A week ago today, Yew Fook Sam – known to his friends as Sam – found out he had been finally granted asylum in the UK.
“It’s the most amazing Christmas present ever,” said Sam, who was at college in his adopted city of Liverpool when he found out. “When I found out I couldn’t stop crying.”
A gay man from Malaysia, 67-year-old Sam had spent more than two years living under the threat of deportation. His case was first reported in the Liverpool Echo.
“I saw my lawyer’s number and my stomach sank,” he said. “I automatically thought it was going to be bad news.
“When she told me, I started screaming and couldn’t stop. It was the best moment.”
Sam travelled to London in 2005, from Malaysia, after his wife found out he was gay.
As a hangover from British colonial rule, homosexuality is punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment and those found guilty in some cases can also be punished under Sharia law.
Away from the legal system, gay people also face huge social stigma and there have been reports of vigilante killings.
When Sam arrived in the UK on a tourism visa he found an advertisement in a Chinese newspaper, which informed him that for £2,500 he could get the right identification and permissions to live and work in the UK.
After making some enquiries within the Chinese community, he was told that £250 would get him a job in a London restaurant, with which he could pay off the £2,750 debt.
“I would call it human trafficking now,” he says. “The money I earned went straight to my boss to pay off my debts. I didn’t see any money myself.”
It took him a year of work to pay back that debt, he said, after which he made his way to Looe in Cornwall, where he worked for another Chinese restaurant, mostly as a takeaway driver, for almost a decade.
“I was happy there,” he said. “Everyone used to call me Uncle Sammy – we used to do lots of things for charity and we’d have children come in from the nearby schools, they all knew me.
“I watched lots of them grow up and they used to say ‘hello Uncle Sammy’ whenever they saw me.”
It was at this restaurant that Sam was arrested in 2016, detained after police arrived there in search of another man. When the papers Sam gave officers were found to be out of date, he was taken into custody in London.
As it turns out, Sam is somewhat of an organiser. Wherever he goes, he says, he loves working as a group, finding ways to make his situation better – including during a 10-month stint in detention.
“Losing my freedom was very hard,” he explains. “I tried not to to think too much about being trapped, but it was difficult not knowing how long it would last.
“The days were OK – there was a big Chinese community in the centre and I would gather them together. I even asked the staff there to let us cook one Chinese meal a week.
“I used to go to all the meetings and I think the guards and even the bosses respected me.”
He was released from Harmondsworth immigration removal centre in February 2017 on bail and has since been applying and re-applying to stay, supported via legal aid by Helene Santamera, an immigration lawyer at the Liverpool Immigration Advice Service.
He estimates applying as many as “seven or eight times”, with proceedings reaching the tribunal stage.
“I stood in the courtroom and told the judge that I would rather jump from a building or in front of a train than go back to Malaysia,” Sam explains.
“For me, it was better to die in this country than to go back to Malaysia – my parents are both dead, my ex-wife and our children have moved away, I am too old to get a job and the house my family lived in has been bulldozed for a new housing estate.
“There was nothing for me there except prison, bullying, and maybe death.”
His case attracted attention both in Liverpool and nationwide after his application was turned down on the basis of what the Home Office claimed was a lack of proof he was gay as he didn’t have a partner.
During a hearing, a judge told Sam that he found his claims of being gay “incredible”, The Guardian reported.
The Liverpool Echo reported in February that a judge sitting at a first-tier tribunal at the Immigration and Asylum Chamber had said: “Taking all of the evidence in the round, I do find the appellant is not a homosexual as he claims.”
With the help of his legal representatives, Sam appealed. However, a judge at Upper Tribunal said the original judge had “provided detailed and cogent reasons for finding that the appellant’s account of his sexuality was not a genuine and credible one, identifying numerous inconsistencies and discrepancies in his account.”
Sam told HuffPost UK: “I tried to tell them: ‘I’m 67, I don’t need sex, just want companionship,’” he explains. “And how would I meet anyone? I rely on foodbanks. I have no money. I couldn’t even go out for a drink.”
Living in a shared house provided by the Home Office with two fellow asylum seekers in Kirkby, Merseyside, Sam has been living off about £5 a day since being released from detention.
Among the many individuals and groups to have helped him is St Bride’s Church in Liverpool, which he visits regularly and is home to LGBT+ groups such as Open Table, with which he volunteers twice a month.
Backed by the church, a huge campaign was launched to save Sam from deportation, including a petition that reached almost 5,000 signatures.
“The support means so much – I don’t know how or even if I would have survived without the help I have had,” he said,
“People have fought for me all the way. There were times when I just felt like giving up, but my friends at St Bride’s told me to keep battling though, I will get there in the end.
“I am so grateful because look now. I did.”
Now enrolled at the City of Liverpool College, Sam is studying a level 2 qualification in travel and tourism – alongside British Sign Language – and now he has been granted asylum status, is now able to apply for the student loan he needs to study at a higher level.
He has been given permission to stay for five years, after which he can apply for indefinite leave to remain, and his friends at St Bride’s are planning to help him move into the city to be closer to both his college and church.
In Malaysia he had worked as a tour guide – a job he loved and hopes one day to return to, showing people around the city he has come to call home.
“I hope one day you will be able to find me, maybe outside the town hall, where I will be doing a tour of my own,” he says.
“I will be very happy.”