To mark World Refugee Day on June 20 and Refugee Week in the UK from June 17 to 23, Al Jazeera is profiling five refugees who are based in England. This is the story of Marie*.
London, England – On the day after Christmas in 2015, Marie* headed to her local market in Kinshasa.
“Me and my husband was making a business in the Congo. We worked together there selling bags, clothes – all kinds of things.”
They had been attending BIMA, an evangelical church led by former soldier and self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Mukungubila Mutombo, who ran for the DRC presidency in 2006.
As a fierce critic of then-President Joseph Kabila, he led his congregation in protests; in turn, the president’s security forces disbanded the church and hunted down its followers.
“If they know that you been to that church, they do something really bad. They just come to take you,” said Marie, “they kill you and your family.”
She had celebrated Christmas with her husband and five children on the 25th, and on the 26th she went shopping for food.
When she returned, her family was gone, and she assumed they’d gone for a stroll around the neighbourhood.
As she put away her groceries, there was a pounding on the door and when Marie went to answer it, she was shocked to find the police standing there.
“We have come for Salomon Wembo*.”
“He’s not at home.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know. I just came back from the market and he’s not here.”
The officers threatened her, “Don’t try to hide your husband from us.”
She assured them she had no idea where her family had gone.
The officers drove Marie to the police headquarters in Kintambo, a district southwest of the city. She was terrified as she rode in the backseat because she knew that dozens of her church’s followers had disappeared.
At the police headquarters, officers talked with deference to a man they addressed as “Mokonzi”, the Big Chief, and they led her into his office.
He asked her matter of factly: “Do you know why you’re here?” She did not. “Your husband was protesting against Kabila. We came to get your husband, but we didn’t see him. Instead, we find you. If you want me to help you, you must be like a girlfriend to me.” To clarify he added, “If you don’t want to be killed, you must be my girlfriend.”
Escaping from rape and kidnap
Marie was in her late 20s. She sat there, stunned, but quickly realised that she had no choice.
In the DRC, the Big Chief would have unchecked power. Here, in what a UN official once called the “rape capital of the world”, she understood that girlfriend was a euphemism for sex slave.
The police chief motioned for Marie to follow him. He drove her to the Hotel Nina in Kintambo, took her purse and removed her ID, money, and mobile phone then returned the empty bag to her, which now contained only her Bible with its black dog-eared leather cover.
Tucked between its pages lay a single photograph of her baby. Three years later this will be the only memento she retains of her five children.
She knew it was futile to resist his advances, so she had sex with the policeman, wondering the whole time if her husband was dead or alive. In the morning, the Big Chief locked her in the room and left, with no explanation of what was to come next.
Before noon, he returned with a driver and took Marie out to a car. She had only the rumpled clothes she’d thrown on the day before when heading to the market but now found herself at the Kinshasa airport, boarding a flight for Lubumbashi, the DRC’s second largest city.
She had been kidnapped.
When they landed, the police chief drove his captive to a house in a posh part of town. Inside the mansion, he raped her again.
Just as he finished, his phone rang and he rushed out of the room, speaking in hushed tones. Marie dressed frantically and searched the room for anything that might help her escape.
And there it was. A brown leather briefcase with thousands of US dollars in it. She grabbed a handful of bills, thrust them into her empty bag and slipped out while the policeman had his back to the bedroom door, whispering into the phone he was holding with one hand, gesturing with the other.
Out on the street, she saw a taxi heading towards her and flagged it down, directing the driver to take her to the bus station. She boarded a coach for Malawi, and when they stopped for a break, Marie followed the bus driver.
“I want to talk to you,” she said. “I got a problem. You see, I’m Congolese, coming from Lubumbashi. Some trouble come to me…but I’m running away from it. Can you help me?”
The driver looked her up and down, then said, “You got a passport?”
“No, I don’t have nothing. But I can give you a hundred US dollars if you help me.”
The driver agreed. He told Marie he had connections in Malawi and assured her: “If you got money, everything is easy.”
As soon as they arrived in Malawi, the bus driver’s associates went into action and took Marie around town to prepare for her trip. They showed her where to shower, then led her to a shop where she bought new clothes and a small suitcase.
Providing fake papers was not part of their service; instead, they made arrangements for her to walk through security without them.
