A Manchester school spearheaded a national campaign when the Okolofamily were threatened with deportation. Reva Klein on the events thatinspired a new children's book.
When Florence Okolo read the letter from the Home Office ordering her and her two young daughters to leave the country, her first reaction was disbelief. It was 1993, and in the four years they had been in Britain, they had made a life for themselves.
Florence had a job and had become an active member of her church. The children were settled in school and the family was very much part of the community. They had friends and felt that Hulme in Manchester was where they belonged.
And now the government was telling them to leave the country that had become their home and return to Nigeria, a country where they had no community, family, friends nor job.
But disbelief soon turned to panic, then sadness and finally, to defiance. The Home Secretary at the time, Michael Howard, couldn't have foreseen how the local community would band together to support the Okolo family's determination to fight the deportation order. That letter from the Home Office was to mark the beginning of a campaign orchestrated by the girls' primary school that would culminate in a happy ending and a secure future for the family.
It also inspired a children's book, A Fight to Belong, commissioned by Save the Children from established children's author Alan Gibbons. Together with a schools' pack, it tells the Okolos' story, and in the process dispels myths about immigrants and asylum seekers.
Their story is not dissimilar to those of other families who have come to Britain. Florence Okolo brought her two young daughters here from Nigeria 10 years ago to join her husband, who was studying in Manchester. A year later, the couple had a son.
In 1991 Florence's husband left, taking the baby boy with him back to Nigeria. This was traumatic enough, but with her husband gone, as Florence was to discover, she and the girls had no legal right to remain in Britain.
Alan Gibbons' sensitive portrayal of their experiences shows the evolution of Florence and the girls from private, shy and frightened mother and daughters to activists determined to fight their cause, empowered by the support of their community.
It was at the suggestion of the family's lawyer, immigration specialist Steve Cohen, that Florence first turned to the girls' school, St Philip's Church of England Primary, to ask for help in launching a campaign. It was a wise move.
Headteacher John Dalby's response was unequivocal and, in his words, "instinctive". "They belonged here. They'd established their roots in Hulme," he says. "So I contacted the chair of governors, we met with Florence and her lawyer and we agreed to support them."
Because of the sensitivity of the issue, Mr Dalby arranged a series of meetings with various groups within the school and the wider community. He also decided to allocate time and energy to visit each class in the school personally to talk to the children about Anwuli and Awe-le's problem and discuss what they could do to help them. He sent letters home with every pupil explaining to parents the Okolos' plight, and started organising petitions.
Although the girls were at first deeply embarrassed at being catapulted into such a high-profile position, their fears of being teased by the other children were wholly unfounded. As Florence recalls: "They were outraged at the idea that the government had the power to uproot people. They told Anwuli and Awele 'you're not going anywhere, you're stopping here with us'."
Nobody could have known at that point what a long, drawn-out process the campaign would become - nor whata cause cel bre the case would be, in Manchester and beyond. The children, staff and governors were to spend four years writing letters, making posters and talking to the media with commitment and energy whenever they were called upon to do so.
They devised activities and arranged press and media coverage of events, such as holding hands to make a "circle of love" around the school and Albert Square in the city centre. They also organised a rally at the Town Hall, where hundreds of balloons were let off, all bearing the legend "Okolo Family Must Stay". There were demonstrations in London - outside Parliament and the Royal Courts of Justice.
It was a profound and rewarding experience for a school that, in the head's words, had "no more or no less a profile within the community than any other" before the campaign.
"What emerged in the process of our involvement," says Mr Dalby, "was the schools' strong sense of being part of the community, of unity with others, of protecting and looking after our own. It has certainly broadened my perspective on the power of the community and given me insights into what can be achieved when people work together."
The wider community certainly came up trumps. As well as the church backing the campaign, Manchester City Council passed a unanimous motion supporting the Okolo family, with the mayor and the head of the council coming out on to the steps of the Town Hall to throw their weight behind the campaigners during a rally there.
The school capitalised on the campaign as a learning experience in a variety of ways. One teacher used the theme of empathy ("how would you feel if you received a letter like Awele and Anwuli did?") to generate literacy work. Others focused on Nigeria in geography lessons.
The school's two trips to London during the Okolos' appeal were educational in the informal, as well as the formal, sense. The children were treated to a guided tour of the Commons, organised by the-then MP for Manchester Central, Bob Litherland, and took a boat trip down the Thames. None of the children had been to London before - for many, it was the first time they'd been outside Manchester.
They also learned something of the immigration service and the formidable power of the Home Secretary. Michael Howard turned down the family's appeal against the deportation in 1996, triggering feverish activity at the Okolo Family Defence Campaign.
Then, on October 9, 1997, a month after a meeting between Florence and Labour's new Home Secretary Jack Straw in Manchester, the Okolos received the letter they had been yearning for, giving them leave to remain in the UK permanently.
The lessons learned in those four years will not be lost in the future. "This will definitely inform how we deal with citizenship in the curriculum," says Mr Dalby. "It has made us see how we can show children what can be achieved when people band together."
For early years teacher and children's author Alan Gibbons, writing A Fight to Belong was different from any of the other 25 books he has written. It involved working closely not only with the Okolo family, but with those involved in the campaign, including lawyer Steve Cohen and staff and pupils at St Philip's.
It was also a learning experience for Gibbons. "I was very impressed with the imagination that went into the campaign. The school saw it as something in which children were taking the lead; even the nursery children had a part to play. They were all active participants, as opposed to being the passive recipients that children often are in the education system."
Today, Florence Okolo is indistinguishable from any other busy working mother. Awele and Anwuli are in the local secondary school and doing well. But their ties with St Philips will, they insist, remain forever. Says Florence: "Our relationship with the school will always be strong. They'll always be part of our family."
'A Fight to Belong' is available from Save the Children Publications, 17 Grove Lane, London SE5 8RD (0171 703 5400), priced pound;4.99.
* YOU ARE NOT ALONE
The Okolo Family Defence Campaign is just one of many anti-deportation campaigns that have been fought by schools on behalf of their pupils.
One of the earliest was launched in 1983 on behalf of the Hasbudak family by William Patten primary school in Stoke Newington, in the London borough of Hackney. The Turkish family, supported by hundreds of pupils and their parents, local trades unionists and civil liberties groups, held demonstrations, rallies, pickets and candle-lit vigils at the school, Downing Street and the Home Office. A major press and media campaign was also sustained throughout the two years of the campaign.
Led by Brian Simons, one of the Hasbudak children's teachers, and fully supported by the headteacher and staff, the campaign became a template for others that followed, despite the family finally being forced to leave the country in 1985.
In 1995, Hazelwood junior school in Enfield, north London, fought a successful campaign against the deportation of a Zairean orphan who had witnessed her father being tortured and killed by government troops. The plight of Huguette Eseko, then aged nine, her older brother and sister, was brought to public attention by language support teacher Jackie Lewis with the backing of the headteacher and governing body. The head of Enfield education committee, who supported the campaign, saidthat "without the Section 11 teacher's involvement, this case wouldn't have come to light - until itwas too late".
Pupils and staff from Middle Row primary school in west London were involved in a mass letter writing campaign on behalf of nine-year-old Luc Mangoung, who was threatened with deportation to Cameroon last year. The boy, whose parents have not been heard from for some time, was to have been expelled from this country after his aunt and guardian lost her final appeal for asylum. The deportation was suspended at the eleventh hour "pending consideration of representations made on his behalf", according to a Home Office source. The case is still being considered.