Before the war life was good for Dilipa. She loves her country – the weather, the fresh produce, the lifestyle.
But after 2000, hostilities between the government and Tamil separatists increased. Life for ordinary Tamils in Sri Lanka became more and more difficult.
Members of Dilipa’s family were questioned and even tortured. They would get arrested for small things such as not having an ID card on them.
Dilipa was kidnapped. Her father had to pay a ransom to have her released.
Her brother was taken and is still missing. Two of her cousins are also missing.
Married in secret
After her release Dilipa met Ama, a young man from the majority Sinhal group. Still traumatised by her kidnapping, she opened up about her experiences and shared her story with Ama.
They eventually fell in love and got married in secret. They knew neither of their families would approve of the match.
Knowing their marriage would put them at risk, Ama applied for a student visa to the UK and the couple came here in 2010.
“It’s very difficult in our country and my family never would have given permission for me to marry a Tamil girl. We just registered the marriage – there was no celebration.”
“Sleeping in the car”
“I got part time jobs in a bakery and as a cleaner, while I studied IT. In 2011 we had our first child – a daughter.
“Then we came to the end of the visa and didn’t know what to do. We thought, if we go back they’re going to kill us, definitely.
“We were really struggling by then. We were renting a room – one room for me, my wife and daughter. We moved very often.
“Sometimes we didn’t eat properly so we could use the money for rent.
“My wife was still suffering psychologically from the effects of the kidnapping.
“Sometimes we were all sleeping in the car because we didn’t have money to keep the room. We had to do this sometimes in summer and sometimes in winter.
“We would get all our clothes and pile them on top of us like blankets.
“They were very hard times. My wife still cries at night when she remembers those times.”
Red Cross help
Thankfully the family were given a room to live in by a friend at church.
Around this time Dilipa opened up to her GP about her psychological problems. The GP arranged counselling and linked the family up with a social worker, who introduced them to the British Red Cross.
The Red Cross helped the family to access a lawyer and claim asylum.
“Two Red Cross workers helped us lots. They were asking, ‘How are you? Do you need any help? If you need anything just come and see us.’
“My wife was very down at that time.
“The Red Cross gave us food every Monday and other help, like food bank vouchers.
“We were using our money to buy baby food so the Red Cross help meant we could get food for ourselves too.”
Gradually family life started to improve as the Red Cross helped Ama and Dilipa access the financial and social support available to them.
Move on problems
Ama and Dilipa received their refugee status in 2012.
The government had given them permission to stay. The family should have been celebrating but this was not the end of their problems.
Families like theirs often struggle with the transition from claiming asylum to being granted refugee status.
Once leave to remain is granted, they have a short 28-day grace period. During that time they need to apply for work and housing, before their asylum support is cut off and new support begins.
Often bureaucracy gets in the way of this new support kicking in in time.
Three weeks of struggle
In Ama and Dilipa’s case, their family was still struggling three weeks after starting their new lives as refugees in the UK.
“Once we got refugee status we applied for benefits and the Red Cross gave us food and clothes while we waited. It took about three weeks before we had housing benefit.
“At first we rented a room and a few months later we got a house to live in, where we still live now. I am working as a chef in a hotel and we have another child.
“Life is much better now.”
In 2015, the British Red Cross supported over 13,000 refugees & asylum seekers (including children) who were destitute – nearly a quarter of those we asked were destitute because of bureaucratic delays to benefits.
Ama and Dilipa have had their names changed to protect their identities.
From family tracing to women’s groups, read more about our work with refugees in the UK