London victim of modern slavery reveals harrowing past as her artwork goes on display in new exhibition celebrating freedom

A victim of modern slavery in London has revealed how producing her own artwork with the help of a charity has helped her turn her life around.

The woman, known as Rashida, arrived in the UK from the Gambiain her early 30s and was taken to different houses, forced to sleep with different men and threatened with violence if she refused.

With the help of charity Hestia, she has been able to get the help she needs and is now looking to support others who have suffered similar experiences.

Her work is included in an exhibition of art produced entirely by victims of modern slavery to celebrate their freedom, as the UK marks anti-slavery day.

The exhibition, Art is Freedom, curated by charity Hestia, is open to the public and gives Londoners an insight into how victims were treated when arriving to the capital and how their lives have changed.

Rashida spoke to the Standard about her own harrowing ordeal and how she wants to appeal to other people to seek support and help.

Rashida's work on display at the exhibition

The 45-year-old said she did not have a happy childhood and experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) when she was just eight years old.

She said: “There was no anaesthetic and a single blade.  My father forced me to sleep with men so he would continue to pay for my schooling.

“When I was 11, my mum had a breakdown and was taken away. I never saw her again and I miss her so much. I don’t know if she is alive.

“My uncle told me he would pay for my education and help me when I was in the UK. When I arrived, my VISA and passport were taken away from me.  I was in my early thirties. He lied to me. He said I must work for him to pay back the travel. 

“After I arrived at Gatwick, I was taken to a house in east London. I don’t know exactly where it was, it was a normal street with lots of houses.

Those who took part in the exhibition were given a camera and encouraged to take pictures of London

“They were very nice houses. At night I was often taken to different houses to sleep with different men, I didn’t know anything about them.

“I was not allowed to ask any questions. They could have been anyone. I was forced to drink alcohol.

“They would twist my arm and beat me if I didn’t do what they said and if I tried to escape they said they would kill me. They said that the police would beat me up or kill me if I tried to get help.”

Rashida said she was locked in a small room all day and did not see anyone during this period, using a small mattress to sleep on and a pan in the corner of a room to relieve herself with.

She added her life has changed “so much” since she was able to get help from the Salvation Army and Hestia, and is now looking to help other people who have been through similar experiences.

Artists featured in the exhibition came from all over the world

One of her pieces, a hat, featured in the exhibition, and creating it has helped to give her a voice, she said.

Rashida said: “I thought my voice would never be heard again, I’ve never had a voice myself.”

The experience of creating the art for a wide audience, Rashida added, was emotional.

Work in the exhibition came entirely from victims of modern day slavery

“I was very emotional for the first time [when we met to create work],” she said, “And then I had something that made me feel ok. It was very helpful to get the opportunity to show what I can do.”

The thought of people seeing her work, she added, was “so good” because it allowed other possible victims of modern slavery to see there is support and help available.

She said: “It’s very important for people to know there is help out there, I never knew there was any help there.

“I would tell [other victims of modern slavery] them they need to speak out. I never opened up. You will come across someone that will help you.”

Since being helped by the charity, Rashida said she has a support worker who has changed her life and has helped her do every day, once daunting, tasks like organising a doctor’s appointment or going to the hospital.

Rashida said: “I want to use my voice to help people who have experienced what I had been through.


The exhibition is on all week

“I want to let people know there is support out there like Ella from Hestia. People should not be scared to come forward.

“The police are here to protect you. You should not be scared of them. I volunteer at a centre for women who have been abused sexually and I tell them it does get better, it takes time. I don’t want them to feel alone.”

Rashida’s name has been changed to protect her identity

Art is Freedom is taking place at Anise Gallery, SE1 2PU, until Tuesday October 23.

Hestia’s modern slavery response team started in 2011 and since then Hestia has supported over 2,500 victims of modern slavery and their dependents. Currently, Hestia provides 5 safe houses in London and Kent, as well as a pan-London outreach service working in every London borough. In 2018, Hestia also launched the Phoenix Project in partnership with the British Red Cross to provide volunteer-led, long-term support to victims of modern slavery.
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