Nigerian chef Elizabeth left behind a successful career in Nigeria to come to the UK to be with her sisters after her mother died. She found herself waiting for 8 years as an illegal immigrant unable to work or receive benefits

“My name is Elizabeth and I am from Nigeria. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a middle class family who valued education. After graduating from my Psychology Master’s I got a well-paid job working for a newspaper. They called me “press woman”. I got to meet with celebrities and top government officials. I was very respected.

Four of my older sisters went to the UK for university. As the youngest, I stayed in Nigeria to look after my mum after our dad passed away. When I was eight months pregnant, my mum died. I became very depressed. All my sisters came back to Nigeria for the funeral but I felt that, now my mum was dead, my sisters would never come back to Nigeria and I would be cut off from them. To make me feel better one of my sisters invited me to come visit her in London. So I went for a two week holiday with my daughter.


Elizabeth at the university of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1999

As soon as I arrived in London, I knew I wanted to live here. After the death of my mother and my deep grief, I needed a fresh start; to be with my sisters. I was only 33 years old. My husband, meanwhile, had been very unhappy in Nigeria. He was a maths teacher but had struggled for years to find decent work. Also, my husband’s brother left home in his late teens to move back to the UK (where he was born) and tragically died, aged 26, in a road traffic accident. My husband wanted to be in the UK to be able to visit his brother’s grave, so moving to London seemed like a great idea for both of us.

On Boxing Day 2010, I arrived back to the UK with my children and went to the Home Office to state my case. My husband came to join us in February. It wasn’t until October 2018 that we finally got our papers from the Home Office. Eight years of limbo. Eight years unable to work. Eight years of regret for a situation that should have never happened.

Elizabeth pregnant with her youngest child, giving a talk at a women’s conference at her church in Naija in 2009.

By the time we realised it wasn’t going to be a quick process and our London dream was slipping from our grasp it was too late. We were trapped. I had lost my job in Nigeria and had sold everything there: our car and our house. Jobs are very hard to get in Nigeria. In London, I was staying with my sisters. I felt so ashamed staying in their married homes like a charity case. We needed a home for a family of five (impossible to acquire when you are living illegally). I used to cry myself to sleep every night, I never thought my life would turn out like this.

In the UK, finding schools for my children was impossible. We had to live below the radar, I had to lie about my address. I was an illegal immigrant. In the Home Office’s eyes, I was a visa over-stayer and they could take me to immigration detention at any moment. My husband lived with his sister whilst our kids were with me. I used to write long letters to the Home Office pleading with them to let me work and not to punish my children for my actions. They didn’t reply.


Elizabeth at the Migrateful chef training group

I spent those years volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Cooking and serving food to the homeless became my new vocation. It at least made me feel I was useful to society. I often did not have enough money for food and would find myself looking for pennies on the street to afford my shopping. I could never bring myself to ask my family for extra financial support as they were already being so generous to me. I would suffer in silence. It felt so shameful relying on my family and sometimes the church for financial support. We were people who preferred giving to receiving.

Then my husband started tutoring so we got a bit of money to pay for rent. At home we hid when anyone knocked; we couldn’t open our front door in case it was someone trying to detain and deport us. My husband developed paranoia. Soon we were facing homelessness because we couldn’t afford the rent. I spent every day crying on buses with sunglasses to hide my tears.

I remember I was on my way to the Migrateful chef-training group for the first time. I was crossing London Bridge and I thought ‘what if I jump into the river right now?’ but I knew I couldn’t do it; my faith held me back. When I arrived at Migrateful all my emotions turned around and I felt I was going to be ok. I felt acceptance. For the first time I felt welcomed and listened to; others were going through the same things as me. There is so much joy and positivity here. It helped me to appreciate Britain a lot more. I no longer felt I was in a hostile place. For all this time the UK had been so unwelcoming and now it felt different.

Two months after declaring ourselves homeless, and being housed by the social services, we finally got our papers granting us leave to remain for 2.5 years. Finally, my children can have parents who are working; whom they can look up to. Whilst I am so grateful for our status, I would say it would have been better if the Home Office hadn’t kept us in limbo for eight whole years. The longer you stay, the harder it is to go back to where you’re from. The UK is my home now but I still can’t forgive myself. I still feel like I’m in a box, and the lid is closed. How can I heal my children?

