This year, more than ten pupils at Surrey Square Primary School are in the process of acquiring British nationality, an expensive and difficult process. Seeing the strain this puts on families, the school and its community have started speaking out about the high price of citizenship and other severe British immigration policies.
Ten-year-old Rokibat stands in All Saint’s Church in Peckham, London, with butterflies in her stomach as she prepares to sing in front of a crowd of around 300 people.
On cue, she steps up and begins, her voice wobbly and tentative.
"I’m not a stranger to the dark. Hide away, they say, because we don't want your broken parts," she sings.
The room is silent, except for her trembling voice. The audience is transfixed.
As she sings, Rokibat gains confidence, standing taller, channeling her hero, Beyoncé. Even without a microphone, her voice rings out around the building.
"I know there’s a place for us, for we are glorious!" she sings.
As the song builds towards the grand finale, the choir chimes in behind her. The audience bursts into applause.
The song, a rendition of "This is Me" from the film The Greatest Showman on Earth, is fitting for this little girl, daughter of an immigrant family that has long lived in the shadows. Though Rokibat was born in the UK and it is the only country she has ever known, she is not yet a citizen. She is one of ten students in her class at the Surrey Square Primary School , who were all born in the UK to foreign national parents and who are in the process of acquiring British nationality.
Rokibat's song is an unusual opener at a town hall-like meeting for local politicians and citizen groups from Southwark, a London borough. At the meeting, a committee of around 30 students and 15 parents ask the politicians about tough immigration and citizenship issues that affect children like Rokibat.
'I know there’s a place for us, for we are glorious!'
Children who were born in the UK to parents without British citizenship or settled status do not automatically qualify for British nationality. These children must wait until they are nine years old to register.
For Rokibat, getting that citizenship will be life changing. Her single mother's uncertain immigration status has kept them trapped in a life of destitution, one where they have bounced from one temporary accommodation to the next.
Citizenship would allow Rokibat to receive benefits, to travel and, one day, to access higher education. Moreover, it could help her mother obtain secured status faster, which would give her the ability to work legally and put an end to immigration fees. It could pave a pathway out of poverty for them.
The cost of citizenship
There's just one problem: money. In the UK, citizenship isn't free. A child applying for British nationality must pay £1,012. It is one of the highest rates in Europe and presents a major challenge for people like Rokibat and her mum.
At Surrey Square Primary, a busy school in a deprived area in London, staff work around the clock to help their students secure the British citizenship.
With many students going through the process, staff have seen the strain that this puts on families. They've also helped families juggle a myriad of other problems that come hand-in-hand with immigration woes, including poverty, food insecurity and homelessness.
Personal excellence before academic excellence
Surrey Square is housed in Southwark. This South London borough is a place of extreme contrasts. While it is rapidly gentrifying, 35 percent of people in Southwark live in some of the most deprived neighborhoods in England, according to the Southwark Council. Many of the Surrey Square's 465 students live in Aylesbury Estate, often referred to as the biggest social housing estate in Europe.
According to 2013 statistics, 36.6 percent of the Southwark population is foreign-born, which is higher than both the London (35.8 percent) and the UK (13.6 percent). The community has an especially high rate of black residents originally from Africa (16 percent).
Fiona Carrick-Davies has worked at the school for 16 years, first as a teacher and then as Family & Community Coordinator. In many schools, teachers focus on lesson plans and achieving high grades. But in Surrey Square, education is just one part of their mission. Carrick-Davies says that the idea of supporting students and their families is built into the school’s very motto: "personal and academic excellence; everyone, every day."
"Kids can’t be excellent academically if they aren’t doing well personally," Carrick-Davies says. "It’s about the kids as whole people."
Each Tuesday afternoon, school staff gather around a table to hold a Pastoral Care meeting, where they discuss vulnerable students and their need for support. Many of these families are struggling with issues related to immigration, including cases that drag on for years or Home Office bans on working or accessing benefits.
These issues became so frequent that the school started giving new students flyers explaining that Carrick-Davies could offer support on matters related to immigration. Still, Carrick-Davies says it took time to get some families to open up.
"One mother only came to speak to me after she had been watching me for months," Carrick-Davies said. "It took that long to gain her trust."
