Lisa's story. 'Many of us are looking for a way to rebuild our confidence and sense of belonging...'
Growing up it was just Mum and I, we had a beautiful house up in Yorkshire which my Dad, despite them not being together, had helped her buy so we could be close to my grandparents. We were just a normal family, living a normal life.
Being taken by my dad and thrust into a family I didn’t know and a home that wasn’t mine was a complete shock, and an incredibly traumatic time in my life at a tender age of 9. Being so young I had no idea how to find my mum without going through my dad. I also didn’t know if she was looking for me - and without someone around to take care of me, the way a mother does, I was incredibly vulnerable to abuse in a nation I was just learning.
Eventually, a chance meeting with my mum’s sister when I was appearing in a theatrical performance at 15 was my gateway back to England – she got in touch with my mum and my family in the UK got together to get me an open ticket home.
By now my mum had married and was living in London with my step-dad and my half brothers and sisters. On my way to my mum’s house, I remember thinking phew I’m finally back home, everything’s going to be okay, then I walked into the house and my heart dipped so low. The house was so small, and it was clear there wasn’t any room for me, which is when my mum explained that I would be going to live with my aunt until I finished college.
Once my A levels were done and it was time to move back to my mum’s, I was desperate to reconnect and bond with her, having spent years in other people’s houses feeling like I didn’t belong. But as the house was so small, we were constantly on top of each other. My step-dad also made it very clear he didn’t want another adult in the house, which caused a massive rift between mum and me. So not long after I got back I knew I had to leave again.
I started asking around and someone told me about the Claudia Jones Organisation which was an initiative for black women under 21 who were homeless and didn’t have children. The pressure was really cranking up for me to leave my mum's, so I contacted them in the September of 1992 and by November they had a bed for me at one of their hostels.
Moving in there was good to begin with as I had my own room but shared the rest of the house with five other girls. I was working three-part time jobs and I was really driven. But soon after, the girl in the room next to mine started turning tricks – men were coming in and out of the house – and having gone through what I went through in Nigeria I felt extremely vulnerable again.
Food started to go missing from the fridge and clothes that I ordered to the hostel were stolen – one time she pissed off a trick and the hostel was bricked. She even smashed a glass and threatened me with it during a confrontation about my missing food. I complained to the hostel manager, but I just felt so out of my depth and isolated – I really wanted my mum and to be in our home – and coming from abuse to abuse to abuse was just mad crazy for me to cope with.
Before moving into the hostel I'd met a guy, he was lovely and charming and seemed like he wanted to look out for me. He had a flat-share not far away and as I needed some space away from this girl, I started splitting my time between his flat and the hostel but he always reminded me that it was his place and to not get too comfortable. Eventually the hostel found out and I was told to return, or they would lease it to someone else. When I moved back, he also came too – at the time he didn’t have a job so when I went out to work, he would stay in my room and try and make himself useful around the hostel like fixing up the garden and things like that. He was such a charmer, he made me laugh constantly and all the girls liked him – but then I got pregnant and the abuse started.
It would begin over something silly like him wanting mackerel for tea instead of sardines but would end with me being kicked down the corridor. I didn’t know what to do, I hadn’t had any healing from Nigeria or what I’d been through with my mum and step-dad - it was just one continuous cycle of abuse and this made it easy for him to manipulate me.
Eventually one of the girls complained to Claudia Jones Organisation and I was asked to leave. I was panicking about where we were going to go when I got a letter through the post from Hackney Council asking me to come and view a two-bed flat. While living at my aunt's I’d put myself down on the waiting list for housing with my best friend – but she was now living in a place her parents had got her, so she told me to go ahead without her.
I wrote a strong letter to the housing officer explaining that things had changed, that I was now pregnant and that a two-bed flat would be good place for me and my child - lucky for me they said yes and that’s where I am today.
But where I moved he moved and with that came more abuse. It would be another 11 years before I was able to get him out of the house, another 11 years of being controlled; of split lips, black eyes and heads wounds which I hid from society out of shame; of being abused despite having a serious stroke; of having my daughter innocently tell the nursery workers ‘what happened to mummy’ at the weekend; of not being helped even by the head of the housing organisation who ran my estate when I asked him to help me remove my abuser from the house.
But during that time, I also grew strong. I became heavily involved in my local community and was elected onto the board when the New Deal for Communities was introduced by the government in my area as I was already an elected chair for my estate. I used doing voluntary work to help me feel worthwhile in comparison to my home life where I was constantly made to feel worthless beyond any mothering duties by my perpetrator- my partner and father to my children. I started running African dance classes and a Street Drama project to help young people when I applied for a community grant to set these up. From then I’ve been flying.
I now work for Cardboard Citizens which is a charity that specialises in helping homeless people access the arts, where I’m an assessor and course tutor – I also volunteer as an ambassador and facilitator. Despite getting out of that oppressive situation, I’ve also continued to do voluntary work in a variety of ways outside of Cardboard Citizens to this day. This has led to me being nominated and awarded a British Citizen Award (BCA) for 20 years’ voluntary work. At Citz, many of the people I work with have been through similar experiences but whether they’ve had to flee an abusive partner, are a care leaver or have just fallen on hard times, many of us are looking for a way to rebuild our confidence and sense of belonging, and knowing I can use my passion for education to help them attain that is something I’m incredibly proud of.
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