Souma is enjoying life. She has her own home, a job that she loves, and a group of friends that are like family. As she laid the table for dinner, Souma’s smile beamed as she chatted casually about everyday things.
From the outside looking in, you could never tell the terrible experiences she has endured at the hands of people she thought she could trust. You could never imagine that Souma was a slave for seven years.
Recovery is a powerful journey, one which City Hearts has helped Souma with, but ultimately it’s Souma that found her own path to happiness.
Her story begins back in South Asia, where she was working as a high school chemistry teacher and lab assistant, as well as running her own business.
In an unusual move for a woman in the region, Souma made the decision to divorce her husband and leave her abusive marriage. Unfortunately this meant being ostracized by her in-laws, kept away from her young daughter, and abandoned by her own family.
Following advice from her employers at the laboratory, Souma left South Asia to travel to England, where she hoped to find work as a teacher. She had aspirations of making a new life and being able to bring her daughter over.
She arrived in London, not knowing anyone, and responded to an advert in a shop window looking for a lodger.
She moved in with a family of a similar descent who worked for the police in administrative roles, and who had two young children. At first they treated her kindly, and said they would help her find a job.
Whilst looking for a job, Souma began taking care of the couple’s two young children, but after a few months of not finding work, her visa ran out, and she told the family she would need to leave.
They persuaded her to stay by telling her their children would miss her, and that their lawyer would sort out her immigration status. Souma believed them, and stayed on, and encouraged by the family, began to look for cash-in-hand jobs such as cleaning.
“The little girl in the family reminded me of my daughter,” she said. “So I started living there, taking care of her, loving her.”
The money she earned, she gave to the family in rent, the savings she had brought to the UK, she gave to their family friend. He became Souma’s solicitor and repeatedly assured her that her case was being handled.
“They told me to get work to pay them rent, so I took some cleaning jobs,” said Souma. “It was difficult work and I didn’t have any papers, so people didn’t treat me with any respect.
“I paid them rent for two years. But after a while I couldn’t get enough work. They said I owed them £20,000 in unpaid rent so I had to work for them. They wanted me to do all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and childcare.
“They sent my papers to the Home Office, but when the Home Office asked them to sponsor me, they said no. I was an educated person, but they took my self-respect. They made me illegal here.
“I wanted to leave but where could I go? I had no money, no papers, no family, no shelter. They worked for the police so I didn’t think I could go to the police for help. I felt completely in their hands.”
Souma ended up working for the family for seven years. She had arrived in London as a confident, educated woman, but over that time, she became a shell of her former self.
She suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the couple, who not only assaulted her, and kept her cold, hungry, and miserable, but further isolated her by telling members of their local community that she was a prostitute and thief. It got to the point where she was no longer allowed in shops, and people would spit at her or turn away from her in the street.
“Over seven years they broke me,” she said. “I was completely shattered and broken. I had no family, I had no name. I was not able to go anywhere. The man was abusing me, the woman was beating me. I wanted to kill myself. I thought I should just jump into the water and end my life.”
Whilst a lot of Souma’s abuse at the hands of these people was physical, it became the mental anguish that kept her from leaving.
“At first when they went out they locked the door, but after a while they stopped. But even then I did not go out. They had put slavery into my mind. This is Modern Slavery- when you have no chains, when nobody is looking at you, nobody is abusing you, nobody is stopping you from leaving in that moment, but you stop yourself, you don’t leave because you live in fear of your abusers. I used to tremble with fear at the thought of what would happen if they came back and saw me trying to leave.”
Souma’s misery only came to an end when social services got involved to settle a dispute between the couple over the care of the children- who were both disabled. Souma was asked to give evidence about the couple’s treatment of the children, and while she was at it – she told them everything they had done to her.
Soon afterwards, she was removed to a City Hearts safe house for survivors of Modern Slavery, and where for the first time in seven years, she felt warm and safe.
“I still remember my first day at the safe house,” she said. “I was just crying. The caseworkers made me a cup of tea, they welcomed me, they showed me the kitchen and asked if I liked cooking. They showed me my room. It was very cosy, very warm. The family I was with never put the heating on in my room. They kept me cold for seven years. But here, there was a big warm shower- I washed myself for one hour!
“My case worker, she said ‘Souma you are very precious’, and I cried so much. No one had said a kind word to me in seven years. Everybody just scolded me, told me I was very low. Their whole family and community ganged up on me.”
“When I came to the safe house I was so ashamed, but the case workers showed me so much love, and care and compassion. I began to go everywhere! I was meeting new people, going to drop-in sessions, cooking, helping people, the safe house became my family.”
Souma began to recover and thrive with the support of her City Hearts case workers, and despite some complicated legal battles, which saw no charges brought against her abusers, and some initial difficulties around getting her asylum application granted, Souma is now living independently and earning her own money.
She was encouraged to take part in the Bright Future scheme, which sees survivors of Modern Slavery matched with an employer for a paid work experience placement. If it is successful, it leads to a permanent job. Souma has been happily working for the Co-op in one of their Merseyside stores for a number of years now, and says she couldn’t be happier.
“I can be myself there, and I made good friends,” she said. “I was kept away from people for seven years, so I had a hunger inside for meeting people, and it’s still there. I love to speak with people.
“How City Hearts supported me – no one can ever imagine. I had so many tears. So many problems, but City Hearts helped me be free.”
After everything Souma has overcome, there is one thing still missing from her life – her daughter.
“She’s 23. I want to see her, I want to know what she looks like. I want to know her, to see how she’s doing. She was nine when I left her. That is the only thing I want in my life now. I got everything else in my life. A home, a job, I have friends. I’m waiting for that moment.”