The Son's Tale


As told to Monica Ali

When I was seven years old my dad died and everything changed. He was a chartered accountant, the first in his family to go to university. He was a good man. His family were proud of him, he achieved so much… but they never accepted my mother. I don’t know why.

She had three children from a previous marriage, and my father provided for them as well. He treated all of us as his own. Perhaps his family couldn’t deal with the fact my mum had been married before. Even to this day it bothers me that I don’t know why they hated her. But they did, and it affected my life in a big way. They said terrible things about her, called her a prostitute.

I remember two things about my dad. He wore brown leather shoes with a square toe. ‘Pointed shoes,’ he said, ‘always look cheap.’ Every week he lined up his shoes, four pairs each with a different pattern of holes to decorate the toecaps, and we polished them together. Hard brush for the soles, medium to sweep the dust from the leather uppers, then the polish goes on with a cloth. A soft brush to work the polish deep and a clean rag to add shine. For me it was never a chore, it was a ritual that I loved. The second thing I remember is my dad’s laugh. It was sudden and colourful, like a firework display. When you heard it, when you witnessed it, his whole body exploding, it made you clap your hands. He was so full of joy.

It exhausted him though. Afterwards he always wheezed and coughed.

When my dad died, his mother – my grandmother – took me to live in a big family compound on the other side of Lagos. She loved me but she was old and too weak to take care of me herself. I was passed around to aunties and uncles. One of my uncles was the reverend of a big church next to the compound. The church had stained glass in the windows, blue, pink, orange, green, scarlet. White hibiscuses grew outside, a row of sunflowers, and there was this plant with deep green leaves and lovely little red flowers that guarded the lawn. If you tried to go across, your legs got torn to shreds. This plant is called ‘crown of thorns’.

So there was beauty, but there was also ugliness. Many people came and went, some for prayer and sermons, others for something else. For two years I didn’t go to school. My education stopped. I was passed around. Sometimes I had no food. More often I was beaten. And I was abused. Not just by one person. Many people. I never told anyone until I married and told my wife.

For three years I didn’t see my mum. She was struggling, with my three half-siblings to raise, and she wasn’t welcome at the compound. Then one Sunday she appeared at the church like a vision. It felt like a miracle. I thought I was dreaming, but then she put her arms around me and she smelled sweet like roses, like she always did, and I knew she was real. From then on, I was allowed to visit her at the weekends. I was happy for the first time since my dad passed away.

One day I got injured playing football, a bad cut on my leg. I hid it because my uncle had forbidden me to play football. If he found out he would be angry. He had a thick red electric cable and he used to beat me with it. I didn’t dare show my wound. It became infected and I got tetanus. I couldn’t walk properly. Somehow I made my way to my mum’s house and she took me to the hospital. The doctor said I was lucky. Another day later and they’d have cut off my leg.

My mum was furious with my uncle about my untreated injury. She took me back to live with her. I was twelve years old. I was happy to leave that compound where they beat me and abused me. But I never told my mum about any of that. It’s common in Nigeria. And if you are sexually abused the shame is on you. It’s not something you can speak about.

My mum had a boyfriend, a policeman. He beat me and he beat my mum. This too is common in Nigeria. I’d try to get him off her, but I wasn’t big enough.We didn’t have phones to call the police. You’d have to drive to a police station, and anyway the boyfriend was a policeman himself. The day he left we finally had a peaceful house.

Not a whole house, because we were poor. We rented a couple of rooms. My mum’s hands were always raw from her work, and from washing – clothes, the floors, dishes, children, even my football. She was a big believer in washing.‘God wants the world to be clean,’ she said.‘He didn’t make it so you could mess it up with your dirt.’ She worked in a palm oil factory, but she didn’t have formal employment, it was all a bit around the back, and sometimes she had no work. I worried about her because she was so thin. I told her to eat more but she laughed and said she was dieting. I knew she was lying but I didn’t understand why. I couldn’t finish school because you had to pay so I worked in a factory too.And my mum was sick a lot of the time. She didn’t tell me she had HIV. I was so angry when I finally found out, because I used to go with her to the hospital and wait outside and she never told me the truth.

Two weeks after she died, I came to London. I’ve been here for eighteen years now, since I was a very young man. I came here illegally. I came here because I wanted a better life. This is how it happened.

In Lagos I had a friend who was born in the UK. He lived in Lagos but every year he went to London for a holiday. I was very close to him; we were like brothers. Whenever he went away, he came back with a present for me. When my mum passed away, this friend heard about it and asked if I wanted to go to England. He had moved to London by then. I wanted to go but I didn’t have money. My friend said he would give me a loan and I could get a job and pay him back later. I said yes. There was nothing left for me in Lagos.

I used his Nigerian passport which had ‘Right of Abode’ stamped in it. He had two passports, this Nigerian one and a British one. I didn’t have any passport of my own; I’d never even been on a plane, had only seen them on television. I did everything wrong at the airport. Stood in the wrong lines, went the wrong way, was so nervous I was sweating… but I was lucky.The lady just let me through.

