Somali woman from Manchester named woman of year for work with asylum seekers

  • Mariam Yusuf fled Somalia because of war
  • Left behind her two children
  • Award from UNHCR

A Somali woman who works with women refugees in Manchester has been named Woman of the Year in a prestigious awards ceremony.

Mariam Yusuf, who helps run a support group called Women Asylum Seeks Together (WAST), was presented with the award for her work with women who have fled violence in their own countries.

The awards are organised by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Migrants Organise and seeks to raise the profile of women refugees.

Like many other asylum seekers in the UK, Mariam says she is “stuck in limbo” unable to work or claim benefits and reliant on handouts from charities to survive.

Mariam, who is a member of minority Bajuni tribe, arrived in the UK in 2008 with no English and having been separated from her two children. She was caught up in the asylum system for six years, during which she was detained in Yarl’s Wood, and made destitute and homeless.

But despite the extreme hardship and injustice that she has suffered, Mariam learned English, made friends, stood up for herself and went on to provide essential support to many other women in need of support.

She told Sasca News: “Most of us have been victims of detention and have been traumatised. We are campaigning for the closure of detention centres and are planning a protest with the choir at the reporting centre in Manchester. We don’t sing for entertainment but to raise awareness and campaign.

“Most of the people who come to WAST are destitute and need a place where they can feel at home. They are homeless and don’t have a place to go. They live with friends and can become vulnerable to abusive relationships.”

Mariam,38, said that winning the award has given her “the courage and energy to go out there and do more”.

Together with her family, she fled Somalia's civil war in 1991 and ended up in the Jomvu refugee camp in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, where she became pregnant as a result of rape.

Ashamed that she was having a child outside of marriage, her family arranged for Miriam to marry an older man from the same tribe. But he was already married and Yusuf says his other wife physically and mentally abused her.

Miriam lost contact with her husband and when her brother was killed. Her father told her to flee to Europe, saying he would follow with her two children. She has lost contact with her children but thinks they may be in Kenya.

For three years, she was homeless, living with friends in London before coming to Manchester. Here she found a place to live with other female asylum-seekers through a Christian charity called the Boaz Trust which helps destitute asylum seeks.

Miriam is a vocal member of WAST and is part of the group’s choir.

WAST provides a twice-weekly drop-in center for female asylum seekers and organises awareness campaigns, including running the choir, producing plays and giving workshops in schools about the dangers of FGM.