The Prisoner’s Tale, as told to Christy Lefteri

A refugee story by the bestselling author, herself the child of Cypriot refugees

Christy Lefteri with refugees outside the centre in Athens where she volunteered in 2016.

Christy Lefteri with refugees outside the centre in Athens where she volunteered in 2016.

 

I’ve never met Lily and she will be fifteen soon. Beautiful Lily, sweet Lily, with the silent voice. She does not speak but she is very intelligent.

I didn’t want to meet her for the first time in detention, that would have been a really bad thing. Nobody wants to meet their daughter for the first time like that. It cements the stereotype. Black man in jail. This is not my family’s tale. That’s not how we live our lives.

The thing about the detention centre is that it suits them to segment people. On one side are those strictly with immigration issues and, on the other, people who are being deported because they have criminal pasts. I was put in this section when I got here, with the criminals, the hardened guys.

I didn’t know that this was the case when I first arrived. I just thought this is what detention is like everywhere. After about a month, one of the immigration officers was going through my records and she said,

‘Why are you here, in this wing, why are you in T Wing?’

I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m just here.’

She said, ‘Yeah but you don’t have a criminal record,’

‘No, I don’t have one.’

‘Then you should not be here. You should be on the other side.’

Oddly enough, the security in this wing is comparable to a high security prison. It’s a strange place to be: there are fights, there are people high on drugs. They take Black Mamba and Spice. Zombie drugs. Drugs that space you out, slow you down. You see people sprawled out. It’s so bad that even the guys who are selling have learnt how to put people in the recovery position. They’ve been watching the emergency medical team when they come in, they watch them, and learn. I’ve seen lives being saved.

People come to T Wing clean. The thing about detention is this: you don’t have a release date. They say that you’re meant to spend a maximum of six months here and then you will have a review. That’s not true. People spend years here. That… uncertainty. That… where is my life going?

This is all I knew: they were trying to deport me. I was constantly fighting an invisible enemy.

Once Friday passed, I relaxed. We all get weekly reports about how we’ve behaved and whether the Home Office has turned against us. If there is nothing negative in the letter, then you celebrate. I got to chill for two days, Saturday and Sunday. Come Monday, the fight started again.

You’re not really in prison, but that’s what it feels like. They lock your room at 9pm and open it at eight in the morning. You’re in a cell for approximately twelve hours a day.

But the guys inside are saying to me, ‘Now look, you’re getting off. You’re going to be free.’

I first came to the UK from X with my mother in 1998, when I was ten years old and she came for school. The government had a programme where they sent people to England. She studied Developmental Science and Rural Development because she wanted to work with NGOs. Back then, we stayed in Manchester.

The most startling thing was the cold. I was introduced to a game called rugby. When we played, my hands turned blue. I told the PE teacher that my hands had gone blue and he said to me,

‘Okay, go home and run them under cold-ish water.’

And I thought to myself, ‘If my hands are cold, why would I run them under cold water?’ So, I ran them under hot water. And I screamed.

The next day he asked me, ‘Did you run them under cold water or hot water?’

I smiled and I told him hot water.

He said, ‘Was it painful?’

I told him, very painful!

I’d never experienced cold like that before. That’s one of the longest memories I have of those early days. I was exposed to that really cold weather.

I was alone a lot.

In Manchester, at the time, it was so different from home. People kept to themselves. When we were kids, we just walked outside, friendships started from there. Parents weren’t too worried about where their children were, they knew they were playing in the park with other children. Here I found that it wasn’t the same. It’s only when I moved to another area in Manchester that things were different. The majority of the kids were Pakistani and Indian – they were running helter-skelter there! I even learnt to play cricket!

By the time I was seventeen, I was a very good sportsman. You know, your typical jock, playing football. Everybody knows you because you play footy. Well, things were going on back home that I did not know about. My mother’s younger brother died. But she didn’t fill me in on what was happening. I just remember she was in pain because her brother died. But she never really let me know about everything, not even about the asylum application. I didn’t know about that. She kept me in the dark. I was trying to play football when I was a teenager, trying to be as good as I could. I wanted to get a scholarship to play American college soccer. Lots of my friends tried out and eventually did go. But my mum’s request for asylum was denied and we had to leave and go back to our country of exile.

Before we left, though, I had a relationship and that resulted in my daughter being born a year later. By that time, I was no longer there.

Beautiful Lily, sweet Lily, with the silent voice. I have seen photographs of her, had little conversations with her on Skype, where she smiled and said a few words - whatever she could manage. I’ve never held her in my arms and told her that she will be safe in this world - that I will keep her safe. A tale that every father tells.

Now the guys inside are saying to me, ‘You’re good to go. You’re going to get off.’

It scares me that I have never met my daughter. The Home Office were using this against me. I told them, ‘I have a family!’ But in the report they gave me, they wrote things like:

Has no family ties.

That’s one of the things that they always wrote:

Has no family ties to the UK, and therefore would abscond if he got bail to be out of detention.