I moved in with my friend and found work easily. My first job was serving at a fast food kiosk at a station.Then I worked in a shop selling sports goods. Afterwards I did night shifts in a factory, packing and loading trucks. I’ve always been a hard worker. I like to work. It makes me feel good to do well at a job.When I got offered a job with a security firm, I was proud. Even my friend couldn’t get a job like that. When I went for an interview, he said I wouldn’t be accepted. Everyone told me that. But they took me. I was sent to work as a security guard in a department store. They have stores all over the country and I worked in one of them, in central London. After a while the manager of that store wanted me as the head of security. So I resigned from the agency and I was employed directly by this prestigious company. I was working hard and I felt I could make something of myself, but of course there was a huge problem. Many problems.

I couldn’t have my own bank account. Because I was using my friend’s identity, everything I earned went into his account. I had borrowed around £3000 from him. After four years he was still taking everything from me and giving me a few pounds here and there. Also, he changed. When I lived with him in London, he began ordering me around. I had to report to him. In the middle of the night he’d wake me up and tell me off, shout at me about small things – I shouldn’t eat stew twice in one day, I wasn’t allowed to do this and that. I’m not a pushy person. I’m not confident and I try to please so I put up with a lot. Anyway, I was stuck. I didn’t know how to move, what to do.

I was dating a girl, and eventually she convinced me to leave my friend. She helped me find a room to rent. When I moved out my friend wouldn’t let me use his identity any more. I managed to get a National Insurance number and keep working but I got scared when the Inland Revenue started investigating and I left the job.

I couldn’t pay rent after that and went to stay with a friend in a big, shared house. That’s when I got involved in criminal things.

What I did was wrong and I don’t blame anyone else for it, only myself. I am the one to blame.When I was staying in this house there were lots of us boys – young men – coming and going, all involved in crime. I learned from the others how to commit fraud. I used cards to buy stuff in shops and online. I applied for credit cards using false identities and used them knowing the bills would go unpaid. I bought clothes, electronics, phones, all sorts of things. I sold them to a guy at the phone shop and he sold them on again. He was my friend.

This is how I was living and my girlfriend wasn’t happy. Her family wasn’t happy. She always prayed for me. A couple of times she got pregnant, but she was still studying at university and went for abortions. I didn’t agree with her doing the abortions. There were a lot of tensions. When she had just started a master’s degree, she became pregnant a third time. When she had another abortion, it broke us up. That was the destruction of me. I blame myself. I didn’t have patience and I had lost the only good thing in my life.

I moved out of the big house and lived on my own in a studio flat. One night I met a girl in a bar. She was pretty and I liked her. I gave the girl and her friends a lift in my car to some party they were going to. The next day I had a call from an unknown number and it was her. She said she dropped an earring in my car. There was no earring in my car. She just wanted to see me again.

We fell in love. Like that, very quickly.We wanted to marry so I went to ask her parents and they wrote a list for the dowry. This is how it is in Nigeria, it’s the tradition, and though the girl was born in this country, her parents keep to these traditional things. I was glad to bring what they asked for – money, brandy, fruits, vegetables.

We married in a church. It was done properly. I got my own passport, a real one, from Nigeria House. We needed that to make the marriage legal. The wedding was the same date in May that I came to this country, the same date my father died.

The next year we had our first baby, a girl. And at the end of that year I went to the shops to buy a present for my wife’s birthday, using a fraudulent credit card. I was arrested. They discovered my immigration status and after two days in a police cell I was sent to a detention centre. Reality kicks in from there.

On my second day in detention an official came and gave me  a plane ticket. A lawyer helped me and the ticket was cancelled. The police were investigating me and they found other cards after my arrest. I was released on bail after three weeks and when my case came before the court, I was sentenced to 26 months. I served thirteen months, first at a maximum-security prison, then at a prison for foreign nationals.

In prison I signed up to lots of courses – information technology, business studies, all sorts of things. I never had the opportunity before so I took it. I was the gym orderly. I was the offender representative on committees. Maybe it sounds strange but when I was in prison, I had the chance to do things that made me feel proud. On the outside, I was ashamed of the things I did.

I was eventually released from prison. I was on bail from the immigration court and had to sign on every week. For three years it went on like that. I couldn’t work legally and I was afraid to work cash in hand so I was at home looking after the children. We had three children by then. My wife was working, and we managed. I loved being with my kids, two girls and a boy, and I was glad to look after them.

When the deportation order came I appealed against it, but the appeal was refused. I was in absolute fear. How could I live without my children? How would I live in Nigeria? I have nothing in Lagos. I have nobody there.

The marriage was falling apart. I wanted to make it work but I didn’t know what to do, and my wife started drinking. She started using drugs. I was desperate. I heard that in Ireland it’s easier to get Irish citizenship with a European family stamp. That means if you have a wife and kids who are British you can get an Irish identity card. We moved to Ireland for that reason. My wife was reluctant but I persuaded her.

