Mohammed and the night bus: A search for #asylum and hope

Mohammed and the night bus: A search for #asylum and hope
Mohammed's asylum application has been refused
Mohammed’s asylum application has been refused

Mohammed came into this  south-east London food bank in search of help. But he feels no sense of belonging here any more – and seems disconnected from the events taking place around him.

He’s a casualty of war. He made the journey from Iraq to the UK in 2005 as a stowaway on a lorry, when he was 22 years old. His father, one of Saddam Hussein’s policemen, had been killed. The terrible trip took three or four weeks. To this day he doesn’t know what happened to the rest of his Kurdish family. They ran away to Syria and he lost track of them after that.

He’s homeless now and his asylum case has been refused. He can’t work, because he hasn’t got the immigration status to do that. Feeling that he’s come to the end of the line here in England, he wants to return to Iraq. The UK Immigration Services won’t let him, given the ongoing insurgency. Now 33, Mohammed is drinking heavily and depressed.  Some days, when he doesn’t have a drink, he starts shaking. ‘I drink too much and I’m thinking about my family.’ He’s had enough of life on the streets of London, where he sleeps when he can’t find a place on the floor of a pub. Some nights he sleeps at the train station or at a homeless shelter. On a few occasions he is allowed  to stay at a friend’s flat.

It’s cold and he doesn’t feel it would be any more dangerous in Iraq than it is here. ‘I have no home – nowhere to go. Two weeks ago I saw someone stab a person with a knife on the streets. Sometimes you see very dangerous people. Three months ago someone attacked me. He punched me in the mouth and I lost a tooth.’ His health is deteriorating. ‘I went to the GP today and told him I can’t eat properly.’ He showed me some medicine he’s been given.

In 2008 Mohammed ended up in prison for a year, followed by a 17-month spell in a detention centre because of his immigration status. Mohammed says all he had done was to ask someone for a cigarette – ‘but the man said I robbed him’.  He says that he challenged the detention at High Court and ‘won the case – I should have got £60,000, but they gave me £5,000. His girlfriend at the time stood by him while he was in detention and offered good support. But the relationship foundered.

He was sent to hospital for help to overcome his addiction to alcohol, but the detox therapy would have cost £4,800 and the Immigration Services refused to fund it. He has to check in with the Immigration Services regularly to prove he’s still in the country. Because he is destitute he can’t afford the train ticket. So every time he travels by train he runs the risk of a fine he can’t pay – followed by a trip to court and potentially another conviction for a criminal offence.

This Trussell Trust food bank was able to give Mohammed a supply of three days non-perishable food. This food is long life, and much of it needs to be cooked or heated. That’s a problem, because Mohammed normally has nowhere to cook it. He’s homeless. On the night we met he was trying hard to contact a friend to see if he could sleep at his home. I spoke to one of  the volunteers at the food bank, who said how difficult it can be to ‘signpost’ people such as Mohammed, to try to get them some help. There don’t seem to be any avenues left for him.

Mohammed told me he often sleeps on the night buses that connect the centre of London to the outer suburbs. ‘It’s not just me – there are many people who do this. People without houses.’

You don’t have to be an asylum seeker to be at risk of  homelessness in the UK. A recent analysis of government data by the University of St Andrews on behalf of Shelter, found that one in 8 UK households are surviving on low incomes while paying unaffordable housing costs. This is putting them under huge financial pressure, and  ‘more than one in 10 working families in England have had to sell possessions to cover their housing costs’. A two-bedroom flat in London costs up to £1,470 in rent, with many remaining empty and unlet for months because many public sector workers and pensioners just can’t afford them.

Next time you’re in London on a night bus, try looking around to work out  how many people are there because they have nowhere else to go.  But you might find that everyone is staring at you.

Many thanks to Mohammed for sharing his experiences of  life as an asylum seeker in London.

 

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Sweeter tales from the food bank

Sweeter tales from the food bank
Generous brownie pack gives 35 Easter eggs to the food bank
Generous brownie pack gives 35 Easter eggs to the food bank

Often the accounts of the people who use this food bank in the London suburbs are harrowing. No-one comes here unless they’ve exhausted other options. There’s been a crisis – often it’s because benefits have been delayed. One young woman who came in last week – Sarah – had her employment and support allowance (ESA) held up before Christmas because she’d received some expenses for volunteering work done in the autumn. Often, food bank users are struggling with the repayments on doorstep loans and can’t afford to buy food. Often they’re on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) but are endlessly waiting for decisions on their claim for ESA. This is the case for Mark, whom I’ve written about recently.

So when good and life-enhancing things happened today, I felt the need to share. Femi, who was so distressed when I last saw him. came in with a food bank voucher, and told us the news that his family has been rehoused. Femi (not his real name), who tried to take his own life last September when he heard that his immigration appeal had been rejected, has been found a home by the Royal Borough of Greenwich. He’s moved in, along with his wife and three young children. A new baby is due next month. Femi, from Nigeria, had been studying for an accountancy degree here – he has only got two modules left to finish – but had got increasingly depressed towards the time he received the immigration decision last autumn. Their private landlord was also threatening them with eviction. Now they’ve been housed, things have eased. ‘It’s a big help for us, and it has helped me to concentrate on my recovery. The only thing left to sort out now is the immigration issue.’