The reason they were saying this is because Lily hadn’t come to see me. But I didn’t want my daughter to see me in here, like a prisoner. If she was to come in and prove that she is my daughter, maybe their report would have changed. But nobody wants to meet their daughter for the first time like that.

I would have probably chosen another place, maybe. Back home, you hear people call the UK a hostile environment. From afar, when you hear about a hostile environment, and when you see what’s going on with people like Trump and all these things, it’s not easy to even think about coming to a place like this. It’s… it’s… it’s… it’s… Sometimes I am lost for words.

I am lost. I feel lost. But I came here for Lily. I would have gone somewhere friendlier, like South Africa, just as a friend of mine did. But if I went there, I would have been so far from my child.

A few months before I came back to the UK, my brother was stabbed. In the West, you will say cousin, but in my culture I call him my younger brother. It’s a different way of viewing family altogether. It can’t be compared. Apples and oranges.

He was stabbed in the neck and killed in a shopping mall in February. It was done in public, not in secret. Stabbed in the neck and people just walked away. Back home, we have capital punishment, but this guy murdered in the open and he’s still free. This is tribal stuff. We’re from X originally, but we always have tribal issues amongst ourselves.

Before coming here, I got interrogated by a government directorate. My grandmother had children with a prominent person, that person was one of the first members of parliament when my country was formed. He happens to be my grandfather. He was in power since 1966 and his son, my father, was subsequently also a member of parliament until recently. I have lots of family connections in politics as a result of that. I mentioned this to one of my bosses. I was a procurement officer in my country in the same region and he didn’t know my past because my surname is different from my grandfather’s, as my mother didn’t get married to my father. I mentioned it once and after a month or so I got called in to be investigated for corruption and economic crime. Because they thought, ‘Oh okay, this is a political connection,’ that I might be giving kick-backs to my uncles and so forth. I stopped going on campaigns, I stopped being involved in certain things. If they know your family they know which way you lean politically. It’s not about what you know, it’s who you know.

I got a ticket, quite expensive, and went to Ireland, because I had no history there. I understood that I would have problems coming straight to the UK. I planned to go through Northern Ireland, to Scotland, and finally get to Manchester where my daughter was staying and claim asylum at a later stage. The guys back home who worked in immigration said, ‘You don’t know how it could go there, with the hostile environment in the UK. You just don’t know.’

At this point in time, all I was thinking was that I had to see my daughter. As much as I was worrying about what was going on in my country, the only thing that really mattered was the idea of meeting my daughter.

I landed in Ireland. I spent a few days there and I came over through Northern Ireland and showed my passport. It was a strange thing. That’s where I encountered problems, when I arrived in Scotland. The border police stopped me. They wouldn’t let me in. They said, ‘You’ve had previous immigration problems and therefore you have to go to a detention centre. And that’s what we’re going to do.’

So I spent a few hours in the police station. It was the first time I’d ever been in handcuffs.

I went to the detention centre in Glasgow. I was lost. I wanted to see Lily.

I told them, ‘I want to see my daughter.’

They told me, ‘We want to deport you.’

The food was a problem. After breakfast, I didn’t feel like eating. I was just bloated the whole time. I don’t know what was going on. You just eat because it’s time to eat, not because you’re hungry or you want to eat. You eat.

I asked my friend, ‘What do they put in this food?’

He said, ‘I feel the same way all the time.’

We shared rooms, sometimes in twos, sometimes in fours. This guy was Congolese. His English was not so great. He was saying, ‘My roommates are always bursting.’

I said, ‘What do you mean your roommates are always bursting?’

What he meant was that they were farting.

We ate in the cafeteria. Dungavel is open, men and women in one place, grass, greenery. But then there’s a point that you can’t pass because you’ll be approaching the fence and you’re not meant to do that. Because they’re watching you. They’ve got cameras watching you. Intensive security. Dogs. Guards walking around with dogs, checking the perimeter all the time. Sometimes they’re showing you their presence, they’re showing you that we are here. If anyone was to try to jump over we are here. It could turn negative quite quickly.

Apart from that the staff members were quite relaxed. It was okay, good library, lots of DVDs and things like that.

I was moved though. I was moved to London after three weeks, after I had my initial interview. Before the interview, they tried to deny me the right to apply for asylum, on the basis that I had applied before. But I was a minor then. They were going to send me back home, they booked the flight and everything and I said to them, ‘If you’re going to send me anywhere, send me somewhere else, not back there.’

My solicitor put through a judicial review to allow me to apply for my asylum. Technically, I’d never made an application on my own. I wasn’t even eighteen when I left the country the first time.

So I had my interview, finally, and I was sent to London so that I could hopefully have a bail hearing. I remember being told by some of the guys in detention, ‘Look mate, London is a different ballgame altogether.’

Here, I spend about twelve hours inside and then you’re allowed to walk around in your particular wing. For three hours, maybe, you can go to the gym or something like that. And if they allow you access to the church, you can go to church, depending on which day it is.

