Their dramatic stories…

24 September 2014
Panos Christodoulou

Migrants and refugees feel lonely in the UK regardless of the duration of their stay here. Moreover, they face remarkable challenges related to loneliness. My new research for The Forum, titled This is how it feels to be lonely, which has just been launched, presents evidence of refugees and migrants’ loneliness issues associated with increased morbidity and reduced quality of life.

The Forum’s research was based on data collection, literature review and interviews. Data were drawn from information routinely gathered by The Forum and from its database used by staff in their everyday work. Moreover, the research team studied the policy context and conducted a modest review on previous research. The review was focused on literature that highlights integration issues, isolation and loneliness. However, the primary methodology tool for the purposes of the research was the interviews.

Along with other members of the research team I interviewed people who participate in The Forum’s mentoring project (The Forum’s members) and stakeholders with experience and expertise in integration, health and social issues and services. The Forum’s members took part in semi-structured interviews about the experiences and challenges they encountered since their arrival in the UK. Additional information was collected from different activities and educational workshops (such as English lessons, Cultural Friday sessions, outings and art classes) that The Forum’s members attend. The activities were structured to enable them to describe their feelings regarding their lives in the UK and the challenges they face. Throughout this procedure Oli, Heliana* and many others felt comfortable to share their dramatic stories with us. We are grateful to them for speaking out.

*All interviewees’ names have been changed for confidentiality reasons.

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Oli’s story

Oli arrived in Cardiff in 2006. In his country of origin he was very active in the political sphere, advocating for women rights and fighting against an oppressive regime. Oli’s activities made him a target for the authorities, who arrested, imprisoned and tortured him.

When he arrived in the UK, he applied for asylum but was refused. The immigration process was a traumatic experience for Oli, who was severely psychologically affected by previous experiences in his home country. In the UK, Oli was confronted with new and unexpected challenges. Everything was different from his country; cities, food, language. He didn’t know anybody and was emotionally bewildered. He was scared of people and, because of his torture experience, terrified by questions. Another distressing element were CCTV cameras, that he found everywhere and reminded him of his past. Among the major consequences he is still dealing with are depression, sleeping problems, flashbacks and anger management issues. He is taking medication but difficulties with his GP (lack of understanding and trust), make his treatment sometimes irregular and difficult. His situation has been aggravated due to the lack of direct contact with his family, whom he has not seen since he left the country.

Before settling down in London, where he now has been living since 2010, he moved across Britain, working illegally in an attempt to be self-sufficient. Gradually, he built some personal connections and was able to rely on friends for housing and food. Despite this, Oli frequently still hides in his room for days, avoiding any sort of human contact and crying. Indeed, even though he can rely on people he has known in the UK over the years, he does not feel he has friends here, at least in the deepest meaning his cultures gives to this word. As he states, he does not feel that he has real emotional and psychological support that he can count on. Although he is in frequent touch with a couple of people, he feels unable to rely on them for his problems. Therefore, he says, he values the role of the church and The Forum in his life. The Forum in particular has come to be a second home to him, where he can find constant support and share his deepest secrets.

But Oli still feels isolated. He blames the British system itself, which makes it difficult for him to access services and facilities that could make his life more fulfilling and less lonely. He previously enjoyed an intellectually active life, but now he cannot enjoy the simplest of things such as loaning any books from public libraries. Being an asylum seeker does not permit him to open a bank account, which, in the UK, has come to be an essential requirement to access the majority of services. He feels he has been left out of the system and he is on the periphery of society, which reinforces his depression and loneliness. The frustration related to this condition leads him to sadness and anger. As he says, he needs a logical explanation; why, despite everything life has put him through, is he still being denied some of the most simple and basic things life is made of?

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Heliana’s story

Heliana is from Tanzania and she came to the UK in 2005 on a student visa. She initially pursued a MBA at Leicester University though she was forced to stop her studies to care for her sister who suffered from a mental breakdown. In 2010 she paid a solicitor to submit an application to extend her visa. She later found out that he did not submit the application. This came as a shock to her. She then decided to instruct a new solicitor to submit a fresh claim on her behalf, based on her new condition as a mother and her established family life in the UK with a Jamaican national.

Life in the UK has not been easy for Heliana. She often feels home-sick and lonely because she is far from her family and the relationship with her only UK-based sister is neither constant nor supportive but rather creates some difficulties to her. Sometimes she is happy to be in the UK because living conditions are better than back home, but sometimes she questions her choices. Her feelings of isolation are also related to the fact that, since her pregnancy, she has been increasingly left alone by her friends, leading Heliana to a condition of severe depression and loneliness. In particular, this is due to the fact that she was left on her own in a moment of deep need, precisely whilst she was a victim of violence by her partner during her late pregnancy. In order to save her life she had to call the police and leave her house but, since none of her friends or her sister was able to take her in, she ended up living in an empty near-derelict room, with no electricity or hot water. Inevitably, this deeply affected her mental condition and caused severe depression.

This traumatic experience, as a consequence of the events she experienced over the past years, made Heliana deeply suspicious towards people. She admits she would like to have a person she could freely speak to and share her concerns. Indeed, Heliana has a deep need to speak with people but she has difficulties in approaching people and opening up to them. She feels uneasy with lots of questions and fears that people have bad intentions towards her. She also feels discriminated against by the people around her because of her status and condition. Her mental condition has worsened with the birth of her child; she is constantly afraid that he will be taken away from her.

Heliana says that at The Forum she feels in a safe place and therefore she is more prone to relate with other women or men, express her feelings and engage in some activities. In The Forum Heliana became an enthusiastic member of the Music group and enjoys coming here to take part in the Cultural Fridays, in which she has the opportunity to meet different people, with different backgrounds and share their opinions and thoughts on life. Heliana says The Forum is the only place she trusts because people here are positive and fight for her.

This blog is part of our series ‘This is how it feels to be lonely’, looking at the isolation that our members face. Read the full report “This is how it feel to be lonely” hereYou can read more stories from The’s Forum’s members at ‘Do you know how it feels to be lonely?‘.

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