The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead

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June 2017

Freedom from Torture

Sheilah Grubb and John Willmer

One of the charities supported by the parish

I first volunteered as a befriender at the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture, as it was then called, in 2005.  Since then I've had three friends,  all of them having been persecuted for their faith.

The first two were Jehovah's Witnesses from Ethiopia, the first a young man who fled after his conscription summons in the Eritraen/Ethiopian conflict of 1998.  We'd only had a few meetings when he decided he was too busy training as a carpenter - I later heard he was a fitter in John Lewis - great! He had invested everything in his future.

Then I met A*, aged 18, who had just come out of hospital after surgery for Crohn's disease, most probably brought on by stress and deprivation.  Her mother had died in childbirth and she was brought up by her father, who was imprisoned for refusing to fight in the conflict, and died in prison.  A was arrested whilst attending a prayer meeting and beaten and tortured for three months - I remember seeing scars caused by electric prods on her legs.  She went into hiding when summoned for military service and arrived in this country in 2005.

I visited several times a week while she was in bed making a slow recovery. We read fairy stories, I taught her to knit and she taught me to crochet!  Our walks gradually increased and when she was strong enough she enrolled at the nearly FE college for English and Maths.  He father had taught her about car mechanics - she was most disappointed that I didn't have a car engine she could work on - and electrical installation. Eventually she started an NVQ course, but sadly this coincided  with her readmission for a reversal of her operation and she was unable to cope with the pressures.  We lost touch after she was granted leave to remain, and I last saw her when she was working in a coffee bar - and proud to be paying income tax (!) - and introduced her to my present friend.

B is the most vulnerable and traumatised, yet most courageous and resilient person I have ever met.  She was imprisoned with her Pentecostalist parents in Eritrea when she was 10.  They "disappeared" and she went to an "uncle" who arranged her trafficking to Saudi Arabia as a veritable "house slave".  She was beaten and horribly abused.  The family brought her to England on a forged passport when she was 16.  They abandoned her and she was taken into a children's home until she was 18 when I first met her, nearly seven years ago, when she was understandably vulnerable and extremely withdrawn.   For all that time she has been awaiting permission from the Home Office for leave to remain and refused five times.   The last hearing was in May when the judge had not read her history despite it having been pending since November - this  was supposed to be the third and final hearing.  These complications result from her forged passport saying she is from Ethiopia, older than her actual years;  her Amharic dialect, which she hasn't spoken since age 11, is suspect.  But during this time she has worked hard on her English, speaks and reads fluently and is qualified to work in Health and Social Care, eventually training as a nurse, but unable to utilise it.  Asylum seekers are not permitted to work; refugees are.

B  has helped several times at our Spring Fair, serving lunch and on the clothes section and came to Pride and Prejudice, the first play she had ever seen.  We have had great fun together cooking, making bread and she has cooked delicious injera meals at my house.  We spent Christmas together and she helped me and my son at the Community Centre Christmas lunch.
 
B  visited my 98 year old mother with me, we share visits to the ballet, cinema, museums and the National Gallery, where she taught me a lot about several Old Testament paintings.  We both love Kenwood, Regent's Park and Kew Gardens - any gardens - she always has a plant in her tiny room.

The devotion of the Foundation and most especially the friendships I have made there, have inspired me with their courage, resilience and faith.  I thank them.
FfT no longer provides a befriending scheme but Anneke Elwes, who trained there, has set up Host Nation to support Syrian refugees in North London.  Their website is hostnation.org.uk  and there is also a video about befrienders' experiences.

* their names have been removed.


Footnote
A big thankyou to Sheila Grubb for providing us with a personal view from her experience of survivors of torture who have found their way to this country and been helped by Freedom from Torture (FfT) and its befrienders.

FfT is the only human rights organization in this country solely dedicated to the care of torture survivors.  As well as providing medical and social care, they can help asylum seekers when possible with medico-legal reports in support of their claims for asylum.  Many survivors are so traumatized that treatment can take years and it is very costly.  More victims are referred to FfT than it has the resources to help.  Financial help was never more needed.

There will be a small poster and leaflet exhibition of the work of FfT and the needs of those it helps over the period of Refugee Week (19th to 25th June), and also of the London Churches Refugee Fund, which is the other charity which this church supports in the field of refugees and asylum seekers.  Please take a look at this.

LCRF’s annual report is just coming out, so I hope that it will be possible to have an update of its work in the next magazine.

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