My name is Cataluya and I’ve always known I was trans. I grew up in a small Malaysian state right on the border with Thailand, where my parents owned a small café close to the local university. I helped out there from a young age, squirrelling away all my wages.
By the time I was 13, I had saved up enough money to go to a private clinic and start hormone treatment. My dad found out and I had to stop for two years. As soon as I graduated high school, I told my parents I was staying with my brother on a nearby island but moved to Kuala Lumpur and started getting plastic surgery. Eventually, my parents caught on and summoned me back.
My family accepted who I was in their own way. I wore a bra but didn’t dress too sexy so as not to cause too much talk. Everyone in town knew me because I’m a very friendly person, but my mother always reminded me to behave.
My parents were always checking in on me, telling me to go straight home after work. Despite their warnings, I would go out to see my friends after the café shut every night.
One night, people were warning me not to go out because the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI) were conducting a raid. I really needed to top up my phone credit, so I decided to go to the shop anyway. Before I knew it, the police burst in and arrested me, along with two friends.
I spent two nights and three days in jail. My family came to bail me out and I was given a court date. In court, they called my name and asked me to admit to the crime of being a man acting as a woman. They also made me pay a fine of 2,000 Malaysian Ringgit (£370). I was shocked.
Everyone arrested in the raid that night had their photo taken by local press as they were leaving the court. People just assumed that we were all sex workers.
After the arrest, I stopped going out altogether. Around that time, my friend started talking about going to London, but I dismissed her at first, thinking it was much too expensive. A few years later, I had saved enough and said: “let’s go”.
Life in London
I first arrived in London in 2014 on a 6-month visa my friend helped me arrange. I felt like my dream had come true and I couldn’t believe I was really here. Before I knew it, I had overstayed my visa and fallen out with the friend who brought me over. Eventually, I moved out and found a cheap room in a budget hotel in Kings Cross.
For a little while I was managing well. I was working in a laundry nearby, paying all my bills and sending money home to my family.
Then things started to change.
The owners of the budget hotel kept raising the rent and overcharging me for things because they knew I was illegal and couldn’t report them to the authorities. One day, I even came home to find my room had been robbed. I bit my tongue and kept paying for everything they asked, including their own food and transport. People kept telling me to say no, but I didn’t listen.
Sleeping on the Streets
Ultimately, the owners raised the rent so much I could no longer afford to pay. I was afraid that even if I ran away, they would call the police. From that moment, everything in my life became a struggle.
I suddenly found myself homeless, sleeping rough on the streets of London for almost two years. Didn’t know where to go and had no one. I felt scared, alone, and exhausted from trying to find a place to sleep and shelter from the rain and cold.
During that period of my life, I gave up. I didn’t have money to buy food and relied on people’s charity. Occasionally, their kindness and generosity touched me the point of tears. From Kings Cross to Shepherd’s Bush and Earl’s Court, I stayed in shelters intermittently and made friends who taught me how to survive on the streets.
Despite all this, I tried to think positively and told myself the experience had opened my eyes and taught me the importance of putting myself first.
The real turning point came when I secured a place in a shelter in Earl’s Court and was assigned a caseworker and a solicitor through a charity called Glass Door. From there, I was able to stop running and apply for asylum.
I left the shelter to spend Christmas with a friend and found myself homeless again. This time though, I was temporarily taken to St Mungo’s and offered a place in the Micro Rainbow International (MRI) house only a week later. I was amazed by how quickly it happened and am so thankful I did not have to wait long for accommodation.
I’m currently the newest person in the MRI house, and feel like I belong at last. In the house, you find members of your own community – people who respect each other and are on the same life journey. Although we may not really know each other, we’re from the same LGBTI community and are a family.
Thanks to the MRI house, I’m not afraid anymore and can finally focus on myself.
Name has been changed.