Someone died in detention. It was a guy from my church. Late at night, there was a loud crash and the people in the cells next door tried to get the attention of the guards. But the guards ignored them, they did not come. In the morning, the guards discovered him on the floor. They dragged him out and attempted to resuscitate him and the guy next door - very skinny guy from Sudan - he said to them,

‘You guys must think you are Jesus Christ. You’re trying to revive the dead. We know that he died yesterday. So there’s no use trying to revive him for show.’

The guys that have been to jail said to me, ‘Come on, don’t let the system beat you down!’

But they are stronger. They know how to handle it more. Me, I’ve never considered criminality, I could never imagine being locked in a cell. In Glasgow, it was different. Although I still couldn’t leave, at least they had this artificial way of making it look like you’re not in a jail cell. This detention centre is a prison. They call it a detention centre, but it’s a prison. It violates your mind because you have no way to know what is going to happen next. People know how to do time. You tell them, six months, then you’re free. Here, anything can happen to you. Sometimes you can have an over-zealous case worker who is always against you, who turns the Home Office against you. Your dilemma is fighting the Home Office. The worst are the engagement officers - witches and crooks - they’re the worst. They come in pretending to be good listeners, a listening ear, but in actual fact they are there to suss you out. You don’t get to see your case worker, you just see the engagement officer. They tell you they don’t have the power to do anything, they’re only there to hear you out.

I ask, ‘Are you going to hear me out, to speak on my behalf?’

They say, ‘No.’

‘So, if you’re not speaking on my behalf, then I can only assume that you are working against me.’

The other guys in detention told me that I shouldn’t be meeting with my engagement officer. They said, ‘that’s the worst thing to do!’

For two months I was meeting with my engagement officer, not knowing that everyone else was not doing that. It was working against me. This is standard practice. The engagement officer will call you to arrange a meeting, and you ask them,

‘Would you like to meet because you’re coming to tell me that I’m going to be released?’

‘No.’

‘Then there’s no point in us meeting.’

They’re collecting information about you, making reports. If you get into a fight, if you play football and there’s a bit of argy-bargy, you might find that when you go to your bail hearing something like that will pop up. And you think, ‘Wait a minute… how did that get so far to arrive in the courtroom? How does the Home Office know about this one small thing?’

Beautiful Lily, sweet Lily, with the silent voice.

And now… now the guys inside are saying to me, ‘Now look. You’re getting out. You’re good to go. You’re going to get off.’

So, finally, things started to go well. I went to court again, in Bradford, to address what had happened before. I remember being there. My barrister and the Home Office barrister were talking about fish and chips in Ireland. It looked like they were having this conversation beforehand, they were talking about fish and chips in Ireland during my court case, just before the judge arrived. When the judge came in, my barrister stood up and spoke and then the Home Office barrister said to the judge,

‘Look, there’s nothing to argue here about how the previous judge carried out the case. She was wrong in the way she carried out the law and I’m not even going to argue against it.’

It was so badly done that the judge didn’t even bother arguing - he just let it be. The detention process, that whole situation, that’s how badly it can go for you. The court case lasted about three minutes. My barrister spoke for about two minutes, the judge for one, and that was all. Then a report came out two days later saying,

We are going to start again from the beginning, and then we can move forward.

And that was just the beginning of another long process, waiting for my bail hearing, imagining my daughter like a bright star in the dark sky, urging me to keep going, to not give up.

So, this time, well, now I’m getting out. I know my way around London because I came many times when I lived in Manchester, once upon a time. If I get lost, I will find myself again. When you’re taken to a bail hearing, you leave the way you entered. This time it’s different; I’m not in a locked vehicle. I am walking out of detention. Through the massive, massive, massive gates. Like I said - high security. I cannot stop thinking about Lily. It’s hard for me to believe that I will be meeting her soon. I will be staying with someone I know until I get accommodation sorted. I needed to be able to give them an address so I could get out. But, before anything else, I will be meeting Lily.

The thing about my daughter is that she’s got a condition, social anxiety, she does not speak much. She’s really intelligent. She suffers from extreme shyness and she is having counselling. She is no longer in your regular school. So, she goes through a lot. When I spoke to her mother on the phone, we made a point that when I first meet her, it’s not going to be a Hollywood moment - you know, slow motion, slow music, me picking her up and twirling her around. Although that is exactly what I want to do!

I should be as calm as I can. Too much attention makes her freeze. She gets sad because she’s not able to interact like you and me. This puts a lot of pressure on her to do it, and she fails. Then she feels sad because she failed. But if you don’t give her the opportunity to interact with you, she’s sad because she feels left out.

So it’s like a double-edged sword.

I have to be restrained when I give her a hug.

Beautiful Lily, sweet Lily, with the silent voice.

The sun is setting, but it’s still a little bright out. I feel disorientated.

So I get on the bus.

Refugee Tales: Volume IV, edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus, is published by Comma Press on July 28th. All proceeds go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help.

Brought up in London, Christy Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees. She holds a PhD in creative writing from Brunel University, where she is now a lecturer. Her novel, the international bestseller The Beekeeper of Aleppo, won the Aspen Words Literary Prize and was the runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She is also the author of A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible, which was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her latest novel, Songbirds, is published this month.

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