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News / City Life

Meet one of the young stars from an exhibition about London’s refugees

Sheun Odebiyi, 21, from Nigeria, aspires to be an aeronautical engineer
Caroline Irby

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.

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Eva A

I would like to pay for a driving lesson for Sheun.  I was very impressed by his commonsense, and efforts to improve himself.  He deserves a break.


Rebecca T

@Eva A  If you would like to help contribute to driving lessons for Sheun please get in touch with one of the Breaking Barriers team via and we can help you get in touch. 

Andrew H

Seems like a fine young man who has made the most of his opportunities under rough circumstances.  But he is not and never was a refugee, as the heading says.

Shannon C

I'd love to pay for one of Sheun's driving lessons if anyone else was up for it too?

Rebecca T

Hello @Shannon C  @Judith P @Kate L  if you are all wanting to get in touch with Sheun and support with driving lessons, please get in touch with Breaking Barriers (We are the charity who has supported Sheun) please reach out via email ( and we would be more than happy to put you in touch and advise the best way to support Sheun with his driving. 

We look forward to hearing from you!