum seekers coming to the city. I work in a company that seeks to help these strangers in our midst. I get frustrated lots of times at the bad press that some of these hurting people get, they are often referred to as "scroungers" and also as people who are coming to "steal housing, jobs, and take advantage of our state system." I have taken the trouble to listen to some of their stories, so today I thought I would tell you Sue's story, not her real name you understand, but the story is real nonetheless.
Sue spoke excellent English, so unlike many refugees it was easy to listen to her story. I started by asking her how she had travelled to London and she explained that she has come on an airplane. "Which airport did you come to?" I asked because London has 5 major airports. "I don't know," she said. "So did it have a train station attached to it?" I asked, knowing which airports do and don't. I thought that would help me narrow it down. She then told me all that had happened; a man brought her through passport control and she had indeed gone straight onto the underground train told me that she had come into Heathrow airport.
She said the man put her onto the train, saying that he just needed to quickly go and get a special ticket. As soon as he left, the train pulled out and 16-year-old Sue was left alone. "What did you then do?" I asked, to which replied, "I began to cry. In fact I cried so much that I felt embarrassed so I decided I would get off the train, which I did and went upstairs on the moving staircase, but I could not get out into the street because I had no ticket. I began to cry again and a man in a uniform asked me what was wrong. I explained I had lost my friend who had put me on the train, and he said, 'Stand there and I will get you some help.' Very quickly a lot of men arrived they had guns, big helmets and things over their faces and they took me and put me in a big black van, where I cried even louder as they locked the doors."
Why they needed a bunch of riot police to put this slim built teenage girl into a police van I don't know. She said that when they unloaded her into a police station she was still crying, but she said that the policemen were "very nice" to her and kept trying to give her cups of tea, and buy food for her to try stop her crying.
She continued, "In the end, after I had told them my story, they said to me, 'We need to find you a bed for the night," and so they paid for me to stay in a hostel with lots of other girls, and they said that tomorrow I was to wait there and a 'Mrs. Social Services' would come and see me and help me. I waited all day but no one came. It became night and I was going to go to bed again, but the hostel people said you were only paid for, for one night so you cannot stay here. So I had to leave.
"I recognised it was not far from the police station so I went back there. They said they could not help me any further so I sat on the step of the station and cried and cried. In the end the police got fed up and said they would pay for me to stay in the hostel another night and they would make sure that 'Mrs. Social Services' came to see me the next day.
"The next day a lady came. I don't know what her name was, and she told me her borough could not take any more people who were like me, asylum seekers, but she said Haringey council probably would, and then she gave me some money which she said was for bus fare and told me to go to Haringey and they would help me. I think I was in the Hounslow area as that's where I got off the train. The lady left me to find a bus, and it took me all of the day to find my way to Haringey Social Services, and there they said they would help me and phoned you up to come and get me."
I then asked Sue why she had come to the UK and how come that she spoke such good English. "Well," she said, "my mother died when I was born, but my father was very important, but I don't really know what he did, but he sent me to the best school in Kigali [the largest city in Rwanda].
"Then, one day, a group of men came to our house and started shouting at my father and pushing him around. I was very cross, but the servant came and told me that my father could look after himself and that I needed to go to bed, which I did. When I got up my father was not there and I have not seen him since that day. The servants said that I needed to run away because, as one of them told me, 'Bad people have done bad things to your father and they will come back for you.' I knew that I had an uncle in the jungle so I went to his house. He and his wife took me in, but my uncle then raped me and I did a silly thing -- I told my aunt. In my culture you don't tell people things like that and my aunt was so angry with my uncle that she hit him on the back of the head with a machete and they had to put him on a motor bike and take him to hospital because he was so badly injured.
"I went to the hospital to see him, but when I got there I was told that my uncle had died. People started to say to me I must run away because, as one of them said, 'It is your fault that he has died and now the villagers will kill you." I went back to the city to my house, but it had been knocked down and was just rubble. I wandered around all day until I met an old school friend who said I could sleep at her house where she was living with her boyfriend. So, for a few weeks, I stayed there, but one day, when my friend was out, her boyfriend also raped me. This time I did not tell anyone I just left. I remembered that in the next town my father used to have a friend, so I thought, 'Let me see if I can find him, maybe he can help me."
It was hard to listen to Sue's story, but she continued. "Fortunately, I found my father's friend though when he saw me he was very afraid and he said, 'You will cause me much danger, because I knew your father." He paid for me to stay in a hotel and brought me food every day. He said he was making some arraignments to get me out of danger and him also. After a couple of weeks he said I was to go to the next country and I would fly to another country where I would be safe. That's when he introduced me to this man, who he said I should call uncle, he was the man that brought me to the UK and I lost him when the train left. It was horrible; however, I am glad I found Haringey and Phoenix Community Care."
Sue's heartbreaking story is typical of many we hear almost daily as we seek to help asylum seekers in one of London's boroughs.
Adrian Hawkes is married to Pauline with three children, 10 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. He is still part of the Rainbow Church North London which he used to lead and he also works with Sri Lankan churches in France, Switzerland, Norway, Canada and Sri Lanka, as well as a church in Norway. He helped to form Phoenix Community Care Ltd, which looks after some 30+ unaccompanied minors, and vulnerable adults in housing in North London; alongside his wife Pauline, he established PCC Foster Care agency and recently launched London Training Consortium Ltd., which trains refugees and asylum seekers with ESOL, IT, and Literacy.