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Somali asylum-seeker takes centre stage at the Royal Festival Hall

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Somali asylum-seeker takes centre stage at the Royal Festival Hall

Women on the Move Awards celebrate the outstanding contributions of refugee and asylum-seeking women.
15 March 2016
Women on the Move Awards 2016's Woman of the Year, Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf photographed with fellow award winner Seada Fekadu

When Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf arrived in the UK eight years ago, she thought that her years searching for safety were finally at an end. Little did she know that the biggest ordeal she would face was still ahead of her.

Born on the island of Chula off the coast of Somalia, Mariam’s Bajuni tribe was targeted during Somalia’s civil war and fled to the Jomvu refugee camp in the Kenyan port of Mombasa. When she became pregnant as a result of rape, her family arranged for her to marry an older man, but the marriage only exposed the teenage Mariam to further violence and bullying. Pregnant with her second child, she escaped her husband and returned home to Chula and her father, a single mother now with two children and little more than a girl herself.

Life on the island became even tougher when Somalia’s latent clan warfare reignited and her family again came under attack. After her brother was killed, her father urged Mariam to seek safety in Europe, reassuring her that he would follow straight after with the children. With the help of smugglers, she reached Kenya and from there flew to the UK in 2008. At the time her children were aged ten and fourteen, and the day she left Chula was the last day she ever saw them.

The separation that followed has been the hardest trial that Mariam has faced. She was unable to send for her children because she has still not been granted refugee status. After rounds of interviews and appeals, exposing her trauma to strangers, being moved from town to town, her case has still not been accepted by the Home Office.

“The toughest thing about leaving Somalia was leaving my children, only to come here and become more confused. I thought I was coming to safety. I had never heard of seeking asylum or the Home Office. I was just running from persecution to a safe place. But I never got there,” said Mariam.

Woman of the Year Award winner Mariam Yusuf, centre with (left to right) Lindsey Hilsum, Joon Lynn Goh (Citizens UK), Phyllida Lloyd, Livia Firth, Seada Fekadu, Zrinka Bralo, Reverend Karen Rooms (Citizens UK), Rabbi Janet Darley (Citizens UK) and Razan Al Akraa (Citizens UK)

Since arriving in the UK, Mariam has been detained, destitute and homeless, and has suffered from TB. But she refuses to be ground down by her experiences.  Wanting something positive to come out of her struggles, Mariam has dedicated her time to campaigning to ensure that other asylum-seekers are not forced into similar hardships. A tireless champion for the rights of women who have experienced domestic violence and female genital mutilation, Mariam is a source of support and hope for many people who are seeking protection and trying to rebuild their lives.

It is this work that led her to be nominated for the Women on the Move Awards, an annual prize given by UNHCR and Migrants Organise to celebrate exceptional refugees who have made an outstanding contribution to women's empowerment and integration. On Friday 11th March, Mariam took centre stage at the Women of the World Festival to accept her award, surrounded by her fellow singers from the Women Asylum-Seekers Together choir who had travelled down from Manchester to support her.

“I am proud because I’ve inspired a lot of asylum seekers, other women,” she said. “I’ve told them to show their talents. You’re not seeking asylum because you have nothing to offer. I tell them, go out there, integrate, you have something to give. Let people know what you’re going through and they’ll help you from there.”

On stage at the Royal Festival Hall at London’s Southbank Centre, Mariam radiates strength and resilience. On being recognised as Woman of the Year, Mariam said: “If we did not speak out, no one would know what happened to us. It’s important for a woman who is vulnerable to say to the community that she is living in, ‘I am here, I am human’. I have come from a terrible background, but I have come so far. Winning the award means that somebody somewhere has been watching what I’ve been doing and my work hasn’t gone unnoticed. It gives me the courage and energy to go out there and do more.”

Speaking at the ceremony, UNHCR’s Representative to the UK Gonzalo Vargas Llosa said: ‘Women can face particular difficulties when it comes to applying for asylum in the UK. But against the odds, Mariam has fought for her own survival and is now fighting to help other people to survive.”

After eight years of being stuck in limbo, Mariam’s future is still uncertain. She still dreams of seeing her children again, and she refuses to give up hope.