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  1. Long reads
4 September 2008

“The detainees have got pain in their eyes”

In my school report this summer, they said I was an excellent student. I am making a new start and o

By Meltem Avcil

Meltem came to this country in 2001 with her mother. They sought asylum here after the family was persecuted by Turkish police for being Kurdish. But because they’d passed through Germany, their asylum claim was refused. It was not turned down immediately, however, and by the time they were detained they had been in the country for six years, building a life for themselves. Meltem was doing very well at school and they had relatives in this country who had applied successfully for asylum. Meltem’s bravery in speaking out while in detention won her many supporters, and she and her mother were eventually released and their case reheard. They now have refugee status. Meltem is back at school.

At 7 o’clock in the morning in August last year, at our home in Doncaster, I woke up to hear banging on the door. As soon as my mum opened the door, these men rushed in. They told us to be quick: they were shouting in our ears. They took us to the police station and then a car came and it was awful. It had a cage. For a minute, I thought to myself: Am I an animal? The journey took a long time and we ended up in Yarl’s Wood. It’s a detention centre, but it is no different from a jail.

At school I was good at science, maths and history, and I wanted to become a doctor. My teachers, they were really kind. I missed them all so much – just being at school and doing normal things with my friends. I was in Yarl’s Wood for three months. For education, I got maths for nine-year-olds and jigsaw puzzles. They don’t give you a proper education in Yarl’s Wood, and anyway I don’t think you can get educated when you know you’re in prison. I saw a mother crying for her baby because she couldn’t take it to health care, though the baby was vomiting and had a high temperature.

While I was there, I looked at the other people who were detained. I saw how they suffered from being in there. How they’ve just got pain in their eyes. When people are outside they’ve got that glowy thing in their eyes. In there, there isn’t even such a thing as that.

In Yarl’s Wood, my mum was sad and crying all the time. It was really hard, seeing her like that, and not knowing what to do to help. I did everything I could – I spoke to the befrienders who came to visit us and I spoke to journalists, too. I wrote letters for my mother to the European Court of Human Rights, telling about the persecution she suffered in Turkey and why we came to the UK and how we’d lived here for six years. I feel English through and through – I speak English and all my friends are here. This is my home.

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We applied for bail five times. Every time they said no. Then on 15 November, at 3.25am, some officers came into the small room I share with my mother. They took us down to the reception. Five escorts arrived, one woman and four men, and the woman searched our bodies in front of the waiting men. They took us to a black van – two escorts sat next to me, one next to my mum, the other two in the front. They chatted among themselves during the journey. After a while they fell asleep. I looked out of the window, but it was dark. I was thinking: What are my friends doing? Will I see my school again? Why do I have to go into a country I don’t know?

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I felt angry with everyone. When we arrived at Heathrow, an officer said to me: “You know if you refuse to go on the plane, we’ll put handcuffs on you and tie your feet. Tell your mum what I said.” They drove us right next to the plane. They took my mum out, and my mum started crying more and tried not to go up the steps. The officer went on top of her, pushed her on to the floor, and hit her with the handcuffs. She was bruised and cut. He handcuffed her, and dragged her off the tarmac and up the steps to the very back of the plane.

I started crying, as I was scared. Two escorts held me by the hands. I kept saying: “Let me go.” But one pinched my hands to make me go. On the plane, the officer sat next to my mother. She kept crying – he kept telling her: “Shut up, shut up.” They sat me between two escorts who kept twisting my hands very hard. I kept saying: “I want to speak to the pilot.” A teenage passenger started taking mobile-phone pictures. The plane moved a bit, then the pilot said over the intercom: “We are sorry for the disturbance. The deportees should be offloaded.” So they took us back to Yarl’s Wood, and then we were taken to Bedford Hospital.

When I was in hospital one day, on my birthday, the Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, came to see me, and the next day we were released. First, we were sent to an induction centre, where I started a new school, and then to Newcastle, where I had to start all over again in another school. But then our case was heard again and we have refugee status. In my school report this summer, they said I was an excellent student. I am making a new start and one day I will show everyone what I am capable of. But I will never forget Yarl’s Wood.