I was human trafficked into the UK and enslaved by my own aunt

I first stepped off the plane into the cold air of London when I was 16.

My aunty had taken me away from my family – who are poor farmers in Nigeria – under the promise of getting a good education.

I’d never left Nigeria before but she organised everything. I was nervous, but excited to start studying and to achieve something for my family. I didn’t know what the long-term plan was, I just thought that getting an education would set me up to get a better job in the future.

That excitement was soon crushed.

My aunty took me to her house and introduced me to her family – including her husband and four children all under the age of four. She said I must stay there to take care of the kids, cook, clean and do the chores. She lived there too and worked during the day but often went away to travel.

I felt devastated and when I asked her about me going to school, she told me the schools had no space. I desperately hoped it was temporary, but she had tricked me.

After a few months of doing the same thing every day, I lost hope. I tried to fight what my life had become but there was no point because she wouldn’t allow it. All the promises she made were lies just to get me here. I was a slave, and slaves don’t go to school.

I was kept there and worked all hours. I didn’t know anyone in the UK and I wasn’t allowed to leave the house except to collect the children from school.

I felt trapped and tried to cope by just trying to remember that my family was back home and that hopefully things would turn around one day and I would be able to have a good job and send money home.

I wish I had escaped then, but I didn’t know where to go and I was too afraid that I would be deported. My aunty also never let me speak to my family, and instead she fed them her lies. She never told me anything about my parents and I didn’t even know how to contact them directly so I was well and truly trapped.

I still didn’t have a way of finding or contacting my family back in Nigeria so I was stuck

During that time, I started getting terrible headaches, which became migraines that still plague me today. My aunty never let me see a doctor.

After about six years of this, I wasn’t needed anymore. It wasn’t even a conversation either – my aunty just kicked me out with no warning.

I was thrown out onto the streets and my aunty cut off all contact with me, which was absolutely terrifying. She sent me into the freezing, snowing, January night, not caring if I would live or die. I can’t forget that night because I had no personal belongings on me.

Looking back at this next chapter of my life is hard.

For the next six years, I moved from one family to another, looking after children informally to survive. I found these families through church or Facebook and in that time, I still didn’t have a way of finding or contacting my family back in Nigeria so I was stuck.

I was abused many times throughout this period of my life. One time, a man I met on Facebook said I could stay with him. I went to his house but he started sexually abusing me.

That’s the price I had to pay for a roof over my head, a price that too many women with insecure immigration status end up paying. Husbands would harass me or men would expect sex in exchange for giving me somewhere to stay.

Sometimes I refused, but then I was told to leave. The men sometimes told me that if I tried to get help I would be deported.

The cycle of abuse finally ended for me when I opened up to a woman at the playgroup a child I was babysitting attended. I was about to lose that job because they no longer needed me and she offered to help, saying that I could stay with her.

I started to volunteer with her, running an award-winning community project for parents and their young children to learn together. I love working with children and their parents, it’s therapeutic and it puts a smile on my face to see them learn and play together.

Without my friend’s support, I would never have had the courage to try and sort my immigration situation out

I ended up staying with her and in that time I experienced true kindness. As well as feeding me and paying for my medication for my migraines, she really supported me. She introduced me to her friend – after about eight months of staying with her – who is a lawyer and he explained to me that what I had been through was modern slavery, which is a crime in this country.

I didn’t know what to say, it just hurt to know that my own aunty did that to me.

He encouraged me to call the Salvation Army to explain what happened and they referred me to the Home Office to claim asylum.

Without my friend’s support, I would never have had the courage to try and sort my immigration situation out.

I had a terrifying interview with Home Office officials and it felt so hostile. My support worker came but they didn’t let her in, so I had to do the interview on my own. They kept asking me questions about my aunty but I didn’t know the answers because she had cut me off so I didn’t know where she was anymore. I was so scared that they would put me in detention or they would deport me back to Nigeria.

After the interview, I was taken to a place near Gatwick for three days and then on to Urban House in Wakefield. I was there for two months.

I shared a smelly bunk bed with a stranger, and on the first night my body was red, swollen and itchy from being bitten by bedbugs. The food was inedible so I survived on a little bread a day.

I actually count myself lucky because others were there for a lot longer, and it is not a good place.

Just before the pandemic hit, I was moved back to London to where I am staying now in the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) accommodation. The room I share is the smallest with barely room to walk between our beds.

Social distancing is out of the question. But at least here I can get out in the day and volunteer. This is what keeps me going, while the asylum process tries to drag me down.

It’s difficult for me to stay in and do nothing because I want to contribute to society and have a meaningful job so that I can support myself and build a future

During the first months of the pandemic, I was volunteering for 40 hours a week to package and deliver food parcels for the elderly and vulnerable in my local area. It is in my nature to try and help those who can’t help themselves.

I’m an active person and I need to keep myself busy, so I was also helping out at the British Heart Foundation shop until it closed for the lockdown.

Over one year after that interview with the Home Office and I still don’t have a decision on my asylum claim. I’ve been told they have a big backlog in processing asylum claims so they keep us waiting and waiting. The endless waiting is getting me down and making me feel depressed.

People seeking asylum are not allowed to work. That’s one of the hardest things for me. It’s difficult for me to stay in and do nothing because I want to contribute to society and have a meaningful job so that I can support myself and build a future.

I am given just over £5 a day by the Home Office. Sometimes I go to Dalston to buy ingredients to make my favourite meal, jollof rice. Just paying for the travel to get there costs more than my allowance for the day.

Charities like Women for Refugee Women and Hestia give me a little extra here and there. I am also studying hairdressing at college and this money enables me to buy data (there is no WiFi at my accommodation) to join those classes and charity support groups online. I want to study health and social care but the college won’t let me on that course because I am an asylum seeker.

The college helps other students with internet and funds for transport, but because I am an asylum seeker, they say they can’t help me.

Life is hard enough for people seeking asylum. It makes me nervous when I hear that the Home Office is planning to change the asylum process to make it harder for people like me who aren’t able to claim asylum the second they set foot in the UK.

To this day, my mother doesn’t really know what happened to me because I don’t have a way of contacting her. I can’t imagine her shame if she knew what I was really going through.

If my asylum claim is approved, I will get a job and try to find my family. I want to work with children and help people. Putting a smile on someone’s face brings me joy.

People who have been exploited in this country need support.

We need to build trusting relationships, we need to know we are not going to be hurt again. We need to be able to work, to restart our lives, to contribute to society while we are still young.

I am now 31 years old. My adult life so far has been taken from me, and the Home Office is now taking years more.

I just want to be safe and free.

Faith Obi is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the author and her ongoing asylum case.

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