'Please let her take exams'

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Deputy head lobbies for asylum-seeker pupil to stay. Nicola Porter reports

A deputy head is lobbying officials to allow a talented schoolgirl to sit her GCSE exams before being deported.

Barrie Phillips, from Cardiff's Fitzalan high school, said hard-working Imene Ouabri, 17, deserved to be given a chance to gain her qualifications before being forced to leave the country.

Imene and her family are now classed as illegal immigrants after a failed asylum appeal earlier this year. They have been living in Cardiff for three years as asylum-seekers.

If they do not leave the country under their own free will, they face being arrested, detained and deported. But Mr Phillips said leaving before her exams could end Imene's dreams of becoming a journalist or high-flying business executive.

He said: "Imene has had glowing reports since she arrived at the school. It would be such a shame for her to miss out on gaining qualifications which she has worked so hard for.

"She has a genuine case for asylum as far as I am concerned, and we are all rooting for her because she has proved to be such an asset to the school and community."

Imene, an Algerian national, said her family had been in torment since their asylum appeal was rejected in January on the grounds that they would not be in danger if they returned to their country. But she claims they were forced to leave their home in a prosperous part of Algiers three years ago after armed extremists shot her mother in the arm.

"We left everything behind," said a tearful Imene. "We lived in a big house with a 600-acre garden full of lemon and orange trees. However, after my mother escaped death we knew it was no longer safe to stay.

"We were rich and did not want money - we just wanted to stay alive. But the officials did not believe our lives would be in danger if we returned home."

Peace recently returned to the north African country after a long-running civil war between the government and armed Islamic extremists. The country is in the process of signing a peace and reconciliation charter. However, Imene claims her family are still in danger from men who murdered two of her father's former colleagues.

Her father, a customs officer in Algeria, is prevented from working in the UK as an asylum-seeker. Imene has learned to speak English and already has three GCSE passes, including an A* star in French. She is also taking AS-level in Arabic and French. Mr Phillips predicts she will have six GCSE passes at A*-C grades after this summer's exams..

The schoolgirl's English is now so good she acts as a translator for her father when meeting officials. She has two brothers and one sister - the youngest is 18 months old.

She said: "If I go back to Algeria I will not get qualifications or a job.

My time spent studying here in Wales will be wasted."

But lawyer Warren Evans said the decision appeared to be final. "It is cheaper for the Government to get failed asylum-seekers to leave of their free will, rather than try to force them out," he said.

Kevin Brennan, MP for Cardiff West, is lobbying Tony McNulty, minister for state on immigration, citizenship and nationality, on Imene's behalf. More than half of the pupils at Fitzalan high school speak English as a second language, and there are 48 asylum-seeking pupils on the roll.

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