Sheun Odebiyi arrived from Nigeria as a refugee aged ten. Now he dreams of building aeroplanes, and his story forms part of an exhibition by the Breaking Barriers charity…
‘When I was six, my parents left me and my one-year-old brother with family members in Ibadan in Nigeria, and went to England. I was miserable. At school, if you didn’t understand, you got hit. But because I was afraid of being hit, I was always at the bottom of the class.
My mum came back to take us to London when I was ten. My dad had left, so she was on her own. The three of us shared a small studio flat in Croydon. She used to work as a carer, but when her visa expired she had to do jobs no one else wanted. She wanted us to have a better future: that’s why she didn’t want to go back home and risked prison for overstaying.
When I went to primary school, I was surprised: everyone was kind and I started doing well. After primary school, we decided to try living in Scotland. Secondary school in Glasgow was the first time I experienced racism. I was the only black kid. I was bigger than anyone else and people made fun of my hair and many other things. My mother worked in a care home, but she heard that someone had called in immigration enforcement, so we left that day with just the clothes on our backs.
We came back to Croydon and I started year eight in Peckham. There were lots of gangs there. I didn’t know anything about them. I got involved just to fit in – and got in trouble. My friends had money, but my mum could only afford to give me £1 a day. She couldn’t find a job, so she cleaned people’s houses. I had holes in my shoes. We could barely afford to eat properly. Even now, we share a room in a three-bedroom house with two other families. I sleep on the floor, my little brother in a cot and my mum in the bed. I’ve never had any space on my own. It’s hard because I have a girlfriend.
‘I want to have a job, so I can help my mother and show that I contribute to society’
I managed to leave the gangs when I left secondary school and went to Kingston College. In the second year, I studied aeronautical engineering and did well. I’ve always been fascinated by aeroplanes. The next level was a paid apprenticeship with British Airways, but because I didn’t have my papers, I couldn’t go – even though I already had my uniform.
I was torn apart. Finally, I had found something I was passionate about and it was taken from me. I was nineteen and became very depressed. I stayed at home and wouldn’t go out for days. I didn’t have many friends. I had no confidence. But I got into bodybuilding and that helped. At the gym, you push your limits: you need willpower, and you can apply that to other things.
I want to have a job and pay tax, so I can help my mother and show that I contribute to society. Five months ago, we got our Leave to Remain status, but new challenges kept appearing. BA said I could go on the apprenticeship, but I need to have a driving licence first and I don’t have the money for lessons. Then our landlord wanted us out.
But next week I am starting as a catering assistant at Ikea, a job I got through the charity Breaking Barriers. I am finally on my way up. I still want to work for BA, but in the meantime, I am gaining experience with a reputable business. I still have a long journey ahead of me, but I hope that the hard part is over.
Interview by Veronique Mistiaen. Sheun appears in the Breaking Barriers exhibition ‘Claiming a New Place on Earth’ at Protein Studios.