When I last saw him back in February, he told me that he was still crying every day. Today, helped by months of intensive therapy, he was smiling and held his head high. He says that now, whenever he wants to ‘be harsh to himself’, he takes a step back and says ‘be kind’. He’s also speaking positively about the future. He has a solicitor, who is helping him apply for leave to remain in the UK. If that works out, he wants to get a job so that he can support his family. In the meantime, as a part-qualified accountant, he is very keen to volunteer and get work experience, particularly in the field of accountancy. He’s prepared to do an internship, so if your firm is interested in speaking to Femi, please get in touch.

Finally, another story from the food bank today: A local Brownie pack were given an Easter egg each by their leaders a few days ago and told they could either take them home or leave them to the borough’s food banks. The generous girls left 35 Easter eggs for the needy families who come for help. Surrounded as we often are by evidence of a less caring, more judgemental society, it’s heartening to see that some councils – despite their slashed budgets – are still doing what they can to protect the poor and vulnerable. It’s also good to see how many London children have that instinct to reach out to poorer families this Easter.

The food bank helps depressed Femi as he recovers from a suicide bid

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As soon as I met Femi (not his real name) at this London food bank, I felt I knew him already. It turned out that as soon as he started talking I realised that I’d met his wife some months ago. Her story is here. Elizabeth (not her real name) came into the food bank for support after her husband had tried to hang himself and had become an inpatient at the local mental health trust.

As soon as he began to tell me that he was from Nigeria, had three young children (aged 8, 6 and 11 months) and started studying accountancy in London before he ran into difficulties, I’d a strong feeling I’d been talking to his wife. The lovely Elizabeth had made a deep impression on me as she described how her family’s life had got so hard. She said she’d just about managed to stop her husband as he had tried to hang himself at home in September, and of how her young daughter (of 8) had to run and get a knife to help cut her husband down in time.

What drove Femi, 34, who came here in 2008 to study, to the brink of suicide? He told me he had been working in banking back in Nigeria and came to England in search of a better life for himself and his family. Initially he arrived on his own to start studying for his ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) exams. “The UK was like a dreamland to me. My dad came here in 1975 and he told me many things about it. I lost my mum (in Nigeria) 30 years ago, so I had to grow up very quickly. I left home when I was 12.” When he was growing up in Nigeria he had to spend a lot of time fending for himself. He put much of his own savings into paying for his studies in London, with some support from his father in Nigeria. I also remembered that Elizabeth said her husband had worked when he could while he was studying.

But by 2010, things were getting tough. His wife joined him, but noticed that he was struggling with things like brushing his teeth and keeping clean. “I went to the GP and was diagnosed with depression. I was so ashamed.” He says that there’s a massive stigma in Nigeria about having depression, so he didn’t think he could share his feelings with what remains of his family back in Africa. Despite all, he still managed to pass the exams before he had to leave his course without completing it. “I keep my results on a piece of paper in my pocket, just to remind me of what I’ve done.”

The biggest blow of all came on September 17 last year, when the outcome of his immigration appeal came through. He had spent all his money – and received some financial help from friends – to fund an appeal on health grounds against the decision by the Home Office to refuse his immigration application. The process cost £3,000, to include the costs of the tribunal, £1,400 to the Home Office and £1,340 to the solicitor who took on his case. The news was the trigger for the already depressed Femi to carry out his suicide attempt. “I tried to commit suicide in the middle of the night. My daughter saw me.”

Femi sees the judge’s appeal decision as deeply unfair: “The judge said I should not be treated here. I said that I did not come here with depression. I worked in banking before I came to England. I took the UK as my home.” He even managed to donate £15 to charity every month for a while when he was working. He now has no money to fall back on, and he and his family are facing eviction from his privately-rented house.

He has nothing but praise for the social worker involved with the family, and he’s also receiving intensive treatment three days a week from the local mental health trust. The family has had some emergency payments from the council (which I’ve noticed tries so much harder than the other council on our doorstep to help the vulnerable when it can), but the money has to cover everything and there’s not often enough to buy adequate food. There have been times when the children didn’t have anything to eat. So the social worker has given the family the occasional voucher for the food bank. The family really needs this extra support, but the food bank can’t ever be more than a stop gap to cover an immediate crisis.

The couple only realised recently that Elizabeth is pregnant again – she had been taking contraceptives so this came as a great shock – with the new baby due in May. Femi is once again appealing the decision to refuse his immigration application on health grounds, and the hearing is due at the end of this month. The council is looking at how the family might be rehoused, but of course there are no guarantees of anything. He’s still crying every day, he tells me…

He went home last night with some food for his children, and that, at least is a small comfort.

Wish him well.