“A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me”

Families with children were regularly detained at Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel detention centres until the change of policy in 2010 drastically reduced the number of children detained.  Now, a smaller number of families with children are detained in an unit within Tinsley detention centre.  But what happened to many children who were detained at Yarl’s Wood and who are turning into adults in the UK?  Ijeoma Datha-Moore, from Let Us Learn, looks back on her 15-year-old self who suddenly found her and her family detained at Yarl’s Wood.  When she finished writing this piece, Ijeoma said I’ve done it. I can’t tell you how odd it felt, but empowering. I am so proud of myself for being able to do this.’ A big thank you to Ijeoma for sharing her story with Unlocking Detention. 
I was detained in October 2009, at the age of 15, my brother was about 11.  It was in fact two days after I had turned 15. I was never informed of where I was being kept, but I firmly believe it was Yarl’s Wood.
I had no idea such things (as immigration detention) even existed before I was detained.  It was so peculiar to me, I felt like a prisoner in a country I called home.  My first impression was that it looked nice, it most definitely didn’t look like a place you’d be terrified of being in from the outside and the inside was decent. It was clean, I could still smell cleaning chemicals. In places it was bright, I believe this was for the benefit of the children.
I remember the smell of food – I think it was lunch time when we arrived. I remember the first meal we had was some chicken and rice. That was the only good thing about the place, the food. It felt very clinical in some areas, a little too white, which made me feel uneasy, but the spaces dedicated to children were bright and beautiful.  You could always hear people talking.  The only real dull moment you had was when everyone went to sleep.
I remember when I walked in with my little brother and my father; there was a room they kept you in before you were called.  It was so bright; it made me feel at ease, as if I’d have a good time or that it was a place filled with laughter.
In the detention centre we were kept in, as there were kids there, they had a make-shift school. Honestly, the first couple of days I was up for going to ‘school’, but after the first three days or so, I hated it.  I wanted out.  They mixed kids from 11 to 17 in one class.  I was missing my actual school for what I considered, and what was clearly, a bullcrap ‘school’.  Aside from so-called school, I spent time with other kids in the game room along with my brother and that was pretty much it…
I was angry at the system for keeping me in such a place at such a young age. I know 15 may not seem young, but in the eyes of the law I am not an adult, so why treat me like one?!  My heart broke for my brother, he had no clue what was happening!  I basically had to be mum and dad for him and try to keep us both strong. We were estranged from our father, so it was the worst possible situation. He was only detained with us because he had come to visit me for my birthday and stayed for the weekend celebrations. It was horrendous. A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me.
My mum had to run away from the flat we had as she didn’t want them (the Home Office) to get her too.  She had been working hard on regularizing our immigration status and had been doing so for a number of years to the best of my knowledge. She was never one to burden me with such information.
After we were released, my brother and I were sent to live with a family my father knew, while he was detained and then later deported.
When I got back to school I told my friends I had just been away due to it being my birthday…  I didn’t care if they believed me or not, I just didn’t want to re-live the trauma.  I never spoke about my experience to friends until I was 17…  Even then I only told about two people.  They were so shocked, but what could I do.