I got the Irish identity card and it gave me a bit of hope. I loved Ireland, I loved the countryside, but my wife hated it there. She kept going to London. She even went there for Valentine’s Day. When she came back, her wedding ring was gone. She said she’d sold it. I knew she was having an affair. She was still drinking and doing drugs, and I looked after the children. As soon as they came into this world, they became my life.

My wife moved back to London, taking the kids. So I came back too and stayed with a friend. The marriage was over and my wife had another man. I picked up our children every day after school and I took care of them every other weekend. It worked okay for a while but then one evening I had a call from my daughter who told me she was at home  on her own. She was only seven. I must have sounded shocked because then my daughter told me not to worry, that mum left her alone at home all the time. Of course, I spoke to my wife about it and this is how she responded: ‘If you have a problem, why don’t you report it?’

She knew, with the deportation order hanging over me, that I was powerless to do anything. I’d be put in a detention centre or on a plane. From Nigeria I wouldn’t be able to help my kids at all.

It went from bad to worse. The family support worker at school tried to help. We agreed days for me to pick up from school and times for me to drop off at her house. I didn’t have anywhere for them to stay with me, just one small room. So I’d keep them until around eight in the evening and then drop them off. Many times she wasn’t there. One time, when I had to have them overnight because their mother had disappeared again, the mother of one of the men who lived in the house gave my children £10 each. So I bought them some clothes, clean pants for the next day, stuff like that. I only had £4. I’m not allowed to work and I can’t get benefits. I survive somehow, with the help of friends. That woman was so kind. She didn’t have much and she didn’t have to help us. Sometimes you feel everybody just fights for what they can get, but there are good people in this world.

Soon after, the boiling point came. My wife texted me to say she wasn’t going to be home that night at the time when I was supposed to drop them off.These are little kids, they need to go to bed so they can get up right and feel right at school. So I took them to mine and put them to sleep in my bed, and because I did that, she came round – it was late in the evening – and kicked off. She was screaming and hitting me and then she called the police and told them I had snatched the kids from her. When the police arrived, she told them I had a deportation order. I was arrested, taken to the police station, and then to the detention centre.

I don’t even know what to say about that place. I don’t know where to start. It’s worse than prison. It’s a place filled only with despair.

On the second or third day, I went to see a welfare person, someone who is supposed to advise and help. The first thing she said to me was, ‘Why don’t you take your children and go back to Nigeria?’

I cried a lot. I found it hard to eat and became very thin. I couldn’t sleep. When I did sleep, I had vivid dreams. I never dreamed like that in my life before. All the time I dreamed about my two girls and my little boy; they were always in danger and I couldn’t protect them. And I dreamed about my mum. In the dreams she never liked me. I was falling apart.

But I understood something about my mum, at last. I used to blame her a lot because she didn’t tell me things, because she gave me away when I was only seven years old… I always loved her but in one piece of my heart I blamed her as well. I see it differently now because I realised that all she was doing was trying to protect me. That was the reason she kept secrets, the reason why she gave me away, the reason she took me back again. She didn’t hate me. I used to think that, but now I know it’s not true. As a parent you get to understand.

For three months I didn’t see my children. Their mother never brought them to see me. She told them I’d been deported.

I had a hearing in front of an immigration judge.You can’t get legal aid so I asked a friend who asked a friend, and a lawyer – not even an immigration lawyer – agreed to help me. On the day of the hearing he didn’t show up, so I stood up  in court and represented myself. I was glad because I wanted to speak. I wanted the judge to hear me. I wanted to tell her who I was and how I came to be in that courtroom in front  of her.

The judge had hard lines on her face. She frowned the whole time. And she kept asking the Home Office people, why has he been in detention for three months? She seemed cross about it. They couldn’t give her a reason so she told them to release me. They had to let me go.

Now I am trying again to get my deportation order revoked. I fill in endless forms and make phone calls, but I don’t hear anything from them. I understand why some people – perhaps many, perhaps even most – would say I should be sent back to Nigeria. I came here illegally. I committed crimes.

When I came here I was very young and all I could see, when I travelled on that false passport, was a lifeline. I got thrown a lifeline and I caught it because I wanted to survive. It’s not an excuse but it is the truth.

I don’t blame anyone but myself for the things I did that were wrong. I was involved in criminal activity, and served time in prison. But I believe everyone deserves a second chance. I’ve never had a chance to show my real identity, to prove who I really am.

I’m not a bad person. I want to do good, not only for my children, for this country as well. I love this country. This country changed me a lot. I’ve been here nearly eighteen years now. I want to work. I want to be known as a good person. I want to be a good man, like my dad.

Most of all, I’m scared for my children.They need me. I’m their father and I’m like their mother too. They want to live with me. I never enjoyed my childhood and I don’t want my children to go through any of the things I had to go through. I fear for them.

Story first published in Refugee Tales III, Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus, published by Comma Press, 2019. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.

Photograph of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, by Marc Pether-Longman via Flickr (cc).