“I’m absolutely gutted for him and scared that we will lose,” said Naomi Tomlinson soon after we met.
We were sitting in the University of East London (UEL), where Naomi is taking a BA in International Studies and NGO Development. We had just finished getting to know each other. But now Naomi wanted to tell me about what she sees an an act of callous injustice.
Naomi’s foster brother “Stephen” was born in Vietnam. However when he was 10 he was trafficked over to the UK to work as a slave in a drug den. Describing his treatment in the marijuana farm he was forced to work at, Naomi said: “They forced him to take cocaine. They forced him to smoke weed. They forced him to drink alcohol. He became an alcoholic as well as a drug addict, which we did not know when he came to live with us.”
Six years later he was arrested in Newcastle, and that was when Naomi’s birth parents, the Tomlinson’s, were contacted by phone. “My dad got the call saying: we’ve got this child, we don’t know anything about him, he doesn’t speak English, we need him to be fostered, he might run away, can you take him?” In a situation like this, most families would need time to discuss it. But Reverend Tomlinson and his wife Davina, who have fostered more than 50 children over the years, decided to take the boy in.
Naomi spoke to me a little about Stephen’s arrival. “Because it was late and we didn’t have a translator, there wasn’t much communication that evening. My parents were able to show him his room and gave him clothes as he didn’t have anything but what he was wearing… For the first few days he was considered to be a ‘flight risk’ by the police and social workers, so my parents were asked to keep his phone and money and the doors locked. But after three or so days it was clear he wasn’t going to leave, and we were able to give him his phone and relax with the doors.”
Aware that Naomi had spent some time teaching English in the Philippines, I asked her if those skills had helped her get to know Stephen. “I remember trying to teach him English at different points,” she said, “and using Google Translate to try and explain a lot of things.”
Stephen was with one other foster family before the Tomlinsons. But because of what his gang masters told him about English people, he ended up running away from that family and going back to his captors, in spite of the fact that – according to what he told Naomi – they were “very nice people”. But, he didn’t run away from the Tomlinsons.
I asked Naomi why she thought that was. “He said it was because by that point he had gotten so sick of being hurt, being beaten up, no one ever showing him kindness,” that he could not face being with his captors anymore. “He didn’t want to be hooked on cocaine,” she added, or an alcoholic, and so he knew it was time to escape.
The child visa which he was given six months after he was rescued has now run out, and so Stephen had to apply for permanent residency in this country. But his request was denied. Naomi told me that he is desperate not to leave, not only because he wants to stay with the Tomlinsons, but also because if he goes back to Vietnam he will be in danger. So the family are appealing the decision.
Usually an appeal like this would take six months to two years. And yet Stephen’s hearing is on the 5th of February, just six weeks after his refusal. The lack of time, said Naomi, is putting her family under enormous stress. They have had just six weeks to mount a campaign, while going to work, and in her case studying for a degree. So Naomi has been reaching out to anyone she knows to ask for help, including her university lecturers and fellow students.
But despite the lack of time, and the work to be done, Naomi comes across as positive and unstoppable, and is busy doing things like sharing Stephen’s story on social media, and collecting signatures on the UEL campus. Her aim is to get as many people as possible to join the demonstration she is organising outside the Home Office on the 5th of February, the day of Stephen’s hearing.
Details of that demonstration can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/events/1749896805034451??ti=ia
And someone the Tomlinsons don’t even know has started a petition at: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/allow-shildon-s-stephen-to-stay-in-uk