The experience of teaching the cookery classes has been amazing. My students love my food so much, which makes me feel so happy. The experience has connected me to the Elizabeth I used to be before things went crazy. It was the first time I could meet normal people, intelligent people, respectable people like I was in Nigeria. Normally these people would walk past me in the streets in London. But at the cookery classes they’re interested in my story.

As most of my recipes were taught to me by my mum, it makes me feel I am doing her memory proud by teaching them to others and I find myself mentioning her often in my classes. Migrateful has changed my life. What it gives the chefs is priceless: self-esteem, acceptance and love in the midst of the hostility.”

Read more of our chef’s stories here

Try Elizabeth’s favourite recipes

1. ASARO

Yam Pottage

“Yam is food and food is yam,” goes the saying in farming areas of Nigeria and this simple and comforting dish celebrates the humble yam. Asaro is a staple across the country particularly in the Yoruba-speaking part (the south-western, coastal region surrounding Lagos). Use the freshest palm oil you can get your hands on; Elizabeth prefers the Zomi brand and recommends Ridley Road open market for buying the best yams in Hackney!  

A marriage custom observed in some Nigerian communities is to measure the groom’s wealth by the amount of yams that he can produce. He must present a minimum of 200 of these sacrosanct tubers to his in-laws as proof that he can take care of his wife and the future family!

Serves: 8

Cooking time: 40-50 minutes


Ingredients

1 medium sized puna yam (sliced, peeled and diced into cubes)

2 medium sized onions, peeled

1 tsp salt

2 tbsp granulated sugar

2 medium red peppers (ramiros if possible, but bells will do just fine if not)

1 medium tomato

2 scotch bonnets

1 clove of garlic, peeled

1 tsp mixed dried herbs

1 tbsp all purpose seasoning

1 tbsp vegetable seasoning

200ml palm oil  

Method

  1. In a medium sized pot boil the yam with 500ml of water. Dice 1 of the onions and add to the yam. Add the salt and sugar. Then cover and boil for about 15 minutes or until the water has almost completely evaporated.
  2. Meanwhile wash and blend the peppers, tomato, scotch bonnets, garlic and remaining onion to a coarse paste, not totally pureed.  
  3. Once the water is almost evaporated from the yam, lower the heat pour in the blended peppers and add the seasoning and herbs. Cover and cook for a further 15-20 minutes without stirring. Then add the palm oil and cook for a further 15 mins without stirring.
  4. Stir through, reduce the heat to its lowest possible, cover and leave to simmer for another 5-8 mins. Turn off the heat completely and serve.

2. EFO RIRO

Spinach Stew

Serves: 8

Preparation time: 10 mins

Cooking time: 30-40 mins

Ingredients:

900g spinach

300g curly kale/leafy greens

3 red peppers

2 fresh tomatoes

3 onions

3 scotch bonnets

2 cloves garlic

40g locust beans

100g dried smoked prawns

1 kg beef (or your choice of meat)

3 to 4 cooking spoonfuls of palm oil

2 tbsp vegetable seasoning

1 tbsp all purpose seasoning

2 tsp dried mixed herbs

Stock cubes to taste (about 3)

Instructions:

  1. If using fresh spinach, boil for 5 minutes, then drain, and once cool squeeze out the water. If using frozen spinach defrost completely and squeeze out all the liquid. Set aside.
  2. Soak the curly kale/leafy greens in boiling water for 3-5 minutes. Drain the liquid and squeeze out all excess water from the kale. Set aside.
  3. Season the beef to your taste (using about a third of the seasoning) and steam on medium heat with some water and  some sliced onion. It should be nice and tender in about 25 mins.
  4. Blend together the peppers, tomatoes, garlic, scotch bonnets, 1½ onions to a smooth paste.
  5. Set another pot on the stove and pour in the palm oil. Chop the remaining half of the onion and add to the oil on medium heat.
  6. Crush the locust beans and garlic together into a paste and add to the oil immediately. Pour in the blended peppers and the dried smoked prawns. Season and leave to simmer, stirring from time to time.
  7. When it’s nice and thick add the cooked meat with a cooking spoonful of stock water from the meat. Stir and leave to simmer again for about 10 mins.
  8. Turn the heat to low and add the leafy vegetables, starting with the kale and adding the spinach a little while after the kale has softened. Stir through and turn off the heat after 5 minutes.
  9. Serve with Eba (cassava meal).


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