Urmila’s story

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I was born very tiny and with a displaced jaw that made me look a bit unusual. It was not acceptable to my father and from those early days he was already thinking ‘how am I going to get her married’. I am telling you when I was growing up my father, my cousins, my neighbours, they used to call me ‘monkey’ and say I was not part of the family. 

 We were three sisters which was unacceptable to my father so we suffered greatly. People used to taunt him – “you must have a son to carry on the family name”.  My sisters both married but I spent my time busy helping my Mum do housework . When you are under stress you find something to divert you and I started drawing and so discovered my talent. …I thought  ‘I should study to come out of this situation’ but I had to fight. My father said ”what is art for …you will not earn money”. He refused to pay for art studies so I started doing tuition to finance myself. I woke up every morning at 7am went to university until  3-4pm then came back to town to give tuition and at the weekend ran art classes for the schools.

 Whilst at university my friend’s father (from a wealthy business family) told me “what is happening to you is not right. “ He wanted to report the abuse to the police but I stopped him as I knew my Mother was at risk and without a husband she would be destitute in Hindu society. Through his help and sponsorship I got a passport and study visa for UK. Still when I close my eyes and think about my Mum’s face I know why she didn’t cry. I could see in her eyes that hope which she was saying with her eyes ‘good that my daughter is going’.  I still had hope that maybe my father will accept me if I send money… will he be happy?  will he talk about me nicely or not?

In 2012 I met my husband Mirza online .I was studying human resources (Art was too expensive) staying with a family acquaintance. I knew from the beginning that he is not my religion, that he is a Muslim from Pakistan. There is a kind of hate relationship between Pakistan and Bangladesh because of the war in 1971 so from hating Pakistanis as a child coming to love a Pakistani was a very big thing, but in him I saw someone different who was loving me so I didn’t care. I thought to myself that when I was with my own country people, same religion, same family I didn’t get that love and care. Now someone from a different country, different religion who is supposed to be an enemy is telling me “you are beautiful, I want you to marry me”. I experienced so much rudeness, rough behaviour and pain in my life. I cried every night and I would go to the little temple and pray for someone in my life …I believe my God sent Mirza to me and my belief has become more strong since then.

When Mirza’s student visa ran out we planned to marry and go to live in Pakistan; Mirza accepted that I wished to remain Hindu and not change my religion. He called his family to explain but the reaction from his family and mine too was total anger. We were both shocked and when we saw that reaction, with the threat of violence to me from both families, we thought ‘what have we done?’.

 In that way we both became disconnected from our families which was so painful. We were then forced to make an application for asylum…it was a hard time. Our lawyer was amazed at our hard work to research and collect reports about the political situation and the danger we were in – it was the only way to save ourselves.

 We came to Blackburn in 2013. It was a scary time because at first we were afraid that the family would be able to find us and that we would not be safe. After some months we finally were told about ARC. Mr Robin’s big smile!  “Hello, welcome!” can you imagine just we two persons together all the time with all our love but no family, no-one and so scared…it was amazing. When we started coming to the Drop-In we never stopped and even now in my college break I come. It was such a big change for us – feeling safer, more confident, feeling good, making friends in the community.

 It was after a long struggle to overcome many hurdles that we were able to get married in 2014 The Home Office questioned us separately over and over again but it wasn’t difficult for us because we were genuine.  Mirza went 11 times to the registry office before they were satisfied with our documents – so stressful. We had no money at that time and survived by eating pot noodles.

After all our work to build a good case our application was refused in summer 2015 and we felt completely broken. Mirza would not give up …. I don’t know how he got that power. Finally in February 2017, after three long years we got our leave to remain. Only from that day did we begin to feel safe and secure.

 When we first came ARC we were vulnerable but in ARC we met people in an even worse situation than us, so for me it was important to do something for those people. I find myself very lucky.. I can speak English.. I have some skills like art so I decided I should do something for those people like art workshops for their children…that inspired me a lot.

 I cannot believe that now after lots of hard work I have got a place to study art at Goldsmith’s College, London after studying at Blackburn College for 2 years. At first Blackburn College said that there was no funding for asylum seekers. Eventually though, I was able to show my portfolio to Jamie Holman, the course leader, who had worked before with refugees and asylum seekers. He was impressed and managed to offer me a place against all the odds. Still I had to find some more funding which, after much trying I finally did, from an organization which helps disadvantaged students. So TRY TRY TRY is such an important word for me. I got a distinction, one of my paintings went to an exhibition in London and some work is now in Royal Blackburn hospital.

My most recent art work is about three women who are so important in my life… ..about my mother – how she inspired me with her patience and with her love whatever happened and how she always held us…about Tina ..how she welcomed us into her home and family when we were destitute and still to this day, and about Christine from ARC who has been such a good friend and help to us.

When I look in the mirror and my husband tells me I am beautiful I still remember the childhood face I had … I wish that my father had believed at that time that it doesn’t matter  …when she grows up with her work and with her talent she can be a beautiful person both inside and outside … I wish he thought ‘she should not have had a childhood of suffering’  and thought of me like my husband does.

 My dream is I want to be with my husband forever.  The ARC project has inspired me to give something back to the community. After university I want to do teacher training then I will be able to do something like art therapy – like make an art club. I want it to be free for people …somewhere they can come to get some relief from stress ….some precious time just for them so they can feel ‘I have done something really nice, something different today’.