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Opinion

What it’s like to have your life put on hold by the Home Office

Abdullahi Yussuf came to the UK from Nigeria aged 12. He writes about waiting for an asylum decision by the Home Office – and offers advice to others in the same position.

I came to the UK from Nigeria when I was 12 years old. It was an incredible, yet terrifying experience for me to be in a new country.

I realised early on that I had to figure out how to adapt to life in the UK and I understood that education would play a significant role. I have faced difficulties as I have cerebral palsy with left hemiplegia – which simply means that the left side of my body is less responsive than the right. However, I didn’t let this stop me as I love a challenge and I knew that my love for education would smooth the transition. 

My educational journey in the UK has been remarkable. I was the first in my family to win a full scholarship to university where I graduated from SOAS with a 2:1 in social anthropology. I won the Most Inspirational Student award in my department at SOAS and before that I won the Jack Petchey award in secondary school – which came with a £250 prize that I used to buy a water fountain for the school garden.

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Despite my achievements in education here in the UK, and my ambition to succeed, I haven’t been able to pursue any of my desired career paths because the Home Office has put my life on hold.  

I have been waiting for a decision on my asylum status for nearly four years and in the meantime, I can’t work.

After graduating earlier this year, I successfully secured a place on a graduate scheme which I was unable to accept due to my asylum status. This was extremely difficult for me to come to terms with and I hit rock bottom. With this heart-breaking news, I found it difficult to get back on my feet. But I am far from alone in this daily struggle that young asylum seekers face until they receive positive news from the Home Office. 

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I interviewed Idris*, a disabled young man from West Africa, who is an asylum seeker in the UK, and he told me: “As an asylum seeker here in the UK, one’s life is temporarily on hold and one is stuck feeling useless and views him or herself as a bondage to society. I constantly have to hide that I am an asylum seeker when I am in a certain setting. I have been unable to fulfil my dreams of being a future footballer as there is a high level of uncertainty with my asylum status here in the UK.” 

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Idris is one of many young asylum seekers whose goals and aspirations to contribute to society have been shattered by the arbitrary delays and rejections of the asylum process.

Dealing with my unresolved asylum status has had a severe effect on my well-being as I battle with depression. I recall swimming in tears and sadness when I was removed from the graduate scheme, and I have encountered this sensation in every asylum seeker I have met.

Idris added that “asylum seekers merely want to live their best lives and showcase their skills to the UK, not take anything away”and also highlighted that misinformed negative media coverage can leave migrants feeling hurt, demoralised and struggling to find a sense of belonging. 

I want people to understand that young people like Idris do not risk their lives or leave their friends and families behind unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

Any rational individual in that situation would attempt to flee unliveable circumstances and start a new life elsewhere. Idris was persecuted in his home country because of his disability: “I was sometimes referred to as an ‘evil child’. My legs have razor blade cuts, and I remember asking my mother what those black marks were. She refused to tell me, despite my pleadings, and she eventually explained to me that I was kidnapped at the age of two and again at the age of four.” Idris decided to leave the shark’s mouth.  

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As an asylum seeker, I have learned that when one door closes in your face, you have to open another one on your own. The frustration and disappointment at losing out on the graduate scheme has taught me the importance of resilience, fearlessness, drive, and never giving up. I may not be able to take on paid employment at the moment, but I am still a hard worker and a fighter. 

I’ve learned to keep active and positive by finishing my Duke of Edinburgh gold award during the summer and volunteering part-time at the children’s charity Coramand the Hackney Migrant Centre.

Volunteering at these two phenomenal organisations during this difficult time has been professionally and personally rewarding because I am actively able to help other young people in similar situations by sharing my story and supporting them to find ways to achieve their dreams despite the obstacles. 

I recently had the opportunity to share my experience at the 40th anniversary celebration of Coram Children’s Legal Centre where I talked about my work as a coordinator with Coram’s Young Citizens, a peer-support programme that recruits and trains young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds to deliver workshops to support other newly arrived young migrants.

I have delivered workshops on a range of topics such as the understanding the asylum process and life in the UK. Young people often come up to me afterwards and tell me that I have inspired them with my story and shown them that they can make the impossible possible. I do the same work at the Hackney Migrant Centre, and it makes me euphoric to see the positive impact I am making in people’s lives at both organisations. 

Volunteering has also really helped me to take care of my wellbeing. I am doing something I enjoy, and it makes me happy. This is something I would really recommend to other asylum seekers – DO WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY! I can’t emphasise how important this is, whether it’s swimming, sports, or binge-watching Netflix. Even when it can seem like your life is on hold, there is still a lot you can do to maintain your physical and mental well-being. 

I decided to learn a new language, Spanish, and I cannot express how much joy this brings me (I hope to become fluent one day and add Spanish to the Yoruba and English I already speak).

It is crucial for asylum seekers to separate what we can’t control (the asylum process) from what is within our control (all the skills and activities we can develop while waiting for a decision) and the need to keep making progress on what is within our control. My peers in the Young Citizens programme have also created this animation about how young migrants can look after their mental health. 

Young people can use this time to get themselves into the best possible position either through education, finding a supportive network, or volunteering which strengthens their skills and widens their social network. Along with my volunteering work and hobbies, I’m planning to go for my master’s degree in Events and Experience Management at Goldsmiths in September 2022.  

Today is International Migrants’ Day and I want to use this moment to draw attention to the positive elements of migration. Idris, I and many other young migrants and asylum seekers bring our youth, skills, potential, passion, and ambition to live our best lives in this country. Let’s educate our friends and family members who may not have an understanding of the challenges that migrating and asylum-seeking people face and let’s stand up for fairness, equality and acceptance.

My message to people seeking asylum is that that it reflects your desire for dignity, safety, and a brighter future. It is woven into the social fabric, and it is a part of who we are as a human family. I also want to thank my family for being fighters and staying fearless during this difficult period in our lives – I cannot thank you three enough. Love you so much. 

*Not his real name 

Abdullahi Yussuf is a volunteer coordinator in Coram’s Young Citizens programme, a peer-support programme for young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds to help them settle in and lead positive lives in the UK. It is International Migrants’ Day on Saturday.

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