From child bride to domestic abuse survivor to refugee

Laila* was married off at 13 and abused by her husband in Pakistan. If the UK deports her, she fears he will kill her.

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    Laila was born into a Balochi family and was married off as a child, only to be abused by her 28-year-old husband. This illustration bears no resemblance to Laila [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi]
    Laila was born into a Balochi family and was married off as a child, only to be abused by her 28-year-old husband. This illustration bears no resemblance to Laila [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi]

    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 Laila*.

    London, England - His mother wanted grandchildren, but in secret Adam forced his wife to have two back-alley abortions, because he didn't want the pressures of being a father. 

    For 15 years he lied to his family, saying that Laila* was incapable of conceiving, even though his wife desperately wanted a baby. 

    Laila was born into a wealthy family in the southern Pakistani metropolis of Karachi, and attended private school.

    But when she was 13, her parents, who are from the Balochi culture, took the girl out of her private school and arranged her marriage to a 28-year-old man. 

    "I had never seen my husband before in my life until our wedding day." 

    After the ceremony, she went to live with her spouse and his family at their house. 

    "I was so scared. Nobody told me what is the meaning of getting married or anything about sex." 

    On her wedding night, she learned it was painful, and ended with blood soaking the matrimonial bed. 

    "In the morning I woke up and some of the ladies told me to have a shower because we have to clean ourselves according to the Muslim faith. Next they put clothes on me and makeup. And then I had to sit all day in the room with everybody coming to see us, to give us money and bless us." 

    When the wedding guests went home, the caring attitude of her new in-laws changed. 

    In our country, when the girl gets married, you don't come out of your husband's house until you're dead.

    Laila*, refugee

    Growing up, Laila didn't do housework because her parents had servants. But now she was the servant. 

    Her in-laws were furious that she didn't know how to cook or clean, and complained bitterly to her husband.

    The abuse began immediately. 

    "They slapped me and pulled my hair. My husband used to grab me by the neck and strangle me. He'd throw whatever he had in his hand at me. I've still got the scars from stitches and open gashes."  

    One day, her husband threw a glass at Laila and it hit her wrist and shattered, cutting a vein. The bleeding wouldn't stop, so he took her to the hospital. 

    En route, he told her to lie about how the injury happened, to say it was an accident. 

    As his abuse methods escalated, Adam began to beat his wife with a pipe. 

    "[I thought] if I go to the police, they'll just say, 'It's a personal matter.'" 

    She told her mother about the violence, and while the older woman cried, the disgrace of divorce ruled out separation. "In our country, when the girl gets married, you don't come out of your husband's house until you're dead."

    Her in-laws also held Laila in contempt because of her inability to provide them with grandchildren, not knowing that their son was controlling his wife's fertility by forcing her to have abortions.

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    After a second back-alley abortion, she grew so weak that her mother-in-law took Laila to the doctor, who announced that in another week she would have been dead. 

    At this point the truth came out, and Adam was forced by his parents to relent. 

    Finally Laila delivered the baby she'd wanted, a boy she named Omar*. 

    "My son is my life. I love him so much, I would do anything for him." 

    However, the beatings continued, and her workload remained the same even though Laila now had to care for an infant. 

    As soon as he was old enough, Omar was inducted into servitude, running errands and carrying jugs of water up to the fourth floor. 

    This was not the worst of it, as he remembers: "I used to see my father abusing my mum. And when I would come to save her, I would get beaten up as well." 

    When Omar was 14, his mother made a vow to flee this life of brutality for her son's sake - a life she had led for 30 years. 

    By now Laila's father had died, and her mother feared her daughter would not survive these beatings much longer. 

    The two women conspired to sell their jewellery to buy one-way plane tickets to Manchester, a place neither had ever visited, but in the past they had had a family connection there. Laila applied for British tourist visas for herself and Omar, using her mother's address. She began plotting their escape.  

    On the day of the flight, Adam left for work and Laila prayed there'd be no interference from her in-laws. 

    She was shaking as she packed a single suitcase with clothes for the two of them. 

    They quietly left the house and took a taxi to the airport where Laila's mother met them, bringing the tickets and visas.

    A new beginning

    Laila's mother prepared to face alone the "shame" these actions would bring on the family honour as she hugged her daughter and grandson, knowing it was probably the last time they would meet.

    Laila and Omar arrived in Manchester in 2012 and claimed asylum as victims of domestic violence. 

    The Home Office provided them with accommodation while their case was under review, and an allowance of £70 ($88) each week for all their other needs: food, clothing, transportation.  

    Omar, who only spoke Urdu, enrolled in school and stayed late to learn English. He was bullied and beaten in high school but survived with the help of the police, who intervened. When he went to college and was earning top marks, he was bullied by another boy with whom he refused to share his homework.

    The UK government doesn't seem to be very keen to support unaccompanied women from Pakistan because it's seen as an implicit criticism of that government's ability to protect their citizens.

    Jane Graystone, director at Manchester City of Sanctuary

    The government is reluctant to deport children, so when Omar turned 18, a new and dangerous chapter opened. 

    Their application to remain was denied, and their housing and funding cut off. 

    Laila says the Home Office told her: "Yes, you've been a victim of domestic violence, but not at a level that if you go back your husband will kill you." 

    According to Jane Graystone, director at Manchester City of Sanctuary, the actions of the Home Office are politically motivated. 

    "The UK government doesn't seem to be very keen to support unaccompanied women from Pakistan because it's seen as an implicit criticism of that government's ability to protect their citizens."

    With their housing taken away, the mother and son were turned out into the street. In the daytime they sat at the library until it closed; at night they rode the buses until dawn. 

    Laila sold the last of her gold jewellery to hire a solicitor to appeal the ruling, which involved submitting new evidence. Her mother and brother wrote a letter saying that Laila's husband had come to their house and abused them, wanting to know her whereabouts. 

    Adam beat her mother and brother to make them tell, but they refused. Her family even provided a newspaper clipping showing a photo of Adam brandishing a gun at their home to threaten them. 

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    The appeal prompted Laila's housing to be reinstated while her case is under review. 

    The Home Office has noted that "failed asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are welcome to apply for Section 4 support."

    Given her reprieve from homelessness, Laila did not anticipate what happened next. "One morning I was in my flat, and there was a knock on the door. I thought maybe my housing officer came, but when I opened the door, there were six men and one woman. They came into my house and started pushing me to go upstairs. A woman like me who's five feet tall vs. six men, with two more men in the van.  

    "When they came in I was in my night clothes, and they wouldn't even let me change. They just took me like that to Dallas Court. At the court, they said, 'Where is your son?' I said, 'He's in college.' They said, 'We are going to the college to detain him.' I said, 'No, please don't do that. I'll call him'." 

    Omar came immediately and the agents took them to Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre where they stayed in detention for five days before being released. 

    Now Laila is working on resubmitting her case with the help of free legal aid; her money ran out and she is no longer able to afford counsel. 

    The court is seeking expert testimony on whether or not Laila's life would be in danger if she is deported.

    Laila must pay for the testimony, which she currently cannot afford since she is forbidden to work. 

    She is convinced that if she goes back to Karachi, her husband will kill her. 

    "A lot of his friends live in the same apartment building where my mum lives. Yeah, word will spread like a fire."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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