Cynthia Masiyiwa was 15 years old when she came to Britain seeking sanctuary from Zimbabwe. Now 20, she is a voice for the Diaspora Community in Bexley south-east London, negotiating with the Head of Asylum Policy at the UK Border Agency on issues that affect asylum seekers.
For her efforts, Cynthia has been nominated for a Spirit of London Award and Olive Morris Award. Here she opens up to The AfroNews about her experience as an asylum seeker.
Why did you have to leave Zimbabwe?
I left because of what was happening in Zimbabwe. Everyone wanted the current president to step down but he didn’t want to and so he ended up persecuting people from the opposition party. He was threatening people that if they didn’t vote for him in the next election then they were in trouble; he was giving them a warning.
My family thought that the best thing to do was to move me here to stay with my sister before things got worse, because at that time things were just starting to be a bit shady. My mum was a politician back in the eighties, but because she had moved from the ruling party to the opposition party, my life was at risk, which was why I had to move here.
What ideas did you have of the UK before you arrived, and did that change once you got here?
I had this idea that the UK was like a paradise. I thought that everything was just so perfect in the UK, but on my arrival, my experience really made me think about going back. I thought I was better off if I went back because I was in a school where I was one of the few black kids there. I wasn’t really welcomed because a lot of the people had their own idea about me as well. I was stereotyped and treated differently from all the other kids. Not by the teachers, by the other kids. There was a bit of bullying and racism.
Was your treatment due to your situation or race?
A lot of kids don’t really understand where you come from and why you’re in the country so they listen to, maybe, let’s say the media. So for example in my case they thought that because I was from Africa that meant I could not speak English or that I was a bit ignorant. They treated me in the sort of way like ‘go back to your country’. So I’ll say that it was because of my race, because a lot people who didn’t know the situation, just stereotyped and went with what other people said about people of my race.
So schooling made it difficult to settle in?
At first school made it difficult for me to settle in, but one day at school when we had a speaking and listening exercise, I decided to tell a story about myself, and where I come from. From that day the way people looked at me changed. They started to respect me because a lot of people thought that maybe I was one of those people who came into the country to just take people’s jobs, but when they realised that I was actually a young person who was determined to be someone one day, they started treating me differently. It was when I turned 18, which was actually the worst part of my stay in this country.
Why and how did things get worse?
At 18 that’s when you’re expected to go to university, start driving or even to go out of the country on holiday, because you know, you’re old enough, but I could not do any of those things. So that’s when I had my worst experience in this country.
You hadn’t obtained refugee status yet?
That’s right. They had been in the decision making process since 2007, but it didn’t really affect me then. When you’re young you don’t care about having a job, but when you’re 18, you’re an adult and you want to start your own thing. At 18 I was looking to move on but I couldn’t because they were still deciding on my status.
When did you receive refugee status?
How did you prove that you were a genuine asylum seeker?
I passed all my GCSE’s and A Levels and I was playing sports for the borough, so I gave them proof of everything that I had achieved. That’s when they decided and said that I’m actually valuable to the country. And with all the community work that I had already started with Citizens UK and Active Horizons, it all added up to me receiving my refugee status.
What is Active Horizons?
At Active Horizons, it’s the young people that actually decide what is run in the organization, for example fashion shows and media projects. I support fellow young people with their projects and also run my own projects. I went for a money management training with Citizens UK, and from that I had to come back and train young people to be able to manage their finances. At Active Horizons we run campaigns like Migration Conundrum, where we are encouraging schools in Bexley to use a resource called Migration Conundrum to teach more about migration. With the Diaspora Youth Assembly, we had 150 young people from across multi-cultural communities. Our aim was to invite power holders like the UK Border Agency, and try to hold them to account to some of the agreements that we’ve made, and to get them to promise us that they can support us with some of the work that we are starting.
To find out more about Active Horizons, log on to: www.activehorizons.org.uk.
By Chinwe Ojielo