In a topsy-turvy world of a refugee, a kind word is never wasted – Part 2.

A handshake of kindness to a refugee.

1. When Rafael Behr wrote in the Guardian, “Britain is strangled by barbed-wire fence of class, region, wealth, age, the urban, the rural, leavers and remainders. This is a national disease for which there is no remedy in singling out a specific group imperative: ‘Go integrate!’ Into what?” Into what, indeed! It is now self-evident that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has set the cat among the pigeons – both at home and abroad. It is a harbinger of things to come not only in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, respecting the internal dynamics of her constituent nations; but also in Europe, where the wildly unpredictable general elections in France, Germany and Italy are threatening to resurrect the ghosts of Fascism and Nazism.



2. For the first time since the end of the Second Great War, we are witnessing the relentless rise in Europe of the right-wing populist politics, fired by anger, alienation, fear and xenophobia. Post-Brexit Britain is now a land under a dark cloud of immense uncertainty, causing many people to question everything including that most vexing of all questions, immigration. It has been suggested in some quarters that people in Britain, and most specifically England, are intolerant, bigoted and racist. It is a suggestion to which I emphatically disagree. While it may be argued that the Brexit referendum did indeed expose the ugly underbelly in British politics, and yet, I find it difficult to believe that the ‘referendum’ result has turned on the head the great British values which are the envy of the world.



Not all are bigots


4. Let me tell you why I disagree profoundly with the above suggestion. I will, in this instance, speak only for myself. Factual experience, they say, is a powerful advocate. I have already told you how my fortunes changed from the sublime to the ridiculous in 1988. Although I would never wish what I went through to my worst enemy, I would not change it for the world. The experience was a bracing tonic. And, to that end, I am not ashamed to put it on the record that I was for a very long time, a charity case in England; I was more specifically, a charity case in a small town in Gloucestershire, Cheltenham. Cheltenham may for all intents and purposes, be considered as my adopted English home.



5. Merciful providences led me to Cheltenham with just 24 pounds Sterling in my pocket; it is all the wealth I had to my name. I am therefore duty bound to draw attention to the humanity of ordinary English men and women who received me, many of whom, were of exceedingly modest means. Oh, how their acquaintance with me obliged them to take cognizance of my pitiful circumstances – a mere refugee in all but name, a complete stranger to them, and as of little significance as a flea! These ordinary Cheltenham folk showed me the kindness of God, which was some greater instance of kindness than one could ordinarily expect; for out of the kindness of their hearts, they not only opened wide the doors to their homes to me, but they also dipped their hands into their purses and actually paid for my long tenure in the august school of affliction, lasting some 12 years.



6. The generosity of these good men and women of Cheltenham was exceeded only by their modesty; not once did they ever make a farce, there was no song and dance, but they simply got on with it. An instance may now be cited to illustrate. At Bethesda Methodist, which subsequently became my local church in Cheltenham, I met among other congregants, a young school teacher, Mrs Elaine Bailey; she was one of many Cheltonians who took notice of my hardship and volunteered to support me at university. Elaine Bailey is a remarkable woman because in those days, she had just lost her equally young husband following a sudden illness, leaving her with two very young boys to bring up as a single mother. She has, thank goodness, remarried. But Elaine’s support, although it amounted to just 1 pound sterling per week, which she incidentally posted to me along with the church weekly newsletter, arrived on time without fail; it made a real difference to my very meagre finances.



7. Thus was their help particularly needful, as I was not eligible for any support from the UK government whatsoever; for I continued long in a legal state of limbo owing to my statelessness. It is difficult to quibble at their actions, an extraordinary example they surely set me, a spur that kept me believing against hope, in hope. So when a situation arose in the Thames Valley Magistrate’s Court Service in 2003, shortly after my call to the Bar of England and Wales, I wasted no time in leaping at it. I was part of a cohort of six newly called barristers to be recruited by the Thames Valley Magistrate’s Court Service; my base was at the Aylesbury Magistrate’s Court in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.



