I grew up living like a criminal – now I’m finding my voice

by Victory Sanu-Goodness @queenvictoryy

Victory Sanu-Goodness arrived in the UK at seven years old. Now 20, she is a writer, radio host, & youth activist. She co-hosts the Hearsay podcast about overcoming the fear of speaking out as an undocumented youth. 

No one is illegal.

It feels kinda funny saying that now because for a long time I believed I was. Not only because the world was constantly drumming it into me at every turn, but because I spent the best part of 12 years living like a criminal. Looking over my shoulder everyday, terrified that someone would grab me, throw me in a detention centre & ship me back to Nigeria.

I spent 12 years living like a criminal.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t much fun. I remember the day I came here. I was told I was going to my grandma’s house for the summer and I was very upset. My grandma never let me play outside. I packed a very small bag and got in the car. A car ride soon became a flight. The journey was a blur. All I remember is suddenly being very, very cold. I was coming from 30 degree weather and it must have been -1 in Heathrow. I was confused but ecstatic. I was greeted at the airport by my family members and like a lamb to the slaughter, I ventured happily into this new life. If only I had known what was coming.

I guess my first hint was my lack of stability. We were never able to live anywhere for too long. Constantly moving, constantly running. My friends didn’t understand. To be honest, neither did I. I knew I wasn’t allowed to open the door, under any circumstances.

“It doesn’t matter who it is, do not open the door.”

New schools. New friends. New addresses. It became an adventure to me. Every new address was a new chapter in my life where I could start again and be whoever I wanted. The houses varied. Sometimes it would have stairs and a living room. It would feel like a home. Sometimes it would be 4 of us sleeping in one room. Me on the floor, I liked the floor. I didn’t care because we were together. My family were with me so whatever the situation was, I was happy. Until I was alone. Until I had to start living with people I didn’t know. Some were accommodating, some not so much. Never permanent though, always temporary. I knew something wasn’t right, but I never asked.

Then it was time to go to France. That’s when I got my second hint. It was my first ever overseas school trip and I was beyond excited. I ran home waving the letter in my hand. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I burst through the front door and shoved it in my mums face. “Sign it! Sign it!”. But she didn’t sign it. She folded it up and told me I couldn’t go. She didn’t tell me why so I assumed it was because she was jealous and didn’t want me to be happy. I was a very dramatic 13 year old.

Things like that kept happening. Declined invites to Disneyland, school opportunities I couldn’t be a part of & even work experience I wasn’t allowed to do. I didn’t like it, but I accepted it. I accepted that I was different to my friends and I wasn’t afforded the same opportunities as them. The final reveal came in my last year of college. This was my all time low. After completing my UCAS application, and going to various university open days, I was ready to sort out my accommodation and apply for student loan. That was when things went seriously left. I finally came to understand what it truly meant to be an illegal immigrant.

I was asked to provide my British passport or proof of legal stay in this country and it quickly became clear that I had neither of those things. The reality that I wouldn’t be able to go to uni with all my peers began to settle in and it affected me massively. I lost motivation at school and the shame I felt built up so much resentment in me. I was angry all the time and felt completely hopeless. Like clockwork, my grades began to drop and my favourite teachers started telling me I had an attitude problem. I missed classes, barely did assignments and even almost got excluded. I was falling apart.

I am thankful to have supportive friends who motivated me and encouraged me to do better. Just because I couldn’t go to uni, it didn’t mean I had to fail college. So I did my best, and on results day, the feeling I had was bitter sweet. I was happy to have been accepted into the uni of my choice but of course the fact that I wouldn’t actually be able to attend caused me to break down. That summer was the hardest. I watched all my peers prepare to shoot off to uni while I sat at home feeling isolated and alone. That’s when the lying began. I told people so many different things that I couldn’t keep up. I was lying to hide my shame only to later on be ashamed of those lies. The irony really wasn’t lost on me.

I felt like I was the only person on the planet going through this and I didn’t want to be the anomaly. I was sick of getting asked the same questions over and over and over again.

“Are you studying?” Then when I said no it was always “Oh? Why not?”. I was tired of having to explain myself. So I told people I was doing an apprenticeship. Said I was going to uni overseas. I’m sure I even told one person I already graduated. My lies didn’t even make sense. I was lying to protect my self from judgement and humiliation.

