“I can’t believe I’m here,” a tearful Vernon Vanriel told his older sister Lynette, who greeted him in the arrivals hall of Gatwick Airport.
The 63-year-old touched down on British soil just after 8am on Thursday, marking the end of a 13-year battle to return to the UK.
One of nearly 100 members of the Windrush generation the Home Office recently admitted it had wrongly removed from the UK, Vanriel emerged from passport control with his T-shirt pulled over his head, carrying a small bag, but no suitcase.
HuffPost was invited to witness the emotional moment the Jamaican-born former boxer was reunited with his sister, brother Cecil and another relative, who surrounded and hugged him.
Cecil said: “I didn’t think this day would come. So many people have been in Vernon’s position, of the Windrush generation and unable to come back, and haven’t lived to see the day that they return. This is a miracle.”
Vanriel left Jamaica in 1962 at the age of six, along with his mother Myrtle, older brother and three sisters to join their father who had gone to work in England.
They were among thousands of families encouraged by the then-government to set up home on British soil, when Jamaica was still part of the UK’s overseas territory.
Vanriel built a happy life in London, forging a successful career as a boxer, before everything came crashing down in 2005 – when he visited Jamaica and was refused permission to return home.
The Home Office did not keep a record of many members of the Windrush generation granted leave to remain in the UK, or issue any paperwork confirming it – meaning Vanriel was unable to produce the documentation he needed to get back into the country.
Left destitute and stranded in a country he barely knew, there were times, according to the retired sportsman, where he contemplated suicide.
“I’ve had to go through and overcome hell, in order to be alive and sane,” he said. “No amount of money could ever fully compensate for what’s happened to me.
“I’ve lost 98 percent of my friends and family, my son has had children whom I don’t even know – let alone seen or spoken to.
“When I left the UK my only daughter was only 17 years old – she’s now 30 and I’ve lost all contact with them.”
After a seemingly endless fight, Vanriel, who is in failing health, was finally told earlier this year he would be allowed to return home.
Immediately after receiving the good news, he told HuffPost: “I’m totally shattered – mentally, physically and emotionally.
“I see myself as a world champion for human rights. The suspense of waiting for this became overbearing at times and placed a big grey cloud over my life.
“However, now that I have received entry to the UK, the big grey cloud has evaporated and all I can now see is a sunny blue sky. I’m over the moon that it all broke down to this.”
Despite everything he has been through, Vanriel offered words of praise to the Home Office.
“I would like to congratulate the Home Office on the tremendous job it has done forming the Windrush taskforce and secondly, for giving me the opportunity to put forward what has been taking place in my life since being out here and the refusal to enter the UK some 13 years now,” he said.
On Thursday, Vanriel and his sister left the airport hand-in-hand, as he prepares to start his life afresh at Lynette’s North London home.