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Hannah Bradby
Professor Hannah Bradby

Authored by Hannah Bradby, Professor in the Sociology Department, Uppsala University, Sweden and Researcher for the SEREDA Project

Maryam had been in Germany 16 days when we spoke.

It was early evening and a pause in the demands of her three children meant that Maryam had an hour to tell me her story.  I obtained Maryam’s number from another pro-refugee activist in Sweden. Both women, of Afghani origin arrived in Sweden in 2015, hopeful of a better life.

Four years and three months after her arrival, Maryam, together with her family, left Sweden to apply for asylum in Germany. And she told me why.

Maryam’s precision about the periods of time she has spent in Iran, Afghanistan, Sweden and now Germany is born out of endless conversations with the Swedish Migration Board who demanded an irrefutable account of her refugee journey. Maryam learned that even when time was hard to keep track of due to depression, anxiety, hunger, whether confined to a basement in Istanbul, a refugee camp on a Greek Island or a flat in small-town Sweden, precision is nonetheless demanded by officialdom. 

Despite Maryam’s precision about the timing of her migratory movements, the Swedish state repeatedly refused her asylum.

Maryam was born to Afghani parents as an undocumented migrant in Iran. As a child  Maryam wasn’t allowed to attend school, but at the age of 13, her family was finally granted residency papers, so she could start her education at the local school. Not long afterwards, a new Iranian president deemed that resources should not be wasted on educating girls, so she had to leave again.

Maryam nonetheless pursued her education privately, gaining a teaching qualification in Iran, and learning English, in addition to being fluent in Dari and Farsi. 

As a young married woman she was deported from Iran to Afghanistan. She moved in with her husband’s parents where she was regularly abused. After three years she persuaded her husband to leave Afghanistan and they were smuggled to Sweden.

In Sweden Maryam applied for asylum and slowly regained her physical and mental health.

Within a year Maryam had learned to speak Swedish and gained employment as a facilitator and translator in short-term municipal cultural projects. Despite living in shared asylum-seekers’ accommodation without proper facilities for family life, Maryam felt that she was making a new life for herself and her children. With support from local colleagues, Maryam applied for work as a teaching assistant and her new salary meant she could rent a flat and establish family life for her children.

Maryam was a model migrant, fighting for education and employment opportunities for herself and her children.

Then Maryam received notification that her application for asylum had been refused and she was denied the right to work. Without her salary, she was unable to keep up the rent for her apartment. The family were destitute. Her children lost their school places and could no longer take part in their after-school activities.

Destitution was not the worst humiliation for Maryam. She had been prepared to beg the local authority for housing and accept a small, unclean apartment. She tolerated the insistent suggestion from a Migration Board official that she should return to Afghanistan. She waited for her appeal to be processed. She waited and waited, hopeful of the right to residency being granted.

But there was an incident - a dog bit Maryam’s son. The dog, running off the leash in a playpark, attacked her son and wounded his back and ear.  He required immediate surgery. The morning after the attack, the same dog-owner let four dogs lose, right in front of Maryam’s apartment.  The dog attack and its aftermath were all witnessed by citizens who prepared to testify, so Maryam hoped for justice.

At the court hearing seven months after the attack, the dog-owner was required to pay a minimal fine to her son. Maryam was aghast at the light punishment the dog-owner incurred.  Maryam’s children have suffered  – through exile, the asylum process and their uncertain future. But the final insult was injustice of the dog bite incident.

‘So I had to leave Sweden: I could not let that happen to my child again’, said Maryam.

The decision to leave Sweden was not taken lightly: ‘It is not easy to leave.’ Although Maryam and her children experienced many heartless and aggressive encounters, she also ‘met some fantastic people’.

Maryam’s story highlights the inconsistencies and inhumanity of migration governance and the lack of hospitality shown to refugees by institutions and individuals.

Maryam’s story also illustrates all too well how gender-based violence in the context of forced migration can be experienced in a dangerous setting and perpetuated post-flight in another setting that is meant to be safe; a setting that should offer asylum.

In recognition of international women’s day Maryam’s story is offered as a testimony to the persistent courage of refugee women: the courage to persist.

Despite violence at the hands of her in-laws, periods of debilitating depression, despite destitution, Maryam is starting again. She knows that she may not be granted asylum in Germany. She is realistic about the slow grinding of the national migration agencies. She has started to learn German in the hopes of being granted residency.

Maryam wants her voice to be heard because her story stands for hundreds of other women’s stories.

She says ‘I know lots of women whose stories are far worse than mine’. Sadly, our research suggests that Maryam is right.

Read more about the SEREDA Project in the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS).