I Fled Violence In Kenya, Beat Cancer And Survived Modern Slavery - But I Refuse To See Myself As A Victim

I am no hero - I prefer to call myself a survivor of hard circumstance
Julia Karuiki
HuffPost UK

I was born in Kenya. I am a trained teacher and also have a bachelor’s degree in business administration. I was a teacher in Kenya until I found myself working as a presiding officer during the 2007 elections. There was a big tribal war after the elections and all election officials found themselves in a situation where we were accused of tampering with votes.

Some members of a sect called Mungiki were on the hunt for anyone they thought was an official during the elections. I find it very hard to talk about - they caught me and the level of abuse I went through was unreal.

I manage to escape in 2009 and find myself here. I had laid low for years and was so afraid to tell my story so I just lived a somewhat ‘normal life’.

But now I am free. Finally I can start a new life. A life of choices. I can be anything I want to be now. All the bad memories and experiences are all behind me now.

My mind is racing and mixed feelings of excitement, expectation but at the same time scary and full of uncertainty. I am in a new land where no one knows me. I only have a bunch of letters and documents I used when applying for my visa. I had been advised to hold on to these at the airport, together with my passport. They were my ticket to my freedom, or so I thought.

I am at the airport and my sponsor is waiting for me. I was glad to see him. I felt I could trust him. He had finally got me from a place of danger where I felt at risk and feared for my life. The drive to my first UK home was vivid. I fell asleep all the way. When I had had my rest it was time to had ‘a talk’ about what was expected of me as part of my eligibility for staying in this strange land.

I had to work and pay my sponsor a certain amount of money in order for him to ensure my visa stayed valid. He offered me a room which I also had to pay for from my wages. As he was the only person I knew, and depended on to ‘stay safe’, I complied to these rules and continued to work for him for three years until my visa expired.

At this point things took a different turn. I couldn’t continue to work anymore and pay him. He refused to help me with renewing my visa. I was left in a dilemma and didn’t know what to do. I did not know how to go about this as I didn’t understand the system, and life became very difficult for me. Around the same time my health started failing me as I was diagnosed with cancer. I was devastated by this and thought my life was over.

At this point I contemplated going back to Kenya but that meant I couldn’t get proper medical care and would end up dying anyway. I had to make a decision to stay here and get treatment or go home where I risked being killed by the Mungiki whom I had run away from - or die of cancer. I chose the latter.

I started getting treatment and this went well. Luckily the cancer hadn’t spread and I only had to go through chemotherapy. While going this tough time, my sponsor decided to use my documents to claim benefits in my name. I was not aware of this as he had my passport and access to my bank account. This continued for a long time and when I found out he was doing this, he said he was doing it to cover the costs of my rent as I was now a liability. I was totally helpless and did not know what to do. I lived off well wishers and my only fear was that I would get in trouble with the authorities. I begged him to stop but he threatened to report me to the home office and get me deported.

This was not what I wanted. At this point I was on the mend and I knew I would survive cancer. I had to keep my mouth shut and concentrate on getting better.

Somehow, I did get caught up by the authorities and was arrested for fraud. I was shocked, upset and afraid. I thought my life was over. How was I going to convince the police that I didn’t commit this crime?

By now I realised I was alone in this situation. I knew I had to be strong. Being arrested also meant I had been found living in the UK as an overstayer and also accessing NHS services without eligibility. My chances of winning this were slim. A voice inside me told me “you never realise how strong you are until you’ve had to be weak”. This was my weakest point.

I had to apply for asylum, which wasn’t going to be accepted as I was now a ‘criminal’ I also risked going to jail. I made a decision to fight my corner and tell my story.

My asylum journey was not easy. There were a lot of personal intrusive interviews and I felt I was being judged and unbelieved by the same people I ran to for refuge. The Home Office officers are intimidating and scary, but I stayed strong and cooperated with them. I knew if I told my truth, it would prevail.

I did not give up. It took the Home Office three years to make a decision but this wait was worth it. I was identified as a victim of modern slavery both here in the UK and also in Kenya. I prefer to call myself a survivor of hard circumstance though - I have never wanted to be seen or treated as a victim.

Today I am a refugee and I am also an employment officer at the Coventry refugee and migrant centre, where I started off as a volunteer caseworker in 2015 as I waited for my case to be determined.

Working there gives me a purpose and I feel I get to help people who are in the same position I have been in and sometimes do not know how to go on about the asylum process or what to do once they have got their refugee status.

I am no hero. I am just a person who fell in the wrong hands in desperate quest to seek safety. This is all behind me now. I am stronger and better than the person I was 10 year ago when I came to England.

I am me.

Julia Karuiki is a Kenyan refugee and volunteer at the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you’ve got something extraordinary to share please email ukblogteam@huffpost.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.

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