8. But what initially looked like the beginning of my annus mirabilis, the experience in the Magistrate’s Court quickly took a turn for the worst, it transformed into my an annus horribilis. Evidently, the decision to join the Magistrate’s Court Service was a poor one given the circumstances. I was not temperamentally suited to the life of a clerk. I am glad I left sooner rather than later. However, the experience was something of an epiphany. It exposed me to a very uncomfortable truth; a truth many dare not speak openly for fear of being labelled a racist, which is, unless one is exceptionally lucky, the silent stigma surrounding the status of a refugee, is undeniably an insurmountable barrier to a career as a barrister. For a man, who is as it were like cloven hoofed animal in an English legal system; there really was never a realistic prospect of success at the Bar of England and Wales.



We see things not as they are, but as we are


9. I remember how we all looked forward to the end of the 20th century, which, let’s face it, was arguably the bloodiest century known to man. But the new millennia brought with it new challenges. And, one of the most troubling challenges that clearly made the greatest impression on me was the rising spirit of indifference, alienation and hostility walking abroad in England. This spirit also signified a change in the tide of goodwill towards foreigners; it gave rise to the unspoken burden on immigrants to measure-up, it took on a new sense of urgency. The urgency is predicated on a fable surrounding foreigners which, some say, was a major contributing factor to the Brexit referendum result, namely, that immigrants are taking something from the English natives – to which they were not entitled.



10. Immigration, as we all know just too well, is one of those emotive subjects which play on many people’s deepest existential fears; the subtle distinction between a refugee, and any other immigrant, from then on became increasingly difficult to ascertain. Moreover, there are specific prejudices and practical objections which some people have against immigrants in general, which, with those who have a natural inclination to apprehension and indifference towards foreigners, carry considerable weight. This state of affairs was never assisted by successive Home Office administrations’ method of determining who is a refugee or not, which was and still is, to be brutally honest, unwieldy and chaotic, and crisis ridden.



11. And, the worst of it is the unhappy misplaced sense of political correctness in England, which has made it impossible for authorities to address properly instances of refugees and other classes of immigrants abusing or working the system – especially the benefits system. The benefits system is in particular, a source of significant grievance. These instances are often given megaphone airing, thanks in no small degree to the tabloid press; whose style of reporting, with a tremor of righteousness, may be compared to something akin to, the ‘fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an immigrant’ – aggravates and gives rise to a perception in the minds of ordinary English men and women that England is systematically targeted, taken advantage of, and swamped by immigrants. Therefore, to have the stigma of a refugee thrust upon you as happened to me is to be propelled into a parallel universe, in which one is continually treated with great suspicion.



12. While it is generally accepted that in England, and unlike other parts of world, refugees are on a whole treated with politeness and courtesy; and yet, we must acknowledged however, that refugees are often seen as mysterious. Few will stick their necks out for a suspicious and mysterious refugee; thank goodness therefore that there are some that do, and often do, as I have personally testified above. Those who do are in every sense of the word, the salt of the earth. Goodness knows where some desperate refugee or other would be without them! The ambivalence towards refugees is by no means unique to England per se; for a refugee is like a speckled bird, the birds round about are always against her. This, I think, probably explains why refugees the world over, take a generation or two, before they can be fully accepted as ‘one of us’ in their adopted new home.



An unexpected journey


13. Resigning my post in the Magistrate’s Court was a particularly crushing blow, I had worked so hard to get this far; the dream to become a barrister like my hero Mahatma Gandhi, was what kept me sane throughout those dark and long years in the school of affliction. In my distress at the emerging reality, I talked the matter over with a kindly Good Samaritan lady. She made it very clear to me before our telephone conversation began that she was a committed Christian. She listened very patiently to my tale of woe and after what seemed to me a very long silence, she proceeded to tell me that she thought God wanted me to follow a completely different path, in which my legal skills would be amply employed. And, that I should forget the idea of practicing law. Still, I remember thinking, making it to the English Bar was an astonishing accomplishment for a penniless refugee, regardless whether or not I practiced law.



14. But for the life of me, at the time, I had no idea which path to take, until, that is, my wife spotted a fascinating small job advertisement in the Times Newspaper in 2004. “Public Concern at Work,” the advertisement announced, “is a small charity looking for a legal officer to join its busy office in London.” I remember being intrigued. Until then, I had never taken any particular interest in whistleblowing. Scratching the surface but a little, I came across the charity’s website which stated the following: “When the idea of an independent resource centre on whistleblowing was first discussed in 1990, the issue was seen almost invariably in a hostile light. The term was most frequently used to describe public officials who had paid a heavy penalty for leaking information, usually to the media. Wistleblowers were presented, if not as villains, as loners. For this reason there was initial scepticism about the need for or role of a charitable organisation in this area.”



