Lola looks back on life in Brazzaville, with her husband and four children, as the last time she could remember being happy. Her husband ran a business which supported the family and he was involved in a political group opposing the government in the run up to an election. But although the opposition got the most votes when the election came around, Lola explains, the government used military force to overrule the result. From that day everything became more dangerous for people involved in the opposition. As people were rounded up and killed, Lola and her family moved away. But then one day Lola’s husband went out promising to return soon. She has not seen him since. “I have no idea what has happened. His phone was off. I have to assume the worst” she says sadly.
She was staying with her husband’s cousin, away from Brazzaville. One morning she went out to get milk for the children. “That was the beginning of the horror. I was kidnapped by the police and I would not inflict what happened [to me] on my worst enemy.”
“I was beaten and beaten, raped and raped, starved and abused. I was there for about a month and I don’t know how I survived.”
Nor does Lola understand how she was rescued. She was unconscious when a friend of her husband found her, and she does not know to this day where he took her or why he didn’t take her home to her children. He simply told her not to ask questions. He did tell Lola she needed to leave the country and that it was too dangerous for her to stay or see her children again – but that he would make sure they were all right. He organised a flight to England.
She arrived in the UK speaking no English, traumatised from all that had happened and desperately confused. She reported to the Home Office and was sent to a house for asylum seekers run by a charity. Here she was told about the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants. Coming to the Centre, she has been helped to improve her English with regular classes. Lola says the most valuable help she has received from the Centre was “the way I was helped to find a way to build a new life. The formal letters [from the Home Office] I received were translated for me, and when I came across a situation I didn’t understand, there was always someone willing to give me help and to help me understand how to deal with different situations.”
“It is dreadful, having been a competent wife and mother, to feel I have no way of coping with life. What I found at the Centre was such kindness, generosity of spirit and I have made many friends.”
Lola is making huge progress in her life: “I was so grateful for the encouragement from teachers at the Centre who convinced me I was good enough at English to go to college and now I am doing Level 2 at Waltham College and getting on quite well.” Yet that, too, can be a challenge as Lola is in a mixed group and has to cope with the fear that comes up when she is mixing closely with men .
She still does not have leave to remain in the UK, despite her experiences, and she is haunted by the fear that the Home Office will refuse to let her stay. “They have seen the scars all over my body and the Helen Bamber Foundation gave a medical report, but they didn’t seem to accept that I had been tortured. Therapy is helping me but the only time the darkness inside me lifts at all is when I am among friends at the Centre.”
Then she turns her head away, her voice choked with tears “I am a mother of four and yet I will probably never see my children again and that is so painful. All I can do is pray for them every single day.”