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“I felt like I was a prisoner: I couldn’t call anyone for help; I couldn’t go outside."

Zahra came to the UK earlier this year just before lockdown to join her husband following an arranged marriage. She was 19 years old at the time. When things took an unexpected turn following her arrival, Zahra was referred to Centrepoint and has been with the organisation since August.

Zahra's Story

When Zahra* first came to the UK she felt excited – she was looking forward to living with her husband and starting a family of her own. However, things took a dramatic turn after she arrived.

“I was happy about my marriage,” she says. “I thought my in-laws were good people. When I was back home they were good to me, but when I came here everything changed. They began to scold me and say bad stuff about me. They told me I was stupid and mad. They tortured me mentally until I had no self-confidence.”

The wedding back in her country had been big and lavish. Zahra’s husband returned to the UK before her, but when she arrived a year later, it didn’t feel like a marriage at all.

“When I was still at home, my husband used to call me every day for a whole year, but when I came here, within a week everything had changed.

“My husband and I were separate from the beginning," she says. "We slept in separate rooms and I slept in the same room as my mother-in-law." 

Feeling like a prisoner

Zahra was told she had to get up before the rest of the family to do housework.

"Everyone in the family would still be sleeping, but I had to clean. The kitchen was in the basement so I had to stay there all day once the family were up. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere,” she explains.

With no UK SIM for her phone and no money, it was difficult to make contact with her family. When she was allowed to make contact, she couldn’t do so alone.

“Whenever I called my parents, the family used to stay with me and watch what I said. I couldn’t talk freely,” she explains.

“I felt like I was a prisoner: I couldn’t call anyone for help; I couldn’t go outside. I felt like I was only a servant there. I had no value. They only brought me here to do all their work for them.”

Zahra says the family also expected her to bring cash with her and made no attempt to hide their disappointment with her efforts.

“I bought a lot of gifts for them, but my mother-in-law wasn’t happy. She asked me why I hadn’t brought cash with me. She said she’d made a bad decision bringing me here.”

Her mother-in-law was meticulous about the food in the kitchen to ensure that Zahra was not taking any. She would often eat alone or under the watchful eye of her new mother-in-law.

“I was a healthy girl when I arrived, but when I lived with them I got so skinny. She used to count everything to check I hadn’t had anything.”

Zahra’s mental and physical health drastically deteriorated. She lost weight and began to contemplate suicide.

“My mother-in-law mentally tortured me so much that I thought my life was worthless. I wanted to end it all. I actually managed to tell my parents this, but my mother-in-law just told them I was not a good wife; that I couldn’t cook or clean properly and they were going to send me back, and that’s why I was telling them I was going to commit suicide," she explains. “In the end, my parents called a relative to come and get me.”

Damaged reputation

Zahra’s in-laws wrecked Zahra's reputation. They told her family she had never wanted to get married and had been unfaithful.

“They accused me of having affairs with lots of boys. They put all the blame on me and assassinated my character," she explains.

“My mum asked my relative to get me out of there because she was worried I’d commit suicide, but they didn’t want me back as I’d brought shame on the family. My relative in the UK still wanted to sort everything out and for me to live with my husband; it was supposed to be a temporary thing."

“My in-laws continued to gossip about me and turned everyone against me. I was so depressed. I never thought I would be accused of having affairs – my life had been so innocent."

“I stayed with my relative for about two months, but I wasn't able to stay there. I was so scared being in that area, I didn’t want to go outside. I lost a lot of hair because I was so stressed. I felt like an outcast.”

Centrepoint

Eventually Zahra was referred to Centrepoint. She was assessed by supported housing officer, Jay, over the phone and he explained that they could help her.

“The first few days at Centrepoint, I was really scared, but Jay and Lorna talked to me and told me to come to them if I needed anything. They made me feel comfortable and safe – I started to open up and tell them about what had happened to me. They have helped to build my confidence – they’ve helped me with everything, even the little things. They encouraged me to live my life.”

The Future

Zahra is waiting for her right to remain status so things are still a bit uncertain, but she hopes at some point to go back to college. Right now, she is still familiarising herself with all the systems and processes – and Jay has been a huge support in that respect.

“I don’t have to worry about anything. I get so confused by everything and having them to help me means a lot.”

Zahra feels she is no longer welcome back in her home country – there is nothing there for her because her family feel she has brought shame upon them. She is still depressed, but on medication and receiving counselling. She takes sleeping tablets to help her sleep at night.

“Everything that happened in that house just keeps going round and round in my head.

“After I left, I just wanted to cry all the time. Those months were so depressing for me. But since I’ve been here, things are slowly starting to get better.”

*names have been changed

If you'd like to make a donation to Centrepoint and support young people like Zahra, please visit our donation page.

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