My mum was affected the most; she spent almost two years apart from her children. That had never happened before; the most she’d spend away from us was a few days, or at the longest, a week. Those around her made her more frightful and on the off chance she came to see us, she would be terrified when police went by in case they would snatch her.  She would shake!  Imagine being so scared about being taken away that you shake at the sound of sirens or when a police officer walks by.  She didn’t even look like she was getting enough sleep.
I don’t recall getting any one to one support inside the detention centre. The only people that were nice were other kids!  I mean it made sense seeing as we were all going through the same travesty. There was a room for worship, no matter the religion. You could set it up how you wanted. This was beneficial to those of faith, a way of helping them cope. It was a place I went to for quiet time and to pray. Even after I got out, I never received professional support. It was needed, especially for my younger brother.
I didn’t really witness anything in the centre because I stayed in my room.  It was my coping mechanism.  I didn’t want to be around other people, I was very reclusive.  However, after coming out of there and as I got older, I wanted to know more. I read about people who had died in detention.  I was shocked!!  I also heard about a guy that tried escaping a couple years back and when trying to scale the fence, he impaled himself. It is a TRAGIC place.
This experience of detention changed me.  I wasn’t as open as I was before.  I was very distrustful of lawyers or those working with the law in general.  I hate G4S to this day.  Before I went inside, I loved to cook and be around family.  Now I’ve lost my zeal for cooking, I’d much rather be on my own.  It’s made me a more inward person.  Although I’m glad to say that I’m coming out of this now…  it’s only taken almost 10 years.  Detention is very damaging, to both children and adults alike. I now work at Just For Kids Law, which is the best place for me after all my experiences.
To people who are reading this and feeling angry about immigration detention, I would say challenge it!  Many people in detention will be like me, awaiting a Home Office decision or putting their papers in.  The government doesn’t care.  I mean I saw a four-year-old in detention.  4?!
You should petition, you should protest.  Just get out there and do what you can. I most definitely think we should find a different way of dealing with immigration detention, it shouldn’t even exist. The Home Office is terrible at response times which is why many families are in the situation.  What you should really do is challenge people’s way of thinking.  If people have connections with MP’s, use them…  Something needs to be done about how much we pay to get our official documents and how much we pay to renew them. Many families cannot afford the cost and they only keep increasing every April.
I am now involved in Let us Learn, which is a youth led movement campaigning for higher education for all.  We develop young leaders through the work we do for a better and brighter future.  We wanted to change the way the system looked at those with limited leave or discretionary leave to remain.  If we wanted to go to university, we would be charged international fees, going upwards of £15,000 even though a lot of us had been here from around 6 or 7 years old.  We were young, gifted and blocked.  If we wanted to wait to be able to access home fees, we needed to wait 10 years with legal leave in the country.  By then most would be almost 30.  In 2015, we changed the law, with the help of the lawyers at Just for Kids Law and now we only have to wait 3 years!  You can read more about our story here.
I have been the only one detained within Let Us Learn, which I am happy about. I wouldn’t want anyone else to experience the sort of trauma I was put through.  As there are so many groups that deal with issues about detention, it is not a primary focus for us at the moment.  Possibly in the future we will focus a little more, but for now, we will help other organisations in their plight.

6 Replies to ““A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me””

  1. Thank you so much for putting this experience into writing. I hope this will help
    to correct a lot of mistakes created by the
    Home Office..You are very brave and intelligent. Bravo !! IJEOMA

  2. Thank you Ijeoma for your lucid explanation of what it felt like to be a child in detention. Your piece has brought back a lot of memories for me. I worked then for the Children’s Commissioner and we had a power to make unannounced visits to places like Yarls’Wood and report on what we found. We talked to many children and many parents, examined health and social care records, talked to the ‘school’ and other staff working there. The disempowerment of arrest, the shame associated with being seen as a ‘criminal’ though you had done nothing wrong, the sorrow and anguish of leaving behind friends, pets and your established world, and the fear as your parent or parents disintegrated mentally before you all stay with me from the children we spoke to. It was an important victory to get Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel closed down. Now we must do the same for the rest of the horrible ‘detention estate’.

  3. I also have limited leave to remain status. It’s terrible how they treat us. I’m 15 years here from the age of 7 and no access to govt funds and no one will, can or want to assist. No one ever knows anything and never has any info to help, not even the uni. I’m in my final year and still looking for funding to help with my £12,900 fees.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear that Shrine. Let Us Learn campaigns for these issues and hopefully we can make a real difference. I understand your situation as I cant access student finance either at the moment. You should try crowdfunding sites like gofundme, they have been very successful for 2 let us learners.

  4. Wow….! Very touchy Indeed. IJ, you’re awesome. Am very proud of you, for your well thoughtful, articulated intellect. Don’t worry for you’re wonderfully and fearfully made. Only the test of fire make fine steel. All that you past through at a tender only made you become a better person. What doesn’t kill a “man/women” makes him/her stronger.

  5. Hi Ijeoma,
    Thank you for your post. I am really touched by your post. I am sorry you had to go through all that. It is really unbearable what the Home Office puts us through trying to legalise our status in the UK. I always feel a sense of anxiety and fear whenever my renewal is close. I can’t help but feel like they are empowering themselves and disempowering me and my family at the expense of our wish to continue to call the UK home. Like you said in your post, you can try to explain your situation to friends but no one really understands unless they have been through it themselves.

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