06 June, 2024 - By Matilda Curtis

Joseph’s Story

Joseph is just 22, but everyone says he’s an old soul. After only six months in our community, it’s difficult to imagine West London Welcome without him. He’s a star of the Advanced English classes and a key participant in book group. He’s known for his cheerful and chatty disposition, his love of good food and his sense of humour. But he has been through more in his young life than most of us ever will.

Joseph came to this country from Uganda in 2018 following the death of both his parents. He was just 16, but mistakenly classed as an adult who could fend for himself. He lived alone in a hostel in West London. With the exception of his brother, he had no support and no one to talk to at all. Joseph had already lost the sight in one eye after getting caught up in political violence in his home country. Then, after arriving in England, he got ophthalmia in his other eye. Eventually, he lost his sight entirely. For a long time, Joseph barely left his room. He was depressed and terrified of the strange, unfamiliar city outside his door.

Then, Joseph’s disability support worker at the local council told him about WLW. Initially, Joseph struggled to get to the centre as he was afraid to take public transport alone. But he was soon connected with WLW volunteers who lived nearby, such as Sophie, who took him door to door every week and helped him learn to walk with a cane. Joseph’s confidence steadily grew and he is now able to navigate London’s bus and tube system by himself. Through WLW, Joseph was connected with the Prince’s Trust, going on various activities with them around the city. Recently, he even tried rock-climbing. He loved it and can’t wait to do it again. Not even a rock face is off-limits to Joseph now.

It’s the small things about WLW that mean the most to him. It’s the “hi, how are you?” from other community members, the shared joke with a volunteer over lunch, even a simple offer of a cup of tea on a cold day. Joseph isn’t just given food and left alone. Volunteers and other community member friends will help him to get exactly what he needs and tell him what he’s eating all the way through the meal. The other students in his English class read out the worksheets to him so he can participate in class discussion. Jo, the charity’s founder and director, secured Joseph a new iPhone, opening up a whole world of audiobooks through Audible. Community member Pari goes on regular walks with Joseph around his neighborhood. Joseph’s English teacher, Rick, sends him the materials for the lesson the week before, so he can listen via a text-to-speech app. In WLW’s book group, community members will read out sections if needed. Joseph’s favourite book was Small Island by Andrea Levy, a story of four Jamaicans emigrating to London after World War II. Joseph’s disability support worker recently visited him at the centre and said the difference in Joseph in just six months is nothing short of astonishing.

On the first warm day of this year, Joseph went on a WLW group trip to Kew Gardens. His phone rang. It was an excellent solicitor who wanted to take on Joseph’s case, thanks to the work of WLW Deputy Director Leyla who had been trying to find him legal representation for months.

Joseph’s ordeal, however, is by no means over. Six years after his arrival in the UK, he still has unresolved immigration status. He exists in limbo. Conscious of all the wasted years, he just wants to start his life. Joseph is academically gifted and deserves to get a degree. But without securing his right to remain here, it is almost impossible for him to go to university. He dreams of becoming a lawyer who can help others and feel useful. But while he is seeking asylum, he’s not allowed to work.

Rick, Joseph’s English teacher, often brings in a poem for the end of class. He likes to use poetry to get a conversation going or introduce more complex vocabulary. A few months ago, he read “When I Consider How My Light is Spent” by John Milton with the students: the poet’s meditation on going blind late in life. The language moved Joseph greatly, as Rick hoped it would. In the poem, Milton describes his talent and spirit trapped inside him. He feels useless and scared in a “dark world and wide”. This is how Joseph felt when he first came to the UK. Thanks to WLW, Joseph’s world isn’t dark and wide any longer. Through the charity, he has found a community and, in so doing, found himself.

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Matilda Curtis is a writer. She is a teaching and communications volunteer at West London Welcome.