From depression to hope: An asylum seeker’s experiences in Cardiff

Asylum seekers in Cardiff must commit to a demanding application process. One individual’s experiences demonstrate how valuable the work of the Space4U charity is.

Asylum seekers arriving in Cardiff stay first at Lynx House

Cardiff is one of the key outposts to which asylum seekers are sent from London, due to the availability of cheap housing. Over the last year 28,000 asylum seekers applied for refugee status in the UK, 4% more than the previous year.

Space4U is a charity based on Newport Road in Cardiff that has transformed the lives of asylum seekers like Ella. After Ella was transported to Cardiff three years ago, she was moved into local accommodation and granted an allowance of £36 a week for all other expenses.

“I didn’t know whether it was day or whether it was night. I didn’t want to eat anything,” says Ella. “I was at home all day. There were only three places to go, my GP, the post office and a woman’s support organisation.”

Asylum seekers must demonstrate that they have a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. Whilst building their case, they must cope with the social isolation and enforced unemployment that they find themselves in.

Space4U’s advisory desk helps asylum seekers understand legal documents

“People may wait for 2 to 3 months, or even three to four years,” says Jenny McDowell, a trustee of the Space4U charity. “Some people are remarkably strong, they are survivors. Each day you’re waiting for something to happen, I don’t know how they manage to get through it.”

Ella’s case has been rejected repeatedly by the home office. After a year she was expelled from her accommodation, Space4U was the first place she went.

“When I came here, I was nothing,” says Ella. “It was through Space4U that I ended up finding somewhere to live. When I come here I have hope.”

From that point on Ella became more and more involved in the work at Space4U. “God gave me hands and legs to earn my living but I’m not allowed to work. These people have helped me a lot. I can’t give back with money, so I work for them for free. Whatever I do, I do it by my heart.”

Volunteers are responsible for cooking the free meals at the biweekly drop-ins

Alongside recreational drop-in sessions, Space4U relies on donations to provide food and clothing. Whilst being unable to give legal advice, they help asylum seekers understand the complex language used in legal documentation and signpost to other services.

“People sometimes arrive with only what they’re standing in. Some arrive in Winter wearing sandals,” says Jenny. “They can have very real mental health issues. Apart from everything else Space4U is somewhere to come out to. It doesn’t cost you any money, it just lifts your mind and mood for a while.”

Table football, pool and table tennis provide entertainment during the drop-ins

Space4U recognises how important learning English is to integrating effectively into the community. They offer taught classes, conversational sessions and one-to-one tuition. 

“You just feel powerless if you don’t understand the language. You’re completely at someone else’s whim,” says Jenny. “It infantilises people. If someone doesn’t understand they can be treated with less respect or as stupid.”

Native English speakers volunteer at the weekly conversation groups

Jenny estimates that 660 people attend over the course of a year, with an average of 170 attending their biweekly drop-ins.

“When I started to come down here. It really blew my mind really. It was like coming down to a different planet. The issues that people have to deal with routinely are unbelievable. There are individuals who have been tortured or have witnessed their families massacred.”

Jenny disagrees with how the media portrays asylum seekers. She is frustrated with how they are confused with economic migrants and considers the means by which they enter the country as justified.

Jenny (left) in conversation with a volunteer during a Space4U drop-in

“How else can you come into the UK? You don’t have documents or the money to buy a plane ticket,” says Jenny. “Asylum seekers are here because they fear for their lives. Some have left family, good land, good jobs and nice houses to live in some grotty room in some mouldy place in Splott. Why would you do that for £36 a week unless you had a good reason?”

“It’s a group of people who I have huge respect for. I think to myself, if I was in that situation what would I do and how would I survive? There was a time when this country was very proud to be a sanctuary. But something has changed and all of a sudden we don’t want that anymore.”