Sudan

Huda's story: Silenced in Sudan, finding a new voice in London

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LONDON (UNHCR) - Huda Al Amin has come a long way in more ways than one. From a helpless woman in Sudan, she went on to become a human rights activist in Egypt before settling down in England, where she is helping other refugee women like herself.
Her journey started in the Sudan, where she was stigmatised as a working woman who refused to conform to the strictures of state codes. She wanted to own and work her own land, but it was classified as a man's work. She was followed and threatened, and was repeatedly hauled up in court for refusing to wear Islamic dress.

"Six times I signed a declaration saying that if they find me not wearing Islamic dress again, I will be punished with 38 lashes," said Huda, a statuesque lady with a gentle glint in her eye. "And thank God each time I came up in front of a different court."

Undaunted, Huda was determined not only to work and live her own life, but also to fight for her beliefs and promote women's rights.

In 1996, she sought asylum in Cairo, Egypt, and got involved with the Sudanese Human Rights organisation. In 1997, she went to the war area in southern Sudan via Uganda to assess the situation of the women and children there. She brought a videotape of what she saw back to Cairo and showed it to other organisations.

According to Huda, her human rights activism made the Egyptian authorities uncomfortable. She was taken in for questioning, and believed she was being followed. Fearing the authorities would send her back to Sudan to an unknown fate, she decided to move on.

In April 1999, Huda fled to England. Putting her life in the hands of traffickers, she spent 21 harrowing days on a ship. The agent took her passport and left her with two men who hid her in their cabin and gave her food. "I didn't know where I was, I didn't know what was going to happen," she recalled.

After several more days of disorientating rail journeys, she arrived at Waterloo Station in London and claimed asylum immediately. "I was so relieved," she said. For the first time in her life, she felt respected as a human being, not dismissed as a second class citizen because of her gender.

She gained her refugee status in June 2000.

But Huda has not forgotten her raison d'être. Today, she runs Mosaada, a vibrant organisation aimed at supporting single women in hostels.

Citing her own experiences, she said, "Life in England is tough for single, female asylum seekers and refugees. Unless you have mental or physical health problems, or children, you don't get any support from social services."

She recalled that when she first arrived, the Town Hall gave her a list of hostels, then washed its hands of her.

She moved into a hostel run by a well-known charity, but said, "It was like a prison." Like many other refugees, she was stuck in a vicious circle, unable to get a job and dependent on housing benefits. She found hostel life very restrictive.

"We couldn't even cook our own food or have visitors in our rooms," she said. "No one gave me any information about possible training programmes. Women can get stuck in the hostels for more than three years and it affects their ability to enjoy life or get employment. They lose hope and shut themselves away in their rooms."

These women may be frightened, illiterate, unable to speak English and confused by the fast pace of London. Culturally, they may be used to depending on men. Refugees and asylum seekers are currently given tokens to exchange for food and money, and women can be so desperate that they will offer sex for cash, noted Huda. In mixed hostels there are even cases of sexual harassment, she said.

Without Mosaada - which means "help" in Arabic - these women would be forgotten. The non-profit organisation, staffed by Huda and 10 volunteer women, has provided support to over 150 women since 1999. It reaches out to them through activities like residential weekends, suppers and training in management and improving confidence.

"We want to support women to know their rights and learn how to say no instead of just accepting everything," said Huda.

She is currently working on a mentoring project and a conference on hostels and single women. She aims to provide her clients with the confidence and skills to survive outside their hostels, saying, "If we don't do this, these women will never be able to integrate into English society. They will stay excluded."

Much as she looks forward to the challenges in her new home, Huda remains optimistic about the home she left behind. She believes she has gained valuable skills and would love to help develop civil society in Sudan.

"If the regime changes today, I will go back tomorrow," she said with conviction.

Ursula Woodburn
UNHCR London