To mark World Refugee Day on June 20 and Refugee Week in the UK from June 17 to 23, Al Jazeera is profiling five refugees who are based in England. This is the story of Soheila*.
London, England – Unfortunately, her mother viewed a love of mathematics as a cause for suspicion and concern and not the proper interest for a girl.
In high school, Soheila began spending time after class with other maths fanatics – who happened to be male – so she could discuss her obsession with them.
Her mum became worried that her daughter was using maths as a smokescreen to spend time alone with boys, and vowed to get Soheila married before she ruined her reputation.
And so, at 16, her parents arranged a wedding to a man 12 years her senior.
Soheila didn’t want to get married, but she explained: “It’s culture, it’s religion … it’s the neighbours.”
She was forced to drop out of school. Now her exploration of maths would be confined to calculating the grocery budget.
From her wedding night on, sex was a nightmare for the girl, who previously had no knowledge of marital relations. But she was sure that the rape she experienced with her husband was not normal.
When I came into this country, the democratic country, here again, I haven't opened the door. Even when the cage is open, I learn I haven't any wings to fly. And I am very, very tired.
He went into a violent frenzy in their bedroom, leaving her covered in bruises as he slammed her around. Both her partner and his mother, who lived with them, ignored her pleas.
At 17, Soheila was pregnant with their first son, and the next year a second boy was born.
As she was dealing with postpartum depression, her younger brother was killed in the Iraq War, and she went into deep mourning for him.
Her mental state prompted her mother-in-law to routinely threaten to take Soheila’s babies away.
In Iran, the father has legal sole rights to his children. He controls the family’s movement too, and must sign give his wife signed permission to leave the country or to take their children abroad.
Now the young mother feared losing her two sons while dreading what she knew the evening would bring when her husband had her alone in their bedroom. “I was scared because he was very crazy.”
She lived like this for over 20 years.
During this period she tried multiple times to get a divorce.
Soheila went to a doctor appointed by the court and showed him the bruises from when her husband had last raped her; the physician gave her a letter to present to the court discussing the evidence of severe violence.
“The judge asked me if I have a witness. I said, ‘No, because this happened in my room. Never somebody see me and him, because that happened in the bed.’ The judge didn’t believe me. It didn’t matter because the court follows Sharia law [Islamic law], which says the woman has to obey the man when he wants sex. Every time. And she must remain silent. I lost my God on that day.”
She never went back to her husband’s house after that day in court. Instead, she went to live with her mother, who was now a widow.
Soheila’s husband was furious that their sons, who were 18 and 19, joined her. He would stand outside his mother-in-law’s house and bellow for his wife to return, threatening everyone if they disobeyed him.
Soheila’s mother was worried, telling her daughter: “You have children. Every time you fight with him, our neighbours hear. It is not good.”
“At that time,” said Soheila, “I am weak. For six months I stay in my room and lock the door. I just cry – because I lost my God, I lost my family. I was very, very angry with my husband, his mum, my government – everyone. But I made my decision: I have to become a strong woman.”
Escape to Sweden
For the next eight years Soheila lived in limbo: legally married, yet refusing to live with her husband.
He continued coming to her family home, creating a disturbance, threatening her, and demanding she return.
But at 40, she was no longer a girl; she unlocked the door to her room and went to a gym to study Taekwondo.
She became a master of self-defence. No one would ever harm her again. Next, she became a coach, training other women in martial arts.
By 2012, her oldest son had gone to Manchester as an international student.
At the time Soheila was speaking regularly via Skype to a female friend living in Sweden. One night, the friends came up with a plan for Soheila’s escape.
She knew that her husband was planning a trip to Europe and promised to come back to him if he would take her with him to Sweden. He agreed, and Soheila, who had been banking the salary from her job as a Taekwondo instructor, and who had had the foresight to convert that money into US dollars, boarded the plane with a suitcase full of money.
The couple arrived at Stockholm airport, and Soheila announced she needed to go to the toilet. She took her suitcase with her.
While her husband waited outside the ladies’ room, his wife walked out the front door of the airport, hailed a taxi, and went to her friend’s house.
She spent two months in Sweden, during which time she called her son in Manchester to tell him what she had done.
Soheila’s tourist visa allowed her to visit any Schengen country, but that did not include the UK, where her son lived.
After learning that the Eurostar line that started in Belgium terminated in England, she decided to board the train in Brussels, with no idea what would happen after they went through the Channel Tunnel.
But then, a miracle: No one checked her ticket. Or visa.
In two hours Soheila arrived at St Pancras International in London. She couldn’t speak English but used a translation app to convey to officials that she was Iranian. They provided her with a Farsi interpreter who asked if she wanted to apply for asylum. When she indicated that she did, they took her to detention, where she remained for days.
She now found herself in prison, unable to speak the language, with no idea what would happen next.
She stopped eating, drinking, or speaking – a dire response that Soheila believes may have saved her. The authorities were very concerned for her mental state and released her early, telling her that normally asylum seekers have to stay in detention for three months. However, after four days, the Home Office took her to Liverpool and placed her in a shared house with other women. At this point, she had a total collapse.
“I was like a bird in the cage in my country. I want to open the cage, but I couldn’t. I want to fly, but I couldn’t. I have a dream – I only think about freedom. When I came into this country, the democratic country, here again, I haven’t opened the door. Even when the cage is open, I learn I haven’t any wings to fly. And I am very, very tired.”
‘Waiting for refugee status leaves people psychologically damaged’
Adapting to her new life proved to be an overwhelming challenge, and Soheila attempted suicide multiple times.
This is not a surprise according to Jane Graystone, director at Manchester City of Sanctuary. “The period of waiting for refugee status leaves people psychologically damaged.”
In Liverpool, Soheila began to gradually recuperate with the help of support services for asylum seekers.
For five years she saw a counsellor, Jean Comerford, who commented on Soheila’s case.
“She did not want her marriage. She was physically and mentally abused, raped, and her family was threatened. This lady went to the police, but she was sent back to her husband by them. She was lucky enough not to be raped by the police, which has happened to other Iranian women I have worked with – they have been imprisoned and raped.
“This lady was attacked badly enough to be hospitalised, but could not be treated without her husband’s permission, which he refused. He had total control of her children, and when fleeing she could not take them with her. It has taken years of therapy before she’s able to live a near normal life.”
Soheila’s perseverance has paid off and today, at 54, after six years of waiting, she has received the papers giving her permission to stay in the United Kingdom.
And yet the years of struggle have taken their toll. Her passion for mathematics extinguished at a young age, what remains now is a challenge to solve the riddle of creating a new life in her adopted country.