I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


To be honest, I have been putting off writing this. Blogging is a strange sort of thing in many ways. Sometimes a blog is nothing more than a means I use to get some thoughts off my chest and it really matters not a jot how many people take any notice. Why would it? 

But other times it is more than that. A few months ago our charity was on the brink of running out of cash, so I wrote a blog asking for help. That was a big one and if nobody had shown any interest, First Base might well have been dead and buried by now. Thankfully the response was spectacular. The response was more than £12,000 on our Just Giving Page. The response was enough for us to be taken off the life support machine and discharged to fight another day. 

Last month I asked if there were eighty folk out there in the ether willing to stump up a couple of quid each to help out a food parcel client I gave the name of Donald. Donald was man in his mid forties with learning difficulties who had been sentenced by the Job Centre to live in the cold and dark for three months thanks to a benefit sanction. I crossed my fingers and hoped to hell that maybe £50 would come in: enough to put the lights back on for Christmas. In the end over £8000 hit the Just Giving page and we were able to establish the Donald Fund which now puts the lights back on for at least two people a week.

Working in First Base can be hard at times. The whole point of being there is to try and help people out. Most of the time we can do this. The door opens and someone comes in who can't afford to buy any food to eat. So we give them a bag of food. We give it with respect and without judgement. We treat them like a human being. And if we can help out in other ways, then we help out in other ways. We don't pretend to be miracle workers who can transform every aspect of their lives, but we can make sure they leave our building feeling better about life than when they walked in.

That is how it is most of the time.

But not all of the time.

Sometimes we come to know really nice, decent people who are in a terrible situation and no matter how hard we try, we just can't solve their problems. I promise you, this is not easy to live with. These are the times when I would love to walk in Bill Gates's shoes and be able to write a cheque to make the nightmares go away. But I am umpteen million dollars shy of even polishing Bill Gates's shoes. Managing a charity and writing novels are not exactly up there with lawyering when it comes to filling up a bank account.

So there are days when I come home to my warm house and eat a meal in 
my warm living room and feel completely utterly helpless and useless because surely it should be possible to do more.

All of which brings me to Florence and her family. To her nineteen year old daughter Abigail and her ten year old son Thomas. These are not real names of course. I never use real names. I wonder why I have instinctively chosen such Victorian sounding names? Maybe it is because the family is from Nigeria and like all West Africans they have perfect old school manners.

Where to start? The bare bones, I guess. The facts. Things in Nigeria were going from bad to worse in the place where Florence was living. I won't go into all the details. Google 'Nigeria' and you will find plenty of these details. Boko Haram. Suicide Bombers in market places. Gun toting gangsters. Industrial levels of corruption. Starvation in the countryside. Murder and mayhem in the cities. Schoolgirls abducted...

Florence found herself all alone with no family to support her. And like mothers from the very dawn of time, her first instinct was to find a place where her two young children might be safe. So she sold everything she had to sell and came to the UK on a work visa. When she and the children arrived and made their way through password control they were entirely legal.

And then she did exactly what it said on her visa: she worked. She studied hard and soon had all the right certificates to spend her days providing care to the growing number of us who need all the care we can get. She did the job we are desperate for more people to do and her taxes were deducted at source.

After three years her work visa was renewed. Why wouldn't it be? If we are to make any kind of fist of looking after our growing number old old people, we need all the Florences we can get.

In the meantime Abigail and Thomas thrived at school. Abigail was forever at the top of her class and got an 'A' in every exam she sat. College was more of the same and she was offered a place at University to become a midwife. Isn't that another thing we are crying out for? I do believe it is.


All was going well. A new future was being carved out. An excellent bargain had been struck. The UK offered the family a chance of a safe future and in return we received three outstanding citizens. No benefits were claimed. No laws were broken. Instead six years' worth of taxes were paid.

In full.

But when Florence applied for her work visa to be extended for a second time, the answer was a flat 'no'. Times had changed. The Government had made the rash promise to reduce the number of migrants to the tens of thousands. Now we didn't care so much about the millions of old people in need of help dressing and having a bath. Now the only thing that mattered was pandering to the angry headlines on the front pages of the tabloid press.
Now the Home Office was told to use every bit of small print at their disposal to get people out. Nobody cared if these were people who were working and contributing. Such things no no longer mattered. Only numbers mattered.

When Florence appealed the decision, her appeal was turned down.

And when she appealed for a final time, her appeal was turned down again.

This was when things started to get very dark.

The next straw to clutch at was an application to be granted 'leave to remain' in the UK.

OK. Fair enough. But not so easy. You see, if you apply for 'leave to remain' in the UK you are not entitled to any State benefits whatsoever whilst the Home Office grinds through the paperwork. Not even if you have paid six years worth of taxes? In you dreams.

Worse still, you are not allowed to do any paid work. Not so much as an hour's worth. And if you are caught doing so much as an hour's worth of paid work, it will ruin any chance you might have of being granted leave to remain.

