As a befriender I have visited women from various cultures and backgrounds. I have been impressed by the courage, strength, compassion and sense of humour shown by ordinary women in very difficult circumstances. I have gained new insight into what is going on in the world, and explored differences in culture but have also seen the many things that we have in common.
Befriending involves giving emotional and practical support, however, it is mainly about offering friendship in the normal way. Seeing somebody from outside the centre on a weekly basis gives detained women the opportunity to have a different kind of relationship from that which they experience inside and a chance to talk about things beyond the closed world in which they find themselves. It also provides them with the ability to talk to someone on the outside about their day to day experiences and their feelings about their situation.
At times being a befriender can be hard, but it can also be a real pleasure and it is certainly one of the most rewarding and worthwhile things I have been involved in.
What do you find to talk about in an hour?
Sometimes people ask me wonderingly what we talk about when I visit a detainee at Yarl’s Wood.
It’s true that finding ways into a befriending relationship can be a problem, but hardly more so than beginning a conversation in many other social situations. Admittedly I have always found it hard when working through an interpreter, and occasionally when I sensed that the detainee had asked for a befriender more in the hope of small gifts than from a desire to converse. But mostly the women I have visited have been very happy to join in conversation and, eventually, to share their worries. I say “join in” because after a few weeks at Yarl’s Wood even the sturdiest women become depressed by the combination of inactivity & uncertainty, so I do think it is up to the befriender to try out possible areas of conversation and see what seems to work. Often detainees talk freely about minor health problems like skin care and headaches and not sleeping (if that is minor!), even if they are more reticent about major health problems. And food is a matter of universal passion.
But if detainees show any desire to tell me their story before they came to Yarl’s Wood, I am only too happy to listen, because each person’s story is different and fascinating and sheds new light both on contemporary African society and on our bizarre asylum system. I feel privileged to be in a position in which detainees have little incentive to lie to me. Whatever the reason, in most cases their stories seem to me to ring true. Often it is clear that the women in Yarl’s Wood have experienced a lot of arbitrary use of power by men in their home countries, so I try to make sure that in my situation, as a man visiting a woman, I am as consistent as possible, not promising more than I can deliver. I ring to ask if it’s convenient before I book a meeting. If she asks for Dove soap I try to get Dove soap, not something different.
Often with women who have worries about children of their own from whom they are separated, or about not having children, or not being able to have children, I have been hesitant to talk about my own family. But actually when I have taken in photos of my wife and children and grandchildren the response has been unmistakably positive. My wife has been quite moved by occasional calls from detainees who now feel they know her a bit too. Perhaps it’s not too surprising that in the weird environment of a Removal Centre, almost anything that reminds a woman of ordinary family life comes as a relief.
I have been visiting detainees at Yarl’s Wood for 3 years and in that time have made many many friends from all over the world. It is always a great privilege to hear the stories of those I visit – often very painful and disturbing – and to share with them part of their journey into an unknown future.
Often we, as befrienders, are the first people in this country that they have trusted enough to have been able to confide in, and who have listened without being judgmental or condemnatory.
Although there have often been very sad times when those I have been visiting have been returned to the countries they fled, there have also been times of great happiness when some have been released and granted leave to remain.
Often we never hear from those who have been removed, but, as befrienders, we will never forget the special times that we shared in the Visit’s Room, or the unique friendships that we were able to build.
What does being a befriender mean to me? Hard to know where to start really…
I went into it 2 years ago thinking, “Mmm, I can do that. Visit for an hour a week. I’m ok at listening, and like people. This sounds really interesting.”
Except that when you start, there’s so much more to it than that – but good. All through my adult life, I’ve liked to feel I’m involved in something somewhere that ‘makes a difference’. And now I’m retired, befriending is where I can find that. It might be because I’ve found the very colour shampoo that my detainee friend wanted to revive her hair (and her self-image), or found a decent case in a charity shop to avoid her returning to her country with her clothes carried in a black sack. On one occasion, it was e-mailing an organisation in Italy to ask for some evidence to verify her claim – something her solicitor would not have had the time to do. On another, getting her MP involved. Or, then again, bringing in antiseptic wipes and socks for her little girls, in detention with her; getting her a Bible of her own to read daily, rather than borrow; or just being on the other end of the phone when a friendly voice was needed. And whether it’s something simple or a bit more complicated that we do for detaines, the thanks is so heartfelt, it’s sometimes quite overwhelming.
We share time and emotion. We share joy and dismay, and very often share sheer frustration, so much worse for our detainee friends than us, but acutely felt by us too. We also share laughter, sometimes against a lot of odds, given some individuals’ circumstances or state of mental health.
I’ve met people who’ve become really important to me. I hate not knowing how some of those who’ve been returned are faring, but I wouldn’t be without this commitment now. Befriending matters to the detainees and it matters to us.