Life for Koffi – one year on from Christmas at St Paul’s

Our client Koffi appeared in the BBC 2 show Christmas at St Paul’s, which followed St Paul’s Cathedral’s preparations for Christmas – we caught up with him to find out how he’s been getting on, and how our services have helped during a difficult and uncertain time.

Last Christmas, the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants was approached to be part of a TV programme about St Paul’s Cathedral’s preparations for Christmas. We work closely with St Paul’s Cathedral, who offer incredible support to the Centre and our clients.

As part of the programme, one of our clients, Koffi, agreed to be interviewed about the Centre, the work we do with St Paul’s, and his feelings about Christmas. He took part in the Crib Service last year, along with other clients and our Refugee Choir, lighting the Christmas lights at the Cathedral for the first time in the season.

One year on, we have caught up with him, to see what has changed in the past year.

Last year, Koffi was living in temporary accommodation while he tried to gather evidence to help him make a claim for protection in the UK. He was not allowed to work, and was unable to claim any form of financial support, relying on donations of food and clothing from the Centre, and grants to meet other expenses. He was experiencing severe difficulties with his health, as a result of his experiences in his country of origin, and in the UK. His unstable living situation meant that he had to move every two or three months.

Despite these problems, he saw taking part in the documentary as a way to give back to the Centre. Even though his situation was difficult and uncertain, he wanted to highlight the ways that the Centre had helped him: to learn English, to discover new interests, and to secure housing and financial support, even if it was only on a temporary basis.

At the beginning of the year, Koffi’s health worsened, and he worried that he would experience another difficult year. However, we are so pleased to say that, over the year, Koffi has seen some real positive changes in his life, and this Christmas promises to be much happier than last year.

Helping Koffi move forward

With the support of the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, working with other charities and groups, he has been able to gather and submit the evidence he needed to make a fresh claim for protection. This means that, for the first time in years, he is living in stable accommodation, and receiving financial support from the government: just £37 a week, in the form of a voucher, but this is a huge improvement on the destitution in which he as living in just a year ago. The Centre has also supported him to get the medical help he needs.

As a result of his basic needs being met, Koffi is in a better position to develop his skills and take part in society. The Centre helped Koffi through English language learning, and he has used this to become more independent: he is now able to go to the doctor alone, travel independently, and engage with his legal representative. Our work has not stopped there.

The Centre is committed to helping people to develop skills and interests, working to support them in further education and training, even where their immigration status is uncertain. We believe it is important that people are allowed to develop and grow, and find new ways to use their skills in our new community.

Gaining new skills– and gaining confidence

Koffi took part in our partnership programme with the Wallace Collection, training as a Community Ambassador tour guide. This has involved learning about how to research art history, developing information for presentations about specific works of art, and developing the skills to work with other asylum seekers and refugees to put on a full tour of the Collection, highlighting key pieces. Koffi has been taking part in tours for six months now; his proudest moment was presenting his latest key piece, ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ to an audience made up of senior staff at the Collection, together with some of his friends from the Centre.

Koffi has gained confidence and skills in other ways, and is now working with the Centre to access formal English language qualifications closer to his new home. He is also applying to courses to learn computer programming skills. His life is still restricted in ways that UK citizens can’t imagine; for example, he is unable to open a bank account. Britain can seem like a very unwelcoming place, and sometimes he still feels trapped by his uncertain immigration status and his poverty. The positive changes over this year help him to keep moving forward: he will be celebrating Christmas by singing in a refugee choir for a carol service, and spending time with friends, knowing that he has a room of his own to return to.

Koffi says that the Centre has helped him with everything: learning English, making friends, understanding his legal situation and helping him to resolve it. It has given him the safety and security to tackle big problems, and the support to develop his skills, interests, independence and confidence. He took part in the programme because he wanted to let people know about the work of the Centre; now he wants to work to help other people in his situation, continuing to work with the Centre to help people at the start of their journey.