We are delighted to bring you part two of Amy’s remarkable work with a a moving and challenging charity. This part carries on from our first interview with Amy Porter published here on 16th October
John: You mentioned that your Clients have difficulty accessing services, but presumably they have applied for asylum and therefore would be picked up by Social Services and other Government Agencies?
Amy: The asylum system in the UK is very complex and challenging, especially when you add in the severe trauma that survivors of torture experience. Having embarked upon on what is often a dangerous journey and arrived safely in the UK, our clients find themselves plunged into this complex system, characterised by a ‘culture of disbelief’, where they have to prove exactly who they are and what they have been through.
Asylum seekers are assigned housing, which is often in extremely poor condition (you can refer back to the poverty report for more details of this) and special ‘asylum seeker’ benefits – currently £36 a week for a single man or woman living alone, and a bit more for families. They must use this to buy everything from clothes and food to medicines and travel fares. Sometimes, this benefit is loaded onto an ‘azure card’, which can be used only in select shops. Already very vulnerable, and often suffering severe physical and mental symptoms related to their torture, survivors may find it difficult to access their solicitor (assigned to them by the Home Office), because they cannot pay the travel fares to visit them or buy credit to telephone. They may struggle to communicate through interpreters who do not speak their local dialect or correctly translate everything they say. Or they may simply be terrified to seek medical help, due to the fear that a doctor or nurse may be a ‘police informant’ or may not understand or believe them.
It is also worth nothing that if/when our clients are accorded their ‘asylum status’ (which is usually for a duration of 5 years only, after which they will have to re-apply), a whole new set of challenges begin! After 28 days, their asylum benefits and right to accommodation stop, and they are left to fend for themselves. It is sadly at this point when some of our clients find themselves destitute and/or street homeless.
John: You mentioned Freedom from Torture had an office in Birmingham but do they operate anywhere else in the UK?
Amy: Freedom from Torture began life as the ‘Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture’, in a shed in the back garden of the Amnesty International premises in London! Sadly, the doctors and therapists who set up the then ‘Medical Foundation’ found that there was a great demand for their work – providing psychological therapy to torture survivors, and writing medico-legal reports to evidence their torture and help with asylum cases. Today, our London headquarters is a purpose-built three storey building, with a peaceful outdoor area where gardening is used as a form of therapy. However, in 2000, the UK Home Office embarked upon a dispersal policy, sending asylum seekers to other cities. Freedom from Torture responded by setting up regional centres in areas with high dispersal rates – now we have centres in Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle and Birmingham. These regional centres are essential for us to be able to respond to the need for rehabilitation and support at the local level, in areas where the support services available to asylum seekers and refugees (and survivors of torture specifically), are much more limited than in London. Still, we recognise that we cannot see every single survivor of torture, and we have to prioritise the most severe cases. As such, our clinical staff also design and facilitate tailored training courses for other organisations in the West Midlands community who come into contact with our client group, to help their staff build a strong understanding of the specific needs of survivors of torture, and enable them to cater for their needs. These include NHS staff, as well as staff from other agencies within the statutory and charity sectors.
John: If you were able to invite one Celebrity to Dinner. Who would it be and Why?
Amy: I think it would be Benjamin Zephaniah, since I saw him in Birmingham recently talking about his latest book. He is a huge inspiration for many people from all walks of life, of all ages and backgrounds. He speaks well on issues relating to social injustice and inequality and is a great advocate for peace; all things which I am passionate about. He speaks Mandarin Chinese, which I have dabbled with as well, so maybe we could practise a bit. Plus, he is a vegan, and I’ve been trying my best to follow a vegan diet since January this year, so I am sure that he would be able to introduce me to some delicious vegan dishes, and hopefully desserts too!
John: Finally, if you hadn’t done what you do now what do you think you may have done?
Amy: When I began studying languages at college aged 16, I discovered all the opportunities it might bring for travel in the future. Wouldn’t we all love to live somewhere warmer? At that time, I was just beginning to develop a sense of the importance of standing up for what you believe in and trying your best to be a positive force for good. Then, when I was coming to the end of my degree at Aston University, I toyed with the idea of applying for diplomatic service, as I thought I might like to represent my country. So I think I may have gone in to politics or civil service of some kind, particularly at the EU level. But who knows what the future holds… maybe there’s still time!
John: Thank you Amy for your most interesting and inspiring talk.