Before I became a student, I felt less than a human being and had almost given up hope. But being given a scholarship was like the appearance of a candle, burning bright to lead me out of the darkness: studying counselling at university has kept me alive.
I was born in Ghana and came to the UK when I was 12 with my father and four younger siblings, and we lived in East London. One day, when I was 15, I came home from football and my little sister was on the stairs crying because my father had left us.
As the eldest, my instinct was to look after my family, so I dropped out of school and started working at Ridley Road market. My siblings were taken into care a year later, but I was too old and was refused help because I didn’t have a passport or birth certificate.
That’s when my nightmare began. I became involved in a local gang; I thought it would stop me being bullied and give me protection. For my initiation I was taken to a warehouse in Hackney Wick and told to stab someone, but the thought made me sick and I couldn’t do it. I was told if I couldn’t be a soldier I’d need to show my worth. I was told to shoplift.
Around this time, I realised I was attracted to both men and women, which was confusing because I didn’t know you could be bisexual. I confided in my then-girlfriend because I didn’t understand what was happening to me. She blackmailed me and eventually told other gang members.
The image of what happened next has never left me. One summer evening, eight men chased me off a bus and on to Stratford park. I was called gay and kicked, urinated on and stabbed in the leg, then left in a pool of my own blood.
To break free of the gang, I moved to the Midlands and used someone else’s identification details to work. I was then arrested and sentenced to 20 months in prison for identity fraud. I understood my crime, accepted it and did my time.
But the day before I was due to be released in October 2012 I received a letter from the Home Office which said I would be held in indefinite immigrant detention – the biggest affront to human rights in the UK. I thought I could be detained for the rest of my life and nobody would care. I suffered from PTSD and depression, and tried to kill myself twice.
The only thing that gave me hope over the 13 months I was detained for was volunteering with the Samaritan’s peer support programme. I helped other prisoners, such as one man who became violent after he was refused a call to his pregnant wife. This made me want to find out more about human behaviour, psychology and how we think.
Upon release I spent a short time in Newham hospital for my own mental health problems. I was unable to work as part of my bail conditions, but volunteered at local food banks and was told about the Compass Project by a fellow volunteer. When I was accepted, I thought it was too good to be true because people like me don’t get second chances.
In the past year, studying counselling at university has been a challenge. At first I found it overwhelming. On my first day I felt I didn’t belong. My own father didn’t care about my education, yet now for the first time people want to see me succeed. That has given me strength, hunger and confidence.
When it comes to human psychology and what we all suffer, I have learned you can’t say one experience is lesser and another is greater, because suffering is suffering. I also understand my own mental health issues and no longer think I’m going mad or that I’m worthless.
I’m a member of Freed Voices, a group of experts-by-experience who speak about the realities of detention and campaign against the inhumane practice. I cannot emphasise enough the sheer vulnerability the UK’s hostile environment policy places on individuals. I still feel like less than a human being at times, because I was born in a different country and because of the colour of my skin. But vocational education has helped me find purpose. I want to continue to study psychosocial studies and to advocate for the societal benefit of counselling. I’m so passionate about it.