Undocumented: Heartbreaking Stories of Immigrant Women Living ‘Underground’ in Sweden


I met *Rhonda by accident at the library in Söderhamn, a beautiful coastal town in the north of Sweden where I live.

I had gone into the library hoping to print a few documents and dash out but the movements of a black woman who looked weary, although well-kempt, caught my eye from the express service computer where I was sitting.

You could not miss her, she was wandering back and forth aimlessly between the aisles and I could tell she was not looking for books, she was looking at books.

Two hours later after I first spotted her, we were sitting on one of the benches in front of the library, with me listening to how she could not look for books because she didn’t really like reading but the library was one of the places which are a safe haven for her so she made a habit to come and look at books.

“I like looking at the different designs and colours of books because you can walk up and down in a library and no one will ask you questions whereas if you do that in a grocery or clothing store they may think you want to steal (silence). It will be six years of living ‘underground’ soon,” she said, slowly, as if she wanted the words to take on a new meaning other than what they actually meant.

“Next week. On the 25th,” she added.

“What do you mean underground,” I asked although I already knew that underground meant she was living in the country illegally, without documentation.

I knew this but I didn’t know anything else to say.

“It means I don’t have paper (sic),” she spoke in slightly broken English not because she could not speak proper English but because she had taken on the common speak among immigrants, the broken English that we speak amongst ourselves so that we can understand each other no matter one’s level of education.

‘I don’t have paper’ was the common speak among the illegal immigrants while those who have permission to remain in the country will shout ‘I have paper’ in typical grand announcement fashion which I find common amongst those who have been given permission to stay.

I sat there, not sure what to say because saying ‘it’s gonna be okay’ – my favourite line of encouragement – would be a lie and even she knows it so I just raised my hand and wrapped it around her shoulder in a half embrace and let out a heavy sigh.

Studying her face, you could see the deep but almost hidden circles around her eyes, a side effect of either sleep deprivation or of too much crying, I assumed.

“There is nothing to go back to,” she had read my mind, that I wanted to ask, why not just go back?

Rhonda left her home country *X seven years ago with six of her friends, helped into Europe by traffickers. They came to Europe in search of the dream. Their hopes lay in getting asylum but that worked for some and not for Rhonda. Her case was denied and thrown out and she was served with deportation papers and now she is out of the immigration system. If caught by relevant authorities she will be deported on sight.


Some immigrants who have been denied permission and asked to leave choose to remain in Sweden illegally

Listening to her, I felt a searing pain in the bottom of my gut. I could not imagine it, living in fear every day, your heart jumping whenever you see the police or choosing carefully who to tell the truth about your status because if you tell the wrong people you might get ratted out. But these are only small worries.

“I can only go to the hospital when it’s a life-threatening emergency. And,” she paused, “I don’t have an income or a place to live,” she said quietly with the kind of peace I could never manage if I were in that situation.

I fought the urge to ask how she was living or coping. I thought it would be insensitive and I was also afraid that it might open the floodgates of emotions that I would not be able to deal with on this park bench.

But, somehow, she read my mind again, volunteering information about her living situation. It sounded like scenes from a horror movie. From being used to babysit children only for food, to moving between couches of strangers, to offering her body to men and women alike in exchange for a night’s sleep.

“One time I got shoved out of someone’s house because I wanted to take a shower after I spent the night there but he thought I didn’t deserve to use his bathroom,” she said and I understood that by getting shoved she possibly meant she had been beaten.

I want to write this story, I said to her, adding, if that’s okay with you. She nodded. She didn’t seem to care whether I wrote the story or not looking only a bit relieved after sharing her story with me.

Rhonda is not alone. There are many like her who live from one day to the other with a long road in front of them but leading nowhere. She told me about *Uwalaka who has a child by another undocumented immigrant but now lives with a Swedish man who hates her child and constantly reminds her, in front of the child, “I want you, not your child.”

And of *Nkechi who is on almost every dating app available, posing as a lesbian, jumping at every opportunity of women who invite her on dates which may end up with them inviting her back to their houses. If lucky she gets invitations to stay over, buying her time and safety if only for one night.

“It’s safer with women than men,” Nkechi had told Rhonda.

Undocumented immigrants who choose not to return to their home countries have made the toughest decision a person could make. If someone violates your rights you cannot go to the police because they will arrest you too.

If you get a fever or show signs of illness you cannot go to the hospital without the magical Swedish last four numbers unless you are on death’s door – everyone has a right to healthcare only in an emergency situation.

These are the heartbreaking stories of women who left everything they knew for the continent where they hoped to reach their dreams but seven or more years later after they said goodbye to their motherland they are still on the journey to Europe because although they are already here, they have not yet arrived.

The question is, is there hope here or does their only hope now lie in the places they left in search of greener pastures?

*Names have been changed