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.

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Rich London/poor London – and the world’s best social worker

In a powerful article in the Guardian recently, Aditya Chakrabortty describes the nature of the recovery Britain is enjoying. He points to analysis by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (Cresc) at Manchester University. This, he says,  shows that London and the South East “have come roaring out of the crash, and now account for a greater share of growth than they did even during the boom”. He describes how a restaurateur in Canary Wharf has had his opening delayed while he waits for a supply of marble to arrive from an Italian quarry.

The owner of this latest upmarket eatery targeted at the capital’s bankers and lawyers points out that he knows it’s been a dark period nationally, But he says customers at his other restaurants in central London have spent more year upon year – “apart from what he describes as a blip in 2010”. The restaurateur adds: “….On our figures, it’s as if London has never suffered a recession.”

A few miles down the road from Canary Wharf, we’re trying to identify signs of  this economic good cheer. All we’ve picked up on so far is a surge in demand at our borough’s food banks. Is this what Aditya Chakrabortty describes as a “recovery centred on the capital and driven by credit”  looks like in our part of London?

‘Margaret’ (not her real name) came into the food bank that’s located in a far corner of the borough recently (the food banks in this borough are all supported  by the Trussell Trust, which partners with churches and communities to open food banks nationwide). Out of breath, she told us that she lives very close to here, but by mistake had ended up at a different food bank, which was closed (Each food bank in the borough opens on a different day of the week). She eventually got here with her eight-year-old daughter . Margaret was exhausted and in need of a cigarette. We took two chairs outside so that she could speak freely without her daughter listening (and because smoking is banned in the food bank).

This former store manager for a major retail chain has had the most difficult of lives since she was widowed in 2001. At that point she had a breakdown, and lost her children when they were taken into care for a year. “I got the children back, but neither I nor the kids were offered any support.”  A social worker – “the world’s best” according to Margaret – took over her case recently. She says the social worker was shocked when she worked through the family’s paperwork and is now offering the family ongoing support.

As well as her eight-year-old, Margaret  has sons of  21, 16, 15, and 13. She also shares her home with her 21 year-old stepdaughter.  Margaret’s 21 year-old son is severely autistic, her son of 13 has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and she also spends as much time as she can helping to care for her father – who has had a stroke and memory loss – and her mother, who is wheelchair-bound.

The family became homeless in February, and was eventually rehoused by a different borough in September.  Her family’s troubled situation seemed to only trigger intervention when their homelessness was picked up by staff at her daughter’s school. Someone from the school referred the family to child protection.

Once on the scene, the social worker quickly realised that this was not a child protection situation, said Margaret.  With the social worker involved, things are improving.  Margaret is a terrific person, who wants to care for everyone, but has missed on on vital support for years. But this dynamic social worker has clearly decided that the family will have a future . She’s told Margaret that “all you need to do is get a foot in the door”. Margaret is a wonderful, intelligent woman and a great communicator.  Many employers would see her as an asset.

Margaret tell me that her social worker is not scared of  telling her what’s what. “I put a telly into Cash Converters – but she said you can’t do that. She went into the shop and she got it back.” At this point her daughter comes outside and chips in: “We’ve got the best social worker ever!”

Her daughter’s eyes light up when she sees the supply of emergency food. She shouts out: “I love people!” She then tells us she can do break-dancing and Irish dancing – and we’re treated to an enthusiastic demonstration of each.

This is a  family that has much to build on. Margaret’s son of 16 is a talented rugby player, whose club is supporting his attendance at an academy. He’s also getting extra help to deal with his dyslexia. Margaret loves watching him play at the weekends. The social worker is arranging for them to have a holiday – the sort of thing they have missed out on for years. There’s a lot of love to go round in this family, and maybe that has helped them through some ghastly times.

London’s “boom” is not making a deal of difference to the food bank clients in this blighted corner of the world, but this social worker just might be able to help effect some progress for Margaret, her kids and her parents.