This morning I woke up crying at 5am – I dreamt that my family were still in Cameroon.
Today I am lucky to have my wife and five children safely in the UK with me, but for a long time this wasn’t the case.
My family originates from Cameroon in central Africa. I worked as a tailor and my wife was a primary school teacher. But one day I spoke out against the elected government and was persecuted as a result. I had no choice but to flee my home, leaving behind my pregnant wife and children.
I left Cameroon on the 10th November 2014 and was granted refugee status in March 2016, almost 18 months after leaving my family.
In the UK, when someone is granted protection as a refugee, they have a legal right to be reunited with their family. But in 2012, legal aid was removed in the UK, meaning that refugees like me no longer have access to free legal support to navigate the complex family reunion process. Instead I had to sacrifice everything to fund this myself. I lived on absolute minimum subsistence. I received second hand clothes from charity, I took food handouts to survive, I walked everywhere. For the most part I would have one very simple meal - of just rice and oil - each day. I lost a lot of weight, dropping to just eight and a half stone.
But living without food was not the hardest thing. The separation from my family was far worse. Half of me felt it was in the UK, and half felt like it was at home in Cameroon. Eventually this separation led to me developing very severe mental health issues, and I was demoralised to the point that I was referred to mental health services.
I took English classes to try and integrate and meet people in Plymouth, but it was almost impossible to concentrate. All I could think about was my children and wife. To have your family so far away, unable to protect them, it is impossible to focus on anything.
With support from the British Red Cross, in total it took us two months to submit applications for my wife and children to join me in the UK. I faced many barriers and challenges along the way, which included providing, translating and paying for a huge number of documents. Despite all this work, my application was refused because I was questioned as to whether I was the father of my children.
At this stage the huge mental, physical and financial strain on me was getting worse. By this point the process had cost me more than £2,500. I managed to find some work as a tailor, but it was not enough to pay my rent, support my family and meet all the costs for family reunion.
I was advised to do another application and this time we were required to do a DNA test. I was totally exhausted, I was tired of the whole system, but I could not give up and live without my family. From the first refusal, it took another 2 months to submit a second application. Every day we were apart was another day that my family’s lives were in great danger.
To have been separated for such a long time was so hard. So, so hard.Since my family has arrived, I feel that life is better. I feel whole again.
This Friday on the 16th March, there will be a Bill in parliament that could reintroduce free legal support for refugee family reunion. No one should have to face life apart from their loved ones, or go without food like I did to fund the legal help they need to be with their family again.