Now, however, parents drop by Carrick-Davies' office every day with immigration queries.
It's not just advice that Carrick-Davies and her colleagues offer. The school staff aren't afraid to get their hands dirty. They have helped to move families on numerous occasions, gone with families to visit new accommodations and stored belongings while families are between homes.
When the children tell their stories of moving from one temporary home to another, more than often, Carrick-Davies was right there with them.
"Fi [Carrick-Davies] is a superhero," says a year five student says.
No recourse to public funds
Carrick-Davies says that she is seeing more and more families without any recourse to public funds. The families of at least 10 percent of students at the school have leave to remain with no recourse to public funds. When families in this situation renew their leave to remain every 2.5 years, they have to pay sky-high fees. Each family member must pay an application fee of over a thousand pounds plus an additional for £500 charge for using the NHS. For a family of four, the total would be well over £6000.
These families are at high risk of homelessness and destitution because, in addition to having to pay immigration fees, they cannot access housing benefits, leaving many struggling to pay rent or even find accommodation.
This is particularly true in London, where the price of homes is rising rapidly. Carrick-Davies estimates that a two-bedroom flat in Southwark might be around £1,500 a month to rent (1,700 euros), an impossible amount of money for most immigrant families.
If a child in this family is able to obtain nationality, it means they no longer have to pay immigration fees. Moreover, it usually helps the family to access benefits and moves the entire family towards settled status faster.
'If I were an adult'
Four ten-year-olds, aspiring singer Rokibat, Aishat, Daniel and Anjolaoluwa, are delighted to miss a few minutes of lessons, albeit to talk to InfoMigrants about the way the Home Office has affected their lives.
These four have been in school together for a long time and act more like siblings than friends, teasing each other mercilessly but also quick to offer a supportive word. They all have similar stories. They were all born in the UK to parents from Nigeria and are in the process of applying for British nationality. At one time or another, all of their families were cut off from public funds and faced destitution.
They swap stories about living in temporary accommodation, crammed into one-room hostels.
"It wasn’t nice," says Aishat, a gentle girl who speaks with precision about her family’s situation. "It's not comfortable sharing the bathroom and kitchen with other families. You don’t know what you are going to find in the toilet. You might find hair. And the kitchen didn't smell good."
"Christmas wasn't nice at the hostel," Anjolaoluwa adds, her voice tinged with anger at the injustice of it. "There wasn't enough food for Christmas dinner and other people were using the kitchen."
"That happened to me, too," Daniel jumps in. "The other kids were doing this best Christmas thing and I knew I didn't have the best one. Because I was only given a jumper and jeans."
This year, their families are under increased financial strain because they have to pay £1,012 to secure their children’s nationality. All of them describe the stress this causes their parents.
"My dad is always tired because he gets up early to work," says Daniel. "We don't get to see him much."
"Same here," says Aishat. "He's never at home."
Rokibat says that she and her single mum sleep in one room in a shared house.
"She gets stressed about the money," she says.
Daniel listens to Rokibat describe her family life with concern.
"If I were an adult, I would donate £300 to your mum," he says.
"Oh, Daniel," Carrick-Davies says, reaching out to pat his arm.
The price of citizenship was the main topic that students, parents and staff from Surrey Square brought up at the April meeting with Southwark politicians. The local councillor agreed to meet with them to discuss the issue further. And, recently, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said that he would work to drop the price.
In the meantime, the school staff do what they can to help families. Carrick-Davies often connects them with legal advisors or organisations. One is the local council's "No Recourse to Public Funds Team," which provides emergency housing to families who have no that would otherwise be destitute.
Better than a drum kit
Earlier this spring, Daniel was sitting at his home in Forest Hill when his big sister, 12-year-old Yosola, snuck up behind him and covered his eyes.
"What’s happening?" he asked.
"A surprise," said his mum, who had come into the room.
"I thought it was a drum kit," Daniel later recounted. "But it was even better. It was my British passport."
When he saw the small red booklet that meant so much to this family, the small boy threw his arms around his mum.
"I hugged her for maybe five or ten minutes straight," he said.
When asked why he was so happy, Daniel’s answer was simple.
"So my mum could stop struggling," he said