Overcoming loneliness: A refugee's journey

"When I first arrived, I struggled to be here"
"When I first arrived, I struggled to be here"

By Nat Nat

Last week, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness launched a new spotlight campaign for the next month, shining a light on something we don't talk about very often: the loneliness of asylum seekers and refugees.

As Jo herself said: loneliness doesn't discriminate. I know all too well how crippling it can be to feel lonely, isolated and unheard, and how often these issues remain unseen. I arrived in the UK in 2011. I was 22 years old. I had been tortured and I was alone. I had little, if any, power over my fate. For the first time, I understood what it meant to be a refugee.

Many of us will have left our family, friends, language and culture behind when fleeing our homes. We face a strange country and may be living in accommodation that doesn't always feel safe.


Many will still be coping with the impact of torture, having just survived a difficult and often traumatic journey to Europe, and facing the UK's complex asylum system alone.  In my case, I was young and female. Perhaps you can imagine the other vulnerabilities I faced in this uncertain new world.

When I first arrived, I struggled to be here. I needed urgent medical attention but I couldn't speak English, so I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened to me. Everyone seemed unhelpful with no time to give. When I was housed in temporary accommodation, everyone there looked unhappy. I couldn't trust anyone and I felt like the odd one out.

Even when I started to learn English, I feared that people would ask me about my past. I lost my confidence. I spent three years too scared to ask anyone for help. I would wait for them to come to me. I felt like I was being judged because of my past. People seemed to look at me differently. 

Eventually I was referred to Freedom from Torture, a specialist rehabilitation service supporting survivors of torture. It was this organisation that helped me find myself.

Now I understand that the past is the past and I don't worry about the future. But I still feel lonely sometimes, and I don't think this feeling will ever leave me. Back home I had my family, people with unconditional love for me. It is hard to replace that.

If I think about the advice I would give to my 22-year-old self, I would say: 'Don't sit and wait for help to come to you. Just keep knocking on doors and eventually someone will open up and let you in.'

I am now part of a network of torture survivor activists called Survivors Speak OUT. We come together to speak out against torture and its impact. I'm proud to say that we are supported by Freedom from Torture, the charity that was instrumental in helping me.

We believe that there are policy changes which could play a role in supporting asylum-seeking torture survivors and refugees in coping with the reality of loneliness.

Firstly, we must rethink the hostile environment which faces asylum seekers and torture survivors. This goes all the way from some figures in government to parts of the media. It is hard to keep your head up, or try to integrate rather than avoid retreating into your shell, when you feel like society is constantly encouraged to view you with suspicion.

The asylum system itself is also a problem. Freedom from Torture's Proving Torture report has highlighted the Home Office's failure to take proper account of expert medical evidence when assessing asylum claims, regularly resulting in torture survivors like me being denied the protection we need. If the government truly wants to help us feel less isolated, they must reaffirm their support for refugee protection and ensure the asylum system reflects those values.

On a practical level, English lessons can be the key to accessing your new world. Without them, it is just too easy to retreat further into yourself. And for torture survivors who have huge amounts of trauma to try and cope with, that is a dangerous place to be. New research by Refugee Action for the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness shows that English lessons are vital for fighting loneliness, and yet refugees face huge delays and problems in accessing appropriate classes.

It has taken me six years to build a new life for myself. I can now speak English. I am a final year psychology student. I have a part time job. I volunteer to support young children with learning disabilities.  I have a safe place to live and a network of friends.

But I sometimes still feel alone. And I know that I will never be able to share all of me and my past with anyone, as the risk that they might reject me is just too great.

Nat Nat is a refugee and torture survivor living in the UK. Nat Nat is not her real name.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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