A few months down the line, I decided enough was enough. I was tired of lying and feeling hopeless, it was time to make moves. My first course of action was to try and get money in order to pay for my very expensive application. I decided to offer my services out to people in my area. Cleaning their houses, looking after their kids, stuff like that. It was humiliating at times and I was heavily underpaid but I couldn’t exactly complain, could I?

Beggars couldn’t be choosers. Especially illegal ones.

I managed to save up some money but it was nowhere near enough. So I started actually asking for help. I sent a bunch of emails to a bunch of organisations asking for any sort of funding and it didn’t look like anyone was willing to help. Then I was fortunate enough to get in contact with a lovely girl called Chrissan who put me in contact with a man I will always be thankful for, Joel Carter from Just For Kids Law. They managed to get me a pro-bono lawyer to help me put through my application, saving me thousands of pounds in lawyer fees, got me funding for my application and even paid all my consultation fees. I didn’t even have a Nigerian passport so I had to struggle to get that. I was rejected several times for one reason or the other until I finally broke down in the Nigerian embassy in front of everyone. I was fed up of going back and forth and fighting for what was rightfully mine. Finally, I was granted. It was finally happening. 12 years and 30+ addresses later. I was finally about to get my life together.

Fast forward to October 2015. I remember the day I got the call, I was at my best friends house. I had been panicking about my application and I was so sure I’d be rejected. Things didn’t usually work out for people like me. Then the phone rang and my lawyer made my day. I ran to his office as soon as I put down the phone and went to collect my residence permit. I was literally smiling that entire week. I was granted limited leave to remain, meaning that for 2.5 years, I was permitted to live and work in this country. After 2.5 years, I will have to apply again. That will be February 2018. I still wasn’t able to attend university because I wasn’t eligible for student loan but life felt a little easier. I was no longer scared. I could now work legally & finally go on holiday!

Though it has gotten better, shit still ain’t easy. I am still not the same as my peers. I am not afforded the luxury of spontaneous holidays as I have to apply for visas which need to applied for weeks in advance and are subject to rejection. I still get screened harshly when passing through immigration while my friends walk through freely. I still get reminded that I’m not the same as my peers when I get rejected from jobs because they only employ permanent residents of this country. Every time I spend money I feel guilty because I know I need to save up to pay for my application renewal. Every April, I’m anxious about whatever new law will be implemented to make my stay in this country more difficult.

But even with all that, I am thankful and happy. There are people who still haven’t been granted stay in this country and are still running. People who didn’t bring this situation on themselves but are burdened by the consequences. It took me 14 years to finally stand up and speak up about my situation because

I was ashamed for so long. The stigma attached to illegal immigrants is terrible and unfair because majority of us did not bring ourselves here.

For a lot of us, it was only when it came to university applications that we became privy to our circumstances & by that point, we are all alone. There are thousands of people like me across the country who are going through this and are literally suffering in silence because the fear and shame of speaking out overwhelms them.

I believe this is a conversation that needs to be had. To anyone reading this who is in a similar situation, I want to let you know that you are not alone. We have help. There are many organisations around that aim to help us. Universities are now even offering scholarships to gifted students who have been blocked from higher education because of their immigration status. There are campaigns like Let Us Learn that are continuously working hard to open more and more doors for people in our situation. We are no longer alone.

To anyone who can’t relate to this situation, thank you so much for reading. All I ask of you is that you be vigilant. There are probably people around you going through this while you’ve been completely oblivious to it. Your classmates, your work colleagues, even your friends! You would be surprised how well people hide it. I urge you to try and be understanding and encouraging. I thank God for my friends everyday & I pray you can also be a person someone in my situation can be thankful for.

I have decided to talk about this as much as I can to anyone that cares to listen in hopes that I can reach out to as many people as possible who may believe, like I did, that they are the only one going through this.

I speak on this in detail on #Hearsay, a live podcast created and hosted by my co-host, Naomi & I. We share our individual stories and talk about how we overcame our fear of speaking out. We created this platform in order to highlight important issues that people don’t discuss and we are dedicated to making the plight of young immigrants.

No one is illegal. Not me, not you.

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