“You just follow, and what they say to you, you do.”
The fix was in with all the staff – everyone was in on the deal. They checked her suitcase without a passport, walked her through security without a passport, and onto the aeroplane. Only at this point did she learn the destination chosen for her.
Searching for refuge
On New Year’s Eve 2015, Marie departed from Malawi’s international airport. She would land in London 20 hours later and stand in the queue for Heathrow Border Control with her heart thudding against her ribs, her breasts aching with un-nursed milk that had welled up for her lost baby. In her broken French, she would ask the immigration officer for asylum.
Marie knew if she was made to board the next plane back to the DRC, she’d have to contend with its weak excuse for justice.
Worse, she had escaped from the Big Chief and stolen his money – made him look like a fool – and he’d be furious. He could tell the authorities any story about her, accuse her of any crime, and they would turn her over to his custody.
She had no idea what had happened to her husband. Or her five children. But if she was to find them, she had to remain alive. These were the thoughts that ran through her mind as she waited in the line at Border Control.
The official asked for her passport, and when she explained that she didn’t have one, agents took her to a room where she remained for seven hours.
Marie hadn’t eaten since the flight, making it difficult to concentrate and answer the barrage of questions in French, which is not her native tongue.
Finally, a car took her to a hotel in London which was full of other asylum seekers.
Much to her relief, everyone there was friendly. She stayed there for five days before being transferred to the Britannia Hotel in Stockport, where she received three meals a day.
By this point, she was in severe pain from not being able to express her breast milk. Home Office staff took her to a GP who gave her medicine to stop the lactation.
“I am tired. Human being can’t live like I’m living here. People must help you, feed you. I know how to do business, do things on my own. But this, this is not a life.
She took the tablets with relief, but also sorrow at the finality they symbolised about her chances of reuniting with her infant.
She was transferred to Liverpool, then again to a shared house in Tyldesley.
On a walk around the small town, Marie passed the Tyldesley Independent Methodist Church and went inside.
She believes that she was being guided by God because once she entered, her life in Britain took a turn for the better.
“Come in, you are welcome!” the group called to her.
Even though they’d never had a black person visit before, they invited Marie to join them. She was soon singing in the choir, attending services, and developed a close relationship with a British woman named Margaret Mort “who became like my mother”.
Mort commented that Marie “is very much valued in our congregation. She’s been coming for three years, and she’s always willing to help in any way she can”.
During this time, Marie was pleading her asylum case to the Home Office at Dallas Court in Salford.
They told her that they did not believe her story, she said, and denied her application because she had no passport. At this point, Marie was evicted from her housing.
On November 29, 2018, Marie reported to Dallas Court as ordered and was told she was being deported.
They asked: “Don’t you want us to help you find your children back in the Congo?”
“I don’t know where my children is,” she responded. “How you can help me?” A satisfactory answer to this question was not provided. Al Jazeera has independently verified Marie’s situation with activists who have worked on her case.
Mort noted that “not even the Red Cross could find Marie’s family. She applied to them a couple of years ago, and they said there’s no trace.”
The agents placed Marie in the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, a detention centre for people destined for deportation.
The Home Office has stated that: “We only detain someone where there is a realistic prospect of removal in a reasonable timescale and removal is only enforced when we conclude that it is safe to do so.”
Marie understood that the next step would be a trip to the airport where she would be put on a plane for Kinshasa.
At Yarl’s Wood, she was photographed and examined by a doctor, who warned that her blood pressure was very high.
“Then the officer comes to take me to my room, and he gets the keys. First door closes. Second door closes.
“Tears are pouring now. It’s the first time in my life I been in the prison.”
Marie stopped eating, stopped even drinking water. She questioned God as to why every December was such a nightmare. It was in December that her family disappeared and now she was locked in prison, where she celebrated Christmas 2018.
Meanwhile, her Tyldesley congregation was praying for her and on December 27, she was released with no explanation.
Marie returned to the temporary housing she had secured through local charities, with no idea of what tomorrow holds, or what happens if she’s deported, or even if her family is dead or alive.
The only thing Marie knows for sure is this: “I am tired. Human being can’t live like I’m living here. People must help you, feed you. I know how to do business, do things on my own. But this, this is not a life.”
Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.