In other words you find yourself bang slap in the middle of a Kafkaesque nightmare. You are expected to live on fresh air for months on end whilst your application crawls through the system. I guess there are are reasons for this. The Home Office wants to make the process as hard as possible. They want people to give up and accept the offer of a free plane ticket back to the place they ran from. There is always plenty of money in the pot to pay for plane tickets. Families are expected wire money into the UK to enable their loved ones to keep body and soul together whilst they wait.

And wait.

And wait.

But Florence had no family. So things started to become desperate. London can be a very cruel place when you have no money. She heard things were better up here in Scotland. People were kinder. There was less Brexit rage at those unlucky enough to have the wrong accent or the wrong skin colour.
So Florence spent what money she had left on a bus north to Dumfries and three months up front rent on a flat. Thomas settled into a primary school but Abigail's offer of a place at university was withdrawn.

And they waited.

And prayed.

And waited.

By the end of November they were on the brink. The rent was due and they had not a penny to their name.

This was when they came through our door.

Were we able to help? Of course. But only a little. We make sure they have plenty to eat. Thanks to the Donald Fund, we have been able to keep the heating and lighting on. D&G Refugee Action came up with a month's worth of rent. Enough to see the family through Christmas. Enough to see them into 2017.

But now the rent is once again due and if nothing happens the family will find themselves on the streets of Dumfries. In the winter. In the wet and the cold. A mum and two kids. At this point in the State will step in. The State will take Thomas into care. For Florence and Abigail there will only be the pavement.

A nightmare.

And of course it is just so utterly, sickening unfair. If Florence was only allowed to work, she would have a job as a carer within a matter of hours. And she would be a wonderful carer for anyone she cared for. She is that kind of person.

But she isn't allowed to work. If she is caught working, there is every chance the family will be woken by a hammering on their front door in the wee small hours of the morning. Awoken to find men in uniforms telling them to pack their things. Awoken to a van ride to a place of detention. A plane ride home to the place they ran away from.


What is the road Florence and her children need to travel now? Well first they are required to prove to the Home Office they are indeed 'destitute'. To do this they will need letters from all the charities and community groups who are trying to keep their bodies and souls together. Once the Home Office is satisfied they don't have tuppence to rub together, they will be allowed to apply for 'leave to remain' without having to make the £4000 up front payment such an application normally costs.

Then they will apply. Will the application be successful? The good news is it almost certainly will be. Any child who has been in the UK for more than seven years has an automatic right to remain here. Thomas is twelve - a child - and he has been here for seven years. Thomas also has the legal right to have a mother in his life. Well Florence is his mother so she will also be allowed to stay.

Things are much more frightening for Abigail. She is nineteen. An adult. Her hope is the judge will listen to her younger brother when Thomas begs him not to take his sister away. I think there is every chance the judge will indeed listen. Thankfully judges are not quite so desperate to pander to the tabloid press. And why would any judge not allow this polite, intelligent young lady to stay?

But the thought of the judge not listening keeps Abigail awake at night. When she speaks, her voice has not a trace of a West African accent. She doesn't really remember Nigeria. She is understandably terrified of getting off a plane in Lagos with not a penny to her name and nobody to take her in. It is hard to imagine anyone finding themselves in a more desperately vulnerable position. 

Abigail is one of our volunteers now. She is coming in on Fridays to work with other volunteers. She is a part of our team. And the thought of one of our team being sent to such an utter nightmare will keep us all awake at nights.

But I don't think it will happen. I don't want to think it will happen. Despite everything, I retain some faith that the judge will show some humanity.


All of which I guess brings me to heart of the matter. First Base would love to be in a position to cover the rent for the next six months whilst the Home Office keeps Florence and her children in limbo. We would love to allow them to feel safe for a little while.

But we are a tiny little charity and we can't afford it. So I am asking for your help. And yes, I know. The world seems to be falling apart all around us and millions upon millions of people need help. Well I am biased. Florence and Abigail and Thomas are not statistics to us. They are a lovely family in an absolutely hellish place. And none of us can solve the problems of the world. But we can make an absolute difference for one family. They are right here in Dumfries. They are here now. We have a genuine opportunity to make an actual difference. We can do something clear and tangible. And right.

Oh and by the way, every penny we raise will go straight to paying the rent. Not a single penny will go to paying for fat salaries and fancy offices. First Base isn't that kind of charity. Thank goodness.

I guess that is about that. There isn't a whole lot more I can say. The link below will take you to a Just Giving page I have set up. 

I have set a target of £2400 which is enough to provide a roof over the family's heads for the next six months. Is my target a pipe dream? I hope not. If a relatively small number of you donate a fiver each or so, we can get there.

Like I said, I put off writing this. And now I have been putting off the moment of truth when I hit the 'publish' button and pass the point of no return. I haven't told Florence about this blog. I couldn't stand to build up any hopes.

So I guess it's over to you. Here's the link again....

1 comment:

  1. Mark,

    Congratulations about exceeding your target. It strongly suggests that you are on the right track.

    Best wishes.