Haunted by a spectre


15. I remember getting scared. I hesitated. The idea of working for a whistleblowing organisation terrified me very much; it may be observed here and now that coming as I did from the land of generalissimos, where the rule of law and issues of transparency in public affairs are considered as nebulous concepts; I had, without knowing it, been trained up alike with fellow Ugandans, to keep my mouth shut in the face of wrongdoing in high places. It should also be remembered that life in countries under generalissimos is cheap, very cheap indeed; and, it is normal for people to have their lives destroyed and in the worst case scenario, killed or disappeared for daring to speak up. Those unlucky to be killed or disappeared, their cases can sometimes take a generation, two generations, or even more, without their loved ones ever discovering what exactly happened to them. Government promises to investigate cases of the disappeared or killed are worthless; the result is always the same, injustice, and more injustice.



16. My father, like many young black Africans who went abroad to study, returned home with high hopes of contributing towards the making of Uganda. But Uganda quickly unmade him. The process of unmaking my father began in earnest during those evil years of Idi Amin Dada. A particular incident may be mentioned here. I think it was “1973” or “1974.” I remember the event because of a particularly loathsome man; with a terrifying name to match his reputation, Kassim Obura, the infamous Inspector General of Police. Thinking about Kassim Obura as I write sends shivers up and down my spine. My father was a special guest of his at Naguru, Kampala, one of many death houses (they are called safe houses these days – the mind boggles at the irony) under Amin. Father was given the infamous VIP treatment, which, in his case, involved spending a fortnight at Naguru cleaning up victims’ blood while awaiting his turn to be killed.



17. But father lived to tell the tale; he was saved from the jaws of death in the nick of time, thanks in no small degree to the combined good offices of the British government (courtesy, we may suppose, to my Scottish step-mother) and the Church of Uganda. When father was finally returned home after his surprise release (I remember it as if it were yesterday), he looked like a very large blown up plastic doll; his appearance, I later discovered, was the result of a very severe beating at Naguru. It took an exceedingly long time before he was fully recovered to his former self. This experience left a powerful impression on me.



18. But it was an event which took place at Makerere University in August 1976, which probably left the deepest impression on me. I remember it well. I particularly remember how a very terrified student made good his escape to our home, where he remained until the dust had settled down; our home in those days was very close to the university campus, in fact not far from Freedom square where it was alleged that an estimated 500 to 800 students were butchered. I say alleged because to this day, no one seems capable of piecing together what really happened. The story has been the subject of much speculation; it even made international news, headlined as a massacre of students at Makerere University.



19. Looking back on this particular event with the eyes of an adult today, I can’t help but conclude that it was a watershed moment in the political history of Uganda. The reason I say so is because it showed very clearly that although Amin was the de facto president of Uganda, he was nevertheless not in power; how else can one explain an event in which a large number of students are allegedly massacred, without the country’s security services knowing anything about it, unless of course they colluded in the awful deed. The available evidence suggests that Amin was none the wiser as to what actually happened. Whatever happened on that fateful day, it marked the beginning of a strange phenomenon in which subsequent Ugandan presidents may be said to be in office, but not in power. It also exposed the lie that Uganda was an independent sovereign nation. She is not. And, it also marked the beginning of general state of lawlessness in Uganda, which continues to this day. We lived with a genuine expectation that father would be killed at any time at the hands of one mysterious agency or other. That he went on to live and die at a good age of 74 years old, is a wonder.



