Four years I arrived at Heathrow Airport with my eight month old baby. We had travelled for six hours by plane and six hours to the airport from my home state in Nigeria. I had come to the UK to find safety after we had to leave our home because we weren’t safe there anymore and my family couldn’t keep us safe if we stayed in the country.
As we stepped into the airport I felt lost. I didn’t have anyone to meet me and I didn’t have much on me. I didn’t know how expensive life in the UK was. I tried to get a taxi but couldn’t believe how much they cost so tried to bargain about the cost. It’s funny now but it wasn’t then.
In the coming days I stayed with some relatives of my mum and I started the process of claiming asylum and found a lawyer to help me. But I couldn’t stay there because she was hearing bits of why I’d had to leave home and she wasn’t comfortable with us in the house. This was really hard. I didn’t know where else to go as she was the only person I knew in the UK. I felt so alone but I kept going because I have to be there for my child.
My lawyer called the Home Office and they said they couldn’t help us and I needed to go to the nearest police station. I was so scared. I thought they would arrest me or take my child away. But I had nowhere else to go. Eventually, they took us to a bed and breakfast in north London. When I got that room I was happy because at least it was a roof over our heads and a bed to sleep in. Everyone in the B&B was in temporary accommodation. This was the first place where I made friends and I’m still best friends with one of the ladies I met then.
My faith has always been important to me and so I quickly tried attending the local Catholic church, as I had been raised a Catholic back home. I invited a new lady in the B&B to come with me to church but people there weren’t really welcoming to her children and sent them away because of the children’s disability. I didn’t feel I could go back there after that and so tried the church across the road. This was The Salvation Army. It was a small church but it soon became our new home. The second Sunday we walked in and everyone greeted us by name. It meant such a lot. We were all alone and yet someone cared enough to remember our names. They hugged us. This was the first place that we actually felt welcome in the UK.
We stayed in that area for six months. Every two weeks I had to go to London Bridge to sign to prove I hadn’t disappeared undergound. Nobody could help me with the application for support from the National Asylum Support Service, known as NASS, so I was always in the library. This was hard. My child would be screaming and I would be trying to type my application as this was the only place I could do it. We were living on £20 a week from the council but half of this was going on the travel to sign at London Bridge. The health visitor helped me to get some food from the local food bank and another family in the B&B, who were slightly better off us, would share their food with us.
Eventually my application for NASS support was accepted and they provided us with some accommodation in another part of London and NASS subsistence allowance. Our accommodation is a single room for us to eat, play, study and sleep in. We have to negotiate with other families in the house for access to the shared kitchen, laundry and bathroom facilities. We receive a total of £72 a week to provide for all our other needs: food, clothing, medicine, travel, toiletries, study materials and phone bills. There is little left over to save for unexpected costs.
People at the corps told me there was a Salvation Army near to my new house but we kept going back despite the cost of travel because when you don’t have too many connections you don’t want to let go of good relationships when you don’t know where you’ll be next. I’d already had to leave my family and friends in Nigeria, I didn’t want to lose my new church famiy too.
Eventually one of the ladies told me she knew the officers in my new area so I decided to try the toddler group. I really liked it the first time I came because it was a big room and they didn’t have to turn people away like at so many of the children’s centre groups in the area. I got to know the people running the group and discovered it was a Salvation Army thing to be welcoming! So I started coming to the toddler group regularly. As the corps officer picked up a little about my situation she made it possible for me to attend the group for free. £2 doesn’t seem like a lot but when you only have a small amount to live on, it is. The corps also runs a Baby Bank, which helped me with clothes, toys and equipment for my child. They’ve also helped me with oyster costs to visit from solicitor, food parcels and clothing for myself, as well as a nursery deposit when my child was able to start nursery.
Eventually, I began attending the local corps on a Sunday too because now I had family here too. When my child was three I bought a birthday cake to church and wanted to celebrate with our family at church. I was just about to go and light the candles to bring it in when I turned round and saw that a friend had done it for me. It made me feel like I was at home, with my family who just help without being asked.
My first application for asylum was denied. I felt awful. I had hoped that soon everything would get better and now it seemed it would get worse. The Home Office said my case wasn’t strong enough and I should return to my country. My solicitors were able to appeal and my corps officer wrote a letter explaining her understanding of my situation. She also came with me so that she could look after my child while I went into courtroom. I didn’t want to leave my child behind with a babysitter because I was scared they would take me away and separate me from her. You can’t imagine how much it means to have someone safe to look after your child nearby when you’re attending court.
My appeal was denied. When I first got the letter I didn’t want to tell anyone because it hurt so much. I had been expecting to tell good news and then it was the opposite of what I was expecting. It broke my heart and I didn’t want to break other people’s heart. Over the past four years I have seen other people around me – my neighbours and my friends – receiving leave to remain and being able to move on with their lives. I am still waiting. I need to make a fresh application and have some new evidence to add but the task of starting again and looking for a new solicitor feels so daunting. I am tired of fighting. I am tired of waiting. I am tired of my dreams for me and my child being put on hold.
But I am a person of faith. Being an asylum seeker does not define me. Jesus Christ defines me. I am using this time to learn at college and develop skills for the future. I dream that when this is over, I can train as a midwife and care for women in their moments of pain.
I am an adherent member of the Salvation Army and sing in the worship group. I help in the Baby Bank and our charity shop, and am part of the team who make Messy Church happen. People at the corps see something in me that I can’t always see myself. They encourage me to use my gifts, even now while I am waiting.
The first time that I helped in the Baby Bank I was really happy – and quite jealous of the family worker who gets to do this for her job! I knew the process because we’d filled out the forms before. As the lady I met told me her story, I recognized so many things. She was living through the same experiences as us. I didn’t know there were other families like mine. I thought it was just us and I felt so happy that I was able to help her. We’re not the only ones. Before I felt like I was a problem person but I know now that there are so many people like me who are bravely living through difficult times because we trust that the UK is a safe place for people who have lost everything.
Phoebe is a member of a Salvation Army Corps in London.