We meet the journalist forced into asylum for speaking out against female genital mutilation
Now, Susan Mansaray helps other refugees by running wellbeing charity Purple Rose in Stockton.
By Claudia Robinson
Yeama Susan Mansaray – known to her friends as Susan – was born in Freetown in Sierra Leone, but has made a life here in the North East after fleeing her motherland in her twenties.
After a difficult childhood and many subsequent challenges, she now runs a drop-in centre for asylum seekers and refugees in Stockton, helping other people who’ve had similar experiences to her.
“My childhood shaped me into the person I am today,’ Susan tells us. “I grew up in a polygamous home where my father had two wives. My mother never really paid much attention to me; she met my stepfather and had more children with him, but I never felt part of the family, so I basically grew up taking care of myself and my siblings when I was just a child myself.”
When Susan was 11, her stepfather wanted to move to the UK to study a PhD. Her mother went with him and their children, leaving Susan in Sierra Leone which, as she reflects now, confirmed to her that she was an outsider.
“When people say to me ‘you have so much love to give’, it’s because I grew up being given no love at all.”
Susan stayed with a family friend and had to grow up fast. She remembers when she was in the UK equivalent of Year 6 (at the age of around 10 years old), walking to school barefoot because she had no shoes. Other children would laugh at her; she was bullied because she came from a middle-class family, with her parents living in the UK, but she couldn’t afford school shoes.
“My childhood was very hard,” she continues. “I went through a whole series of child sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 12. It took me years of counselling here in the UK to be able to speak about it. But I took my SATS and got good enough grades to go to secondary school.”
As we continue to talk to Susan, it becomes increasingly apparent how resilient she’s had to be throughout her life, and how strong her life experiences have made her. She goes on to tell us how she knew she had to make something out of her life because nobody else cared, so she had to do something to make herself proud.
At the age of 13, Susan had the opportunity to follow her family to the UK, so she moved to Birmingham. She quickly realised that her mother needed someone to help look after the children and that the invitation had not been because they missed her, but because she would serve a purpose.
She took her GCSEs in the UK and, when she was 16, her family moved back to Africa – leaving her again. This time, Susan was left with someone with whom she had such bad experiences she chooses not to reflect on them again. She moved back to Sierra Leone to go to university, as she had wanted to become a teacher, but soon chose a different career path.
“I wanted to do something that gave me a voice,” Susan explains. “I knew this would mean I could help people that were going through the same things that I went through when no one was there for me. I wanted to work in journalism.
“I was fortunate enough to get training at Broadcasting House in Freetown with SLBC TV, a government-run broadcasting company. I worked my way up, editing and presenting, becoming a senior member of the team by the time I left.
“I campaigned against a lot of issues, including female genital mutilation, having lost a friend through this at the age of seven. I had a women’s program on TV each week and raised awareness of other issues, including domestic abuse and rape. None of this went down well and I started to receive threats.”
Eventually, in her late twenties, Susan fled to the UK to seek asylum.
After initially spending some time in London, she was dispersed to Stockton and, after a couple of years, claimed status to live in the UK. At that point, Susan could have moved back to London, but she chose to stay in the North East.
“People were so kind to me when I moved to Stockton,” she says. “That kindness was never shown to me before, so I decided to make my home here.”
Now 47, Susan has a husband and three children and is giving so much back to the community that welcomed her, whilst also offering support to other asylum seekers.
When she’s not busy with her full-time job as a project development worker at All In Youth in Stockton, she runs the Purple Rose drop-in centre for asylum seekers and refugees living in the town.
“When Covid started, a lot of the drop-in centres for asylum seekers closed. All of a sudden, these people had nowhere to go and mix with people going through the same experiences; they couldn’t collect donations of clothing and household items. It was affecting their mental health and wellbeing.
“My work colleagues and I discovered there was a lot of financial support for charities trying to help people during the pandemic, so we secured some funding. I cooked food in my house, which was delivered to the most vulnerable people in the community by drivers from the Middlesbrough Football Club Foundation. We were sending out around 100 meals a week.”
When restrictions were lifted, Susan wanted to set up a refugee drop-in centre as quickly as possible, because many had stayed closed. To kick-start the project, she used her own money and, soon after, received a generous anonymous donation which meant they could properly launch the Purple Rose drop-in centre at the Newtown Community Resource Centre on Durham Road in Stockton.
Through appeals for donations, they received clothes, hygiene products and household goods, and still cook meals for around 80 people each week. The charity has also received lottery funding and support from the County Durham Community Foundation, with further lottery money coming to them this year – which means Susan and her team can relax and carry on with their good work.
The drop-in centre has been running for two years now, supported by a team of 10 dedicated volunteers, nine of which have experienced asylum themselves.
“This is helpful for many reasons,” says Susan. “Crucially, between us we speak several languages, which means so much to the people coming to us, who often can’t speak a word of English when they arrive. It also means we have an immediate connection because we know what they’re going through.
“We’ve created a beautiful community at Purple Rose. People can come, socialise and, just for a few hours, forget about everything else.”
Susan says she does what she does because it’s her passion, but it’s no surprise that she’s been recognised for her exceptional work. Stockton Council presented her with the Community Star Award, and she’s also won the Inspirational Star Award from BBC Radio Tees. But what means the most to her is seeing how much the drop-in centre helps refugees. The smiles on their faces.
“It makes everything that I’ve been through worthwhile,” she reflects. “When I see how happy people are, it makes me realise that if I hadn’t gone through what I did in my own life, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to help these people now.
“I was left in tears at our Christmas get-together. The ladies were all giving me lovely hugs and notes in Arabic, or some even managed to write in English, saying how they feel safe and relaxed. It makes me feel so happy.”