Guest post by Ceecee, a member of Women for Refugee Women’s Rainbow Sisters Group for LBT women asylum seekers
In January I was asked to speak to Rainbow Sisters over Zoom about my work on women’s health and barriers to accessing healthcare. We had a really interesting discussion, and Ceecee in particular was very keen to share her experiences on Hysterical Women afterwards. Many thanks to her. If you’d like to support Rainbow Sisters’ work, you can donate to Women for Refugee Women here, specifying that you’d like the money to be used for Rainbow Sisters projects.
I’m originally from Nigeria and I’ve been in the UK since I was 17. I’m now 30. My brother and I were originally brought here by our dad, on holiday, to visit his girlfriend – but then my dad left us. At first we and his girlfriend assumed he was going to come back for us, but he never did, and eventually the girlfriend left us as well. My brother was only nine at the time, so I had to become a kind of mother figure to him.
It wasn’t until 2017 that I claimed asylum, on the basis of my sexuality. I didn’t even know claiming asylum was an option before then – I didn’t know anything about it. I’d also spent years battling with my sexuality. I always liked women, but I only recently came to the conclusion that it wasn’t just ‘a phase’. Of course, the Home Office don’t believe me.
In the meantime I just had to find ways to survive and take care of my brother. I had to be strong for him, so I could never show him any vulnerability. I was raped and fell pregnant during those early days alone in the UK, and even then I couldn’t let my brother know how much I was suffering. I couldn’t break down or give up, there was no choice, because if I were to do that then what would happen to my brother?
Because I didn’t have any papers, I wasn’t registered with a doctor and couldn’t access healthcare. I had to rely on the idiot who’d raped and beaten the crap out of me to take me to a Marie Stopes clinic for an abortion. I was only 18 at the time. That was really the genesis of my issues as an adult, as well as the issues from back home. That was the breaking point for my mental health, but I just had to keep on going. I was in denial and didn’t believe there was anything wrong with me for a very long time.
Since claiming asylum it’s been easier to access healthcare and I’ve been trying to get support for my chronic back pain. So many times I’ve been to the doctors and they fob me off saying I just need to lose weight. I’ve never even been sent for an X-ray or an MRI to find out if there is something else going on. The pain is really impacting on my health, because I have difficulty sleeping, but “just lose weight” is always the first thing they tell me.
I have tried losing weight, but when you’re living on £37 a week asylum support, you don’t have money spare for a gym membership or anything like that. They take for granted that people must have money to spare for things like doctors’ letters and gym fees, but the small amount of money I get each week has to cover my upkeep and food. I’d love to go swimming for my health if it was free! When I told them this, they said they’d get back to me, but I’ve never heard anything.
It’s really hard. I feel like they just use my weight as an easy answer, rather than investigating properly. Nothing has been done – they tell me to lose weight, and prescribe me more painkillers, but I’ve been suffering with this pain for more than three years. It was bad enough before Covid, but since the pandemic it’s been harder to even see anyone at all.
I don’t think doctors really understand what it’s like for asylum seekers in the UK. I do get it; they’ve never been in that situation so they don’t know how it is, but sometimes when I go to them they make me feel like I’m complaining too much, when actually I’m just trying to explain what I want. I don’t feel like I can be myself or tell them anything, because they won’t understand the reality of what I’m going through.
Even when I speak to them about my mental health, I feel like they’re listening but not really hearing me. I had to refer myself for NHS talking therapy and then was on a waiting list for over a year. Once I finally got started with therapy, my therapist actually had to speak to my doctor to get them to listen to me, which is sad. Things had been so bad around that time that I nearly took my own life but, even though my doctors knew that, they didn’t seem to take it into consideration when they were speaking to me. It was like: “Just take your medicine, you’re cool, you’re fine, you’ll be alright. We’ll see you in two weeks, or a month, or whatever.”
As a queer woman too, there was one time when I mentioned my girlfriend to the doctor and he visibly recoiled from me, which made me feel like shit; like I had done something wrong. It made me feel like he saw me as a second class human, as if maybe I shouldn’t have said that. But why? We’re in the modern world, why shouldn’t I be able to say that I’m in a relationship with a woman? Why is that a big deal? After that I felt like he just wanted me out of his office, like he wanted to get rid of me as soon as possible, so I knew I wasn’t going to get the healthcare I’d gone in for. I didn’t feel like I could even ask him for anything.
That’s pretty much what we face with healthcare professionals. You can’t be yourself, and they just can’t understand our experiences. I do feel like that hinders the amount of care we’ll receive.
You can find Ceecee on Instagram @Ceecee_Mua, where she shares her incredible, self-taught makeup skills. You can also follow Women for Refugee Women’s Work @4refugeewomen, or find them online at refugeewomen.co.uk