The Search For Better: My Reflections As An Undocumented Teenage Mum

In my earliest childhood memories at the tender age of seven, I can remember sitting outside my parents’ two-bed home which housed eight children and various aunties and uncles that would frequently visit. It was a small home to the standard of today indeed, nevertheless it was the best they could provide at the time.  

Although our family life and living situation had its challenges, I wasn’t always fully aware of this. I knew no better. The struggle was evident in our daily lives - from the one and a half hour walk to school to school to the limited food supplies we had. As a child, this was my ‘normal’. I had not experienced anything different to compare it to and I had a limited understanding of what better could possibly look like.

One Summer, on a hot day somewhere in Lagos - Nigeria; with a bucket full of dirty clothes as I sat outside doing my regular washing, I was interrupted by loud screams that came from inside my house. This is a memory that has stayed with me as I have navigated through my journey of life. 

My oldest sister could be heard shouting: “Na God oh!” 

“London, London!” 

I was curious. At that age I was incredibly curious so I began to push for answers from my sister: “Where is London?, Has someone died?” The answers I received lacked coherence. I still did not understand and it was a struggle for my young mind to fully grasp the situation. 

The loud shouting was followed by singing and more loud shouting, which would continue for the rest of the day. I sunk further into confusion as the rest of my family members joined in the celebration. A family meeting was called, whereby my dad announced that he would have the opportunity to travel with his family to the UK, however he could only take five out of the eight children. I was one of those chosen. Excitement gripped me at the thought of travelling on an airplane, it was so unreal. A few months later, we arrived in London, and what began as a beautiful bright candle of hope that would slowly, unknowingly become dim to the reality of what our lives would be.  

As a family, now in London, our struggles continued. We had left the difficulties of one country to embark on the challenges of another. Our house was a tight terrace with two beds, which housed all seven family members. The daily living difficulties we once experienced in Lagos soon resurfaced. 

I began to attend a primary school and found it difficult to progress at the same pace as my peers. Nevertheless, I continued on with cheerful resilience. I was later diagnosed with learning disabilities that would significantly impact my education performance. My parents did not know how to support my learning needs as a result of my disabilities. I felt different. Despite this, I continued my primary and secondary school education with some support from my teachers.

I was now thirteen years old when my parents made the decision to leave the UK and return to Nigeria. I assumed that we would reunite as a family soon, potentially my siblings and I returning together. However, my parents had notified my oldest sister that she would return with them and two other siblings first, before arrangements could be made for the rest of us. This was the last time I saw my dad.

Two weeks after he has returned to Nigeria, he suffered a sudden heart attack and died.  At thirteen years old, I felt like I had lost my world. My dad had been the strongest pillar in my family. What followed can only be described as a dark period in my journey of life. I was unable to attend my dad's funeral, due to limited finances - we could not afford it. As time passed and life moved steadily, our struggle was more apparent. The bus fare to school was hard to come by and lunch money was often a challenge. My two older siblings took on the role of providing for the family. Still young, I had very little understanding of the extent of the difficulties we faced.

At sixteen years old I fell pregnant. I vividly remember the disappointment that gripped through the whole family. I remember struggling to complete my GCSE exams, however achieving decent results. It was at this point, during my pregnancy, for the first time, that a question began to emerge regarding my immigration status. I was often asked for my passport in order to access particular services. As a teenager, I was still dependent on my elder siblings for every aspect of my care. It was at this point that my siblings sat me down to explain that they would support me with my baby, however due to not having a legal status in UK I would be ineligible for any other support from the government as “the government does not support such people. They are simply sent back to their own countries”. At that moment I realised the life of hardship I was living would take a further turbulent path.

Seven months down the line, my baby was born. Days would go by where I had no pampers and could not afford to support him. I regularly visited various charitable organisations seeking any support that was available to provide for my baby. I had no recourse to public funds. I am forever grateful to the organisations that provided and supported my baby and I as it was a period whereby I struggled to survive. I had a roof over my head and the love of God but everything else was absent. The desire to give my child a different life motivated me more to seek an opportunities to provide better care for him. At seventeen, with the assistance of a local charity, I was offered funding that would cover the cost of childcare for me to attend a local college. This indeed, truly was favour and a grace of God. 

I was unsure of what attending sixth form would be like with a young baby, but I was committed to my studies. From train fare fees to attend the college, to the expensive pampers for the baby, nursery costs, an endless list - I chose to persevere past the list of troubles and uncertainties. I was focused on the bigger picture. Now in sixth form I can recall the feeling of how I got here. Studying with a young baby was something I had not fully prepared for, my support circle was small and my financial position was incredibly difficult to escape. It wasn’t easy seeing my peers receiving monetary assistance when my difficulties seemed endless.

When I got to A level, I was overjoyed to find out I had achieved AAB grades. I was accepted to my first choice university, but classified as an international student, unable to access student finance the situation left me saddened. I watched my prospect of attending university fade. The conditions of my status as an undocumented person in UK meant I was unable to work, travel or walk freely on the streets without fear of being stopped and deported by authorities. All I wanted was a better life and an opportunity to achieve my educational ambitions. I decided that losing hope was not an option. I sought legal support scoured for information online to change my circumstances. My quest for better led me to stumble on a new immigration rule that resulted in acquiring my leave to remain and putting me on a legal path to settlement, where I could finally get the opportunity to work hard and better my future.

I was offered a place at my first choice university to study Politics and International Relations. I was determined that this was my time. The process to acquire student finance support was extremely lengthy, however with support from my local MP I was successfully granted a finance loan to complete my three-year undergraduate programme.

After three years of intense studying, often facing many challenges due to my learning difficulties - I maintained my focus. I am excited to say I have now graduated with a 2.1 have been accepted onto a Master’s program in Social Work. I recognise that some young people are still yet to receive the opportunity to unlock their future potential and access higher education. Many more are still seeking a light in their immigration journey. I choose to hope because I know the best is always yet to come. This is not the end.

If I could send a message to my younger self, I would’ve said: Life is for living. Be patient. God’s time is the best.

J.A (a fellow young person)

Spending my childhood in the UK, I didn’t know I was different.

Lizzie, 21

4 Mar 2021