20. But father was among the lucky few to escape with his life. Many were not so lucky however. We would often get news of such and such professor was picked up from his office at Makerere University, never to be seen again; or how Archbishop Janani Luwumu, was murdered alongside Amin’s own ministers, Erinayo Wilson Oryema and Charles Oboth Ofumbi. But top people were not the only victims: I well remember a shocking incident involving an excited group of young men, who had recently returned to Uganda from England after graduating at a number of British universities. An unknown gang of thugs picked them up and slit their throats, leaving them for dead in a ditch outside Makerere University. A drunken passer-by, much too drunk to walk in a straight line, apparently tripped and fell into the same ditch as they, landing on their bodies, still warm to the touch, covered in blood just beginning to coagulate. It was a black and dismal scene, which gave the drunken man a fright like no other; he was soon sobered up and quickly raised the alarm. They were rescued but we never found out what happened to them afterwards.



21. But the situation got much worse after Amin fell from power in 1979. Many prominent Ugandans fell prey to forces alluded to above and were killed needlessly, and often in broad day light. These malevolent forces became more audacious in their evil work, to the extent that their hand of death stretched out to touch even those very close to power. An instance may be cited to illustrate. A Doctor Jack Barlow, a prominent Ugandan dentist, and a brother of the then Inspector General of Police, David Barlow, was shot dead in his own home in full view of his family. His killers, we learned afterwards, did not even bother to disguise themselves; such was their confidence, they were never caught. This period saw multifarious security organs emerge, one went by the name, the “movement;” they seized people with impunity taking them to God knows where to do to them God knows what! This, then, was the environment in which we were trained up to keep our mouths shut. No one in their right mind would dream of blowing the whistle in a country ruled by one generalissimo or other.



Challenges are not unique to Africa


22. In the Far East, where I am now based, a scandal rocked the small Island of Taiwan in 2014. It involved one of the Island’s leading companies selling adulterated cooking oil consisting of recycled waste oil and animal feed oil; apparently, the illegal operation had been going on for approximately 20 years, and in plain sight. What was most remarkable about this sad tale was the fact that many on the Island knew about the wrongdoing, but did nothing. There was none prepared to speak up for fear of the stigma associated with snitching. Snitching, according to the local culture, is something of a taboo; it is considered as extremely disloyal for an employee to inform on his employer. There have been several more major corporate incidents since the cooking oil scandal in 2014, in which lives were lost or maimed for life.



23. Apart from the customary breast-beating, the finger-pointing, and the crocodile tears on Taiwanese local television, the perception in the minds of ordinary Taiwanese is that nothing significant will ever be done by the authorities. The hectic pace of life is such that corporate calamities are soon forgotten; victims and survivors alike are often left to shift for themselves. It is common for those at the top of corporate life on the Island, to be niggardly in acts of health and safety, while at the same time they are profuse about gratifying their personal vanity. A mite is grudged to local ordinary workers and the poor; but, they make a fair show, gold lavished by the wheelbarrow load. It’s no wonder that ordinary Taiwanese have very little faith in officialdom, especially, the judiciary. Legal processes and the legal profession are generally not trusted. It is observable that the vast majority of people on the Island are mainly pre-occupied with the business of getting ahead. Blowing the whistle is the least of their concerns.



Play up – man!


24. Perceiving that I was hesitating about applying for the whistleblowing job, my wife challenged me with two simple questions: “Was it not you,” she asked, “when at BPP Law School, who once told me that the chief end of a barrister, that is, an officer of the law, is to see to it that justice is served?” And she continued:Might this not be one of the ways in which you might amply employ your skills, just like the Good Samaritan lady said?” I was silenced: I had no answer to her impudent questioning. I immediately set aside my fears and misgivings, and applied. I did not expect a reply however, or so I hoped. I was still not sure about the whole business of whistleblowing. But a short while later, and much to my surprise, I received a letter inviting me to attend an interview in London. Now I was put on the spot: there was no getting out of this one. I had to do it. I took to researching the whistleblowing area very thoroughly, in order to give myself a fighting chance, at least to come across as reasonably convincing.



25. When I attended the interview in London, the charity’s offices were not much to write home about. They occupied one large open plan office with what one might describe as recycled furniture; some of the desks for instance had legs missing, resting on a brick or two. But the atmosphere had a pulsation about it – very welcoming and friendly. The staff had an air about them that left one in no doubt that these were people who knew what they were about. I was received by a young man, a policy officer, whose name, to my shame, I do not remember. He showed me around and made me a cup of coffee. At the appointed hour for the interview, I was taken into a small room, resembling a cubbyhole, with lots of boxes full of paper and books.



