Heidi Blake meets Florence Moses, a young lesbian woman from Sierra leone seeking asylum in the UK with her infant son.She faces rape, violence and even death if she returns, but has been denied leave to remain in the UK.
It wasn’t until her family threatened her with genital mutilation that Florence Moses finally attempted to escape from her home in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Having come out as a lesbian to her family in 2002 at the age of 22, Florence was forced into a marriage with her cousin in which she was repeatedly raped and beaten. When she continued to fight against her cousin’s sexual violence, in earshot of other members of the family living in the house including her mother and aunt, the idea of vaginal circumcision was proposed as a ‘cure’.
Florence fled to the United Kingdom and arrived in January 2003, terrified, confused and three months pregnant as a result of rape. She was denied asylum by the British authorities on the grounds that her claim was incoherent and that the persecution she had received in Sierra Leone was “not sufficiently serious”.
Florence and her son Michael now face detention and deportation at any time. This year, the National Union of Students adopted the campaign to keep Florence and Michael in the UK, which is spearheaded by the Manchester Lesbian Community Project (LCP), as one of its main LGBT campaign objectives.
I?have planned to spend a day with Florence in Manchester, where she is currently living, in order to find out more about the life she fled in Sierra Leone and her experiences at the hands of the asylum authorities since arriving in the United Kingdom.
It is striking, on first meeting Florence, how well she blends in amidst the stylish crowds of young Mancunians humming past Manchester Piccadilly; she is fashionably dressed in bright, assertive colours and holds herself with an unaffected grace. It is clear, enough, though, from the edgy eagerness with which Florence grasps my hand and begins immediately to speak fervently about her case that she lives in a state of perpetually heightened anxiousness.
After only a few moments, Florence is leading me purposefully through the hot Manchester throng, talking animatedly all the while though with no particular focus, until we reach the relative calm of Piccadilly Gardens. Here, having located a spot in the shade, she seems more able to gather her thoughts, and begins systematically to pull together for me the narrative details of her history.
Florence tells me that she first realised she was a lesbian when she met an American woman called Hilda at Lumley beach in 2002. Their relationship persisted for a month, during which time Hilda awakened Florence to her first sexual experiences. “She showed me all kinds of things” Florence told me. “Amazing things.”
When Hilda returned to America, the pair kept in touch by phone. Florence continued to communicate with Hilda through the abuse and violence she faced from her family, her cousin and members of the surrounding community subsequently to coming out. When she decided to flee after being threatened with vaginal mutilation, it was Hilda who sent over the money which made Florence’s escape possible. Hilda also sent a chaperone who Florence tells me is called Rashid, purportedly to bring Florence to the USA and to deal with all her paperwork. Rashid, however, disappeared when the pair landed at Gatwick airport in transit to America, forcing Florence to seek asylum in the UK. Florence is wary when talking about Hilda and is obviously not keen to answer questions on the relationship the two once shared.
It is partly on the grounds of this reticence to talk about her first sexual relationship that the rejection of Florence’s claim by the British asylum authorities has been based. Karen McCarthy, who is Florence’s voluntary campaign manager at the LCP, told me “there is something very private about Hilda for Florence; there are aspects of that part of her life which she just won’t share, even with me and I’m on her side!”
Karen also tells me that Florence becomes very anxious when talking about all aspects of her case, because she fears that she will, once again, be disbelieved.
Sitting in Piccadilly Gardens, I ask Florence whether she would be willing to let me have a look at her court papers in order for me to understand her situation better. It seems unlikely that she will be able to furnish me with papers dating back three years at such short notice, but to my surprise Florence immediately produces from her trendy ‘tropical surf’ bag a huge wedge of papers which she begins to leaf through keenly. It strikes me that, concealed beneath the vibrant exterior of her colourful bag and stylish appearance, Florence is quite literally bearing the great weight of her troubled past on her shoulders.
She pulls out leaves of paper one by one, and hands them to me, drawing my attention to particular injustices in the decisions presented by the home office, or particularly painful aspects of her personal situation. She tells me that she must carry her papers with her at all times in case she is stopped and searched by the police and can’t prove she is ‘in the system’. Skimming over the pages, I am instantly struck by the clinical phrasing around the tragic details of Florence’s case: “You claim your family beat you up…you claim you began to face abuse from members of the community”.
The opening paragraph of the first refusal letter Florence received from the Home Office in 2004 reads “In order to qualify for asylum under the terms of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory, an applicant must show that he has a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. It seems bizarre, even outlandish, that a nation such as the United Kingdom which purports to be both liberal and liberated, should adhere to the minutiae of such an archaic Convention, drawn up 16 years before homosexuality was even decriminalised in the United Kingdom.
The goes on to state that the kind of harm that Florence would be likely to suffer should she return to Sierra Leone “does not constitute persecution as described in the UNHCR Handbook, or as interpreted by the courts.”
Since her initial claim was rejected, Florence has appealed the decision twice without success. A spokeswoman for the LCP claims that Florence’s appeals have been rejected as a result of the “institutional sexism and homophobia of the British asylum system, which does not recognise gender or sexuality as a grounds for persecution.”
It is hard to dispute the institutional sexism and homophobia of a system which does not even recognise persecution on the grounds of gender or sexuality. The use of the pronoun ‘he’ in a letter addressed to a lesbian woman struck me as particularly crass. With devastating irony, the footer to the Home Office letter read ‘Building a safe, just and tolerant society’.
Florence tells me that she lives in a constant state of fear that she will be detained and deported at any time. Like all asylum seekers, she must ‘sign on’ each month at Dallas Court, a reporting centre in Manchester, which I?am told has a reputation for ‘kidnapping people’ and detaining them when they go to sign on. She tells me: “The week before I have to go I don’t sleep. I cry myself to sleep every night. I try to take it out of my mind, but something will always remind you that this is the week.”
Dallas Court does not represent the extent of Florence’s fear of detention, however. She fears that immigration officials may turn up at her house at any hour of the day and night and take her without warning. She tells me she knows women with babies who have been taken from their homes in their nightclothes in the early hours of the morning. “I never forget that.” She tells me. “How can I relax; how can I chill out when I know that might happen?”
It is no wonder that Florence tells me she feels tired all the time. “God knows I am tired of everything. Sometimes I?just want to take my life and be at rest.”
When we pick Michael up from school together at the end of the day, it is clear that Florence has little emotional energy remaining for her highly energetic and demanding son, who is suffering from arrested development and severe speech impediments as a result of the turbulence of his upbringing.
Florence has converted to Christianity since she arrived in the UK and her Manchester house is full of religious icons. A messianic hologram beams down from a high shelf, and mother Mary smiles at us from the wall. There is even a be-tinselled model of Father Christmas on top of the TV set.
It is hard to know whether this is a a hangover from Christmas or a supposedly reassuring Western symbol of the kind of benevolence, generosity and acceptance which this country has has, at least institutionally, failed so completely to bestow upon Florence to this day.