Emmanuel: The teenager having the fight of his life

Abandoned by his father, Emmanuel made a new life in Britain. Now, seriously ill, the Home Office is trying to return him to Nigeria. But an extraordinary campaign to save him is under way

The slogan on the inside cover of Plymouth's Stoke Damerel Community College prospectus boasts: "Not all schools are the same". For once, the PR pitch is no empty slogan.

Within the walls of the Devon school's sixth-form common room, teenagers have staged an extraordinary and uplifting national campaign. Most 17-year-olds worry over their appearance or their homework. Here, a dedicated band of students has mobilised thousands of people across the world to help save their friends – a family of seven – from deportation.

One member of that family is Emmanuel, a 14-year-old Nigerian boy with sickle cell anaemia, who is terrified of the consequences for his health of an imminent return home. As with the much-publicised case of the Ghanaian cancer patient Ama Sumani, whose life is likely to be cut short following her recent removal from the UK, the ruthlessness of the British asylum system meant that, up until a few days ago, Emmanuel's future looked similarly bleak.

He was to be removed with his mother Helen and his siblings Theresa, 19, Winston and Mac, both 16, Fred, 10, and Richard, six, for deportation. After their father abandoned them and returned to Nigeria in 2004, the family of seven claimed asylum in the UK, alleging they feared domestic "abuse, cruel treatments and death threats" if they went back to Africa. This claim for asylum failed, as did two appeals.

The seven were taken from their home in a dawn raid by a team of "more than 20" immigration officers to Yarl's Wood detention centre to await deportation. It was a dramatic reminder of their precarious status in the country they had been calling home. But for Emmanuel it was far more than that.

His sickle cell anaemia meant that living in a malarial country again is tantamount to a death sentence. Sufferers are desperately susceptible to the disease, making Nigeria among the worst places for someone with Emmanuel's ailment.

They were supposed to fly to Lagos on 19 January but then came a sudden and remarkable twist of fate. A last-minute reprieve of three weeks has been granted so Emmanuel can have another round of anti-malarial injections. And at local and national level, the case is the subject of fierce and concerned debate.

This change in fortunes was not caused by political pressure, or the concerted efforts of a lobbying organisation well-versed in manipulating the levers of power. It was, simply, pupil power.

Within just 10 days of Emmanuel's removal to a detention centre on 15 January, a group pledging support to the family was set up by his student friends on the social networking site Facebook. That group now has more than 10,000 members across the world. The family had never felt more alone. But as they sat in their cells in Yarl's Wood, thousands of people were mobilising. In the few years the family had lived in Plymouth, Emmanuel, his brothers, sisters and mother had managed to leave such a mark on their community that even those they had never met were prepared to lobby on their behalf. Like her children, Helen earned the unflinching support of her peers. Her asylum status forbade her from working, so she spent her time as a volunteer for a refugee charity, took on church-related tasks and became a governor at her children's primary school.

The students persuaded church ministers, community leaders, neighbours and fellow volunteers to rally round the family, demanding a change of heart from the Home Office. At the heart of the campaign is 17-year-old Alex Stupple-Harris, a friend of Emmanuel and his brothers at Stoke Damerel Community College.

"At first, I didn't really understand the reality of it, and how serious it was," said Alex. "I just thought, 'Oh, they'll be back soon.' But when police confirmed that the family were being detained the reality became all too clear.

"Once we found out that, we just fell apart. There was so much crying, and everyone was devastated." Then they decided to take action. "We couldn't just sit there," he added. "It would have felt too hopeless." So they sought advice.

Returning to their school buildings that evening, 300 letters were printed and addressed to the local MP, the Home Secretary and British Airways, the airline due to remove their friends that weekend. Then the students walked all over town gathering support and getting their letters of appeal signed. The next day, 15 of them were back in the school at 7am, deciding on their next move.

By 10.30am, they had printed 400 more letters and had them signed by fellow pupils. Teachers and pupils gathered in the common room, keen to add their names to the campaign and pick up stacks of letters to distribute.

By lunchtime, there were queues of up to 30 people at any one time for the sixth-form computers, all eager to send emails to MPs. By Friday, more than 1,000 letters had been sent, and the students waited with bated breath to hear what would happen to their friends the next day. They were not disappointed. An 11th-hour reprieve came after Linda Gilroy, the MP for Plymouth, bombarded by mail from students, friends and well-wishers, made a last-minute intervention. Hours before the flight, she helped arrange a three-week delay. Last Tuesday she met the Immigration minister, Liam Byrne, to seek a review.

The family may now qualify for a "case resolution exercise", a revisiting of their history which takes into account exceptional circumstances, such as length of stay in the UK, as well as compassionate grounds for rethinking their status. In a best-case scenario, it is possible they would be granted indefinite leave to remain.

The verdict on Ms Gilroy's request has been promised early this week, although no outcome had been announced by last night. Even the MP acknowledges that the united voices of this student-led campaign made the issue impossible to ignore.

"The scale of the campaign is indicative of the roots the family had put down in Plymouth, so it also demands that the case should be looked at fully and properly," said Ms Gilroy.

Emmanuel's fellow pupils have refused to drop the pace. Last week, they were writing fresh letters, more than 300 of which have been distributed to Liam Byrne and the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.

News of such devoted service on their behalf has, naturally, been of incalculable value to the family as they struggle through each day at Yarl's Wood. Helen, who went on hunger strike for six days last week, is now eating a little food to keep up her strength. The family, she said, were "not doing so well".

From her cell in the detention centre, she said: "I'm amazed at what they're doing. Considering their age, I'm very impressed. If children can have such friendship and loyalty to each other it gives adults some things to think about."

When told of the sheer numbers of online sympathisers pledging their support, Helen was staggered. "I had no idea it was that many," she said. "Now it looks like there's hope. If 10,000 people can campaign for you there must be hope somewhere. People have been amazing. I just hope the authorities will have some form of compassion, because it's so hard."

Helen is not the only one in awe of what these teenagers have achieved. The school's principal, Carol Hannaford, said she was very proud of their success.

"For 17-year-olds to bring about that kind of support is quite remarkable, and shows the strength of feeling they have for their friends," she said. "I've been taken aback by the technology they've used, and it's been great for them to get support from all over the world.

"I wouldn't say I've been surprised," she went on. "These young people have had a tremendous influence on our community; they had positive influences throughout the school, and have been so supportive of their peer groups that it's only natural that their friends would want to help in return."

Whatever the outcome for Emmanuel and his family, the effect of their story on these Plymouth teenagers will be a lasting one. Now Alex and his friends hope to campaign for similar cases in the future.

"We're planning what we can do afterwards now, as this has raised such a big question about the way asylum-seekers are treated in this country," he said. "There are a lot of us who want to carry on helping people in these situations so we can offer more permanent help beyond just this family."

The inspirational story, which may still have a happy ending, is now a campaign video. The short film, which is being broadcast on YouTube, says: "We are all teenagers. We've been told we can't make a difference, but we have."

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