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Classmates rally at deportation protest

The Bishop of Hulme and councillors of all political colours joined schoolchildren last week in a protest against the deportation of two Manchester pupils and their mother to Nigeria, writes Josephine Gardiner.

The Rt Rev Colin Scott warned a final immigration appeal hearing that the deportation of Florence Okolo and her daughters, Awele and Anwuli, would damage community relations in the area, which includes the notorious Moss Side estate, just when life in the district was beginning to improve as a result of City Challenge investment.

He argued that the degree of support for the family showed the Okolos were respected members of the community and said the family was not dependent onbenefit.

"Mrs Okolo is a responsible member of the community, valued by colleagues, her employer and neighbours," said the bishop. "I have a real concern that were the family to be deported, this would be a severe blow to the morale of the whole community and indeed inflict substantial damage on good race relations. "

Legally, the appeal is doomed because Mrs Okolo has been in the country for less than seven years, but the adjudicator at the appeal hearing was "impressed" by the presentation of the case. She will make her recommendation within three weeks and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, will then make a final decision.

Other speakers at the hearing included the local education authority's senior inspector, the deputy leader of the council, the leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition and John Dalby, head of St Philip's Church of England primary school, which the Okolo children attend.

Mr Dalby testified to the educational progress of the two girls, aged 10 and seven while outside the court, 76 pupils from the school demonstrated in support of their classmates.

Letters from the children asking the adjudicator how she would feel in the Okolos' position were read out in court. Mr Dalby said that his pupils' support had been their own idea.

"These girls are settled and secure here. There are educational and social reasons, as well as humanitarian ones, why they should remain."

Florence Okolo and her daughters arrived in Britain in 1990 to join her husband, who was a student at Manchester University. Another child, a son, was born in Britain. In 1991 her husband took the boy on holiday to Nigeria and never returned - abandoning the rest of his family in south Manchester. Because Mrs Okolo's immigrant status in this country was dependent on her husband's, the deportation process was set in motion.

Meanwhile she has held down two jobs, one of them at Manchester Metropolitan University, whose personnel officer also voiced support at the hearing.

Steve Cohen, her solicitor, said that if the family were deported to Nigeria, "Mrs Okolo would face ostracism as an unwanted wife and would have no means of support."

She would also risk losing all three of her children under Nigerian paternity rules if she attempted to fight her husband for custody of the kidnapped boy.

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