26. My interviewers were very punctual, always a good sign, I thought; a man, the Executive Director, Mr Guy Dehn (now Director at Witness Confident); and a woman, the Deputy Executive Director, Ms Anna Myers (now Director of Whistleblowing International Network). They were exceedingly kind, but thorough. The interview probably lasted an hour or so, after which I was told they would let me know the outcome in a week’s time. A week later, Guy Dehn wrote me a short but extremely kind letter, informing me that I had not been successful. He wrote: “…you were eminently appointable… I realise that this will be disappointing, and I suspect that it makes little difference that the decision we were left with was extremely hard, but you have no reason to be disheartened and we were all greatly impressed by your application and interview.”



Hope is power


27. But Guy Dehn was right about one thing though. In the end, it really made little difference to me that the decision they were left with was extremely difficult; for they had done something far more important for me, and it was priceless. They had given me HOPE. The hope they gave me was far more valuable to me than the job. That the charity was very small, absolutely! But my goodness, there was something magical about PCaW! It is impossible for me to convey the magic I felt on paper. I was so impressed by the audacity of their whistleblowing vision. This was a small organisation that clearly punched well above its weight: for it is no small thing that in the short time of the charity’s existence, they had been instrumental in bringing onto the statute book, The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. I saw in them the pregnant proof that there was indeed life outside the Bar. The Good Samaritan lady may have been onto something, I remember thinking. I wanted in! I instinctively knew I wanted to keep them as friends.



28. And, as soon as I finished digesting the contents of Guy Dehn’s rejection letter, I wrote back and enquired if they would be kind enough to have me as a volunteer. I was relieved when I was offered a place as a volunteer. I started work immediately. I loved it. I am not sure whether Guy or Anna knew it at the time, but they were the means through whom I learnt an important lesson, namely, that there are more ways than one to skin a cat. I may not be a barrister, in the time honoured tradition, and though I’m presently as one buried alive in obscurity, and yet thanks to their kindness, I was then and still am animated that in a little while, I too will find my little niche in which to employ my various skills. They showed me that all was not lost; this was particularly important to me given my unhappy experience in the Magistrate’s Court. All things considered, I can’t help but call to mind that great truth contained in the Bible.



29. Perhaps it was owing to my surprise change in circumstances when at Cliff College; where my fortunes were in a moment transformed to that of a flea, a refugee in all but name; I genuinely struggled to make sense of the Old Testament, even under a great teacher like the Revd Dr Kathleen Bowe. I found the covenant promises to stand at odds with my reality of a flea. For example, what was I to make of Isaiah 41:10, namely, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand?”



30. And that was not the half of it: whereas I too had a zeal for God, I must confess however, it was not according to knowledge. I naturally endeavoured to establish my own righteousness, and therefore did not understand that the righteousness of God was a gift; a gift to be received by grace. But there was more: the New Testament, and in particular, the book of Romans, which I studied under the Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale, went completely over my head. It made no sense to me whatsoever. However, thanks be to God for the many battles I have had to fight since leaving Cliff College. I have no doubt there will be many more battles to fight before I die. But, as a consequence of these battles, I too have come to understand the strange logic of God’s gift in Christ Jesus. I testify that the covenant promises of God in Jesus Christ stand. They are unshakable.



31. The book of Romans is probably the best exposition of God’s gift in Christ Jesus. And chapter 8:28–39 speaks powerfully to me as a refugee. The text reads as follows: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”



32. From that day of the interview at PCaW, I knew that one way or other, things would work out in the end. Much has happened since my interview some thirteen years ago. And, at my present grand age of 51, I am now in a happy position where the “urgent” is no longer a terror it used to be. I can now put away the fatigues of a flea, a refugee – the fatigues of a man harried by one pressing circumstance after another. I believe the time is now ripe for me to take the plunge: set myself to do that quickly which must be done before I am too old and stricken with age, lest death prevent me. I am indeed indebted to many a kind word which has come my way, thanks to many good people of all walks in life in England. And, yes, even Guy and Anna, they too played their part in encouraging me. As Thomas of Malmesbury put it: “there is no action in this life, which is not the beginning of so long a chain of consequences, as that no human providence is high enough to give us a prospect to the end.”



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