Badly injured in an explosion in Mogadishu, Hawa fled war to build a life in the UK. I was introduced to her by Sue Noel at Brixton Advice Centre, who has been advocating for her in her fight with the Department for Work and Pensions. She talked to me about what had brought her to London, her hopes for the future and how a Department for Work and Pensions work capability assessment has bizarrely judged her fit to work. Words and pictures by James Hopkirk…
Hawa grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia. One afternoon in 2005, when she was 13, she was with her family at a neighbour’s house, watching their TV, when a stray mortar round hit the building. Her older brother was killed instantly, along with several members of her neighbour’s family.
Back then, Somalia was a country without a sitting government or any meaningful rule of law. In Mogadishu, rival warlords fought each other and Islamist terrorists for supremacy. Explosions, gun battles and assassinations were commonplace – but life, of sorts, carried on for its besieged citizens.
Hawa was hit by shrapnel in her left leg and was rushed to hospital, along with the other casualties. Her family could not afford medication, however, and so she was bandaged and released after a few days. Her leg became badly infected. A few weeks later, when she returned to the hospital, the doctor told her that he had to amputate below the knee immediately, or she would die.
She says she remembers little of the explosion – she was in shock – but she recalls very clearly the moment she was told that she would lose her leg. She saw the life she’d imagined for herself simply disappear, she says. She could no longer go to school – there were no pavements in the city and the roads were far too pot-holed for her to navigate on makeshift crutches. She could no longer go to the toilet by herself, or care for herself. She couldn’t go out to play with her friends.
“I couldn’t do what the other girls could do,” she tells me at Brixton Advice Centre, speaking with the help of a translator. “I cried every night. I prayed for something to change, for a miracle.”
To make matters worse, her back was also damaged in the blast, leaving her in near-constant pain. She lost much of her hearing, and unsurprisingly has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
For the next eight years, she lived like a hermit, a prisoner in her own home. Her parents did everything they could for her, but they struggled. Had it not been for them, she would have been destitute. “We were a poor family,” she says. “I was a girl with one leg. I could see there was no future for me.”
In 2013, when she was 22, her parents made a difficult decision. They sold their house – their only possession of any value – and used the money to pay people smugglers to take their daughter to the UK, where her eldest sister was living already, married to a British-Somali man. There, they hoped, there might be a future for a young, disabled woman.
Using forged documents, they brought Hawa to London, arriving on a flight at Heathrow Airport. “I didn’t know where they were taking me,” she says. “When we got to the airport they gave me a number to call and then left me.” The number was her sister’s, who rushed to the airport to meet her. They hadn’t seen each other for many years. “I cried so much when I saw her,” she says. “I was so happy, so relieved.”
The next day, her sister took her to the Home Office where she began the process of claiming asylum and, eventually, was granted leave to remain.
Initially, she lived with her sister, brother-in-law and their three children in a small two-bedroom flat, sleeping on the living room floor. It was cramped, difficult for her to access on crutches, and sleeping on the floor made her back pain worse. It was not a sustainable situation, and so she contacted Southwark Council to make a homeless application.
Despite the fact that the Home Office had accepted her asylum application and that her physical and mental vulnerabilities were well documented by this point, she was turned down. Not knowing what to do, her sister suggested she approach Brixton Advice Centre (BAC). Emma Rix, one of the paralegals at the time, contacted Southwark social services, and they managed to find a bed for her in temporary accommodation.
Hawa has been claiming disability benefits while she learns English and receives medical treatment and counselling, but earlier this year she was sent for a work capability assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions. They judged her fit to work, directly contradicting a detailed and unequivocal medical report from King’s College Hospital, with statements from her doctor and psychologist making clear that she is not yet physically or mentally capable of taking on work.
As a result, she now has to travel to the job centre and prove that she is actively looking for work – as if she were any other healthy jobseeker. She says she can’t understand how they could have come to such a decision.
With the help of both Sue Noel at BAC and Ali Awes at Certitude, a local mental health charity, she’s appealing the decision and is currently going through the mandatory reconsideration process. But this can take a long time, as BAC’s Nathan Scott explained to me when I interviewed him last year.
Changes to the benefits system introduced in 2013, all part of the Government’s austerity drive, mean that the appeals process is now slow and complicated. It can take months or even years for cases to be resolved. If her mandatory reconsideration is unsuccessful, she’ll then have to take her case to a tribunal. In the meantime, she’s surviving thanks to the support of her sister – although she too is struggling.
She says she is very keen to work and build as normal a life as possible for herself. She hopes one day to become a doctor. “Learning English is my priority now,” she says, “but ever since the doctor treated me in Mogadishu, I thought this is what I want to do. Maybe I can save some lives too. That’s my dream.”
I ask about her family back home. She says she misses them desperately. “It is much worse for them,” she says. “They don’t have much hope. They don’t have their own house, they’re living with some other relatives now. They depend financially on my sister [in the UK], because there is very little work in Mogadishu. And it is still very dangerous. Life is very hard for them.”
Hawa’s name has been changed at her request.