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89-Year-Old Albert Johnson: “I want to go to Jamaica, one last time”

19 March 20 words: Ollie Heppenstall

As a member of the Windrush Generation who came to Britain in the 1950s after World War II, 89-year-old Albert Johnson devoted his life to being a well-respected and productive member of society. His reward? Being threatened with deportation and denied his legal rights as part of the 2017 scandal. With the dream of returning home to his native Jamaica one final time, we talked to Johnson as he looks back on a life of hard work, endurance and survival…

Towards the end of 2017, countless Britons were left shocked by a political gaffe of staggering proportions. It was unearthed that the Home Office, with Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, were threatening Commonwealth citizens with deportation. If the threat of deportation was not enough, many were denied legal rights and wrongly incarcerated through no fault of their own. Their crime? Lacking documentation that had not been required when they first arrived in the UK, which they have rightly called home ever since.

The scandal marked a watershed moment in British society. Was it acceptable for those who had called the UK their home for a generation if not longer, to be denied that right? What did it say about those who lead us – that they were able to decide who stayed and left arbitrarily? While the scandal has since died down, the repercussions are still being felt in a society where divisions have only widened and deepened. Albert Johnson is one of the Windrush Generation who made the UK their home in the wake of the Second World War. The 89-year-old, who originally hails from Jamaica, arrived in 1955 to find a country still reeling from a gargantuan conflict and desperately in need of a helping hand. Like millions of others from across the Commonwealth, he was invited by the British Government with the aim of rebuilding a country he had never expected to visit.

“I was 25 when I arrived in the UK,” he says, after a long hard think. “To be frank, it was a huge, huge change – but I was able to take everything as it came. I’m still here, still strong.” “To be frank” crops up a lot when talking to Albert, and it’s an expression that sums him up well. He’s lived a colourful life, and lived it eclectically – but it hasn’t been without its hardships. “My first job was in Derby, mending roads, retarmacking them. I hadn’t done much work like that before, and it was made harder by the climate – I learnt pretty quickly to always wear a coat! But I managed to work my own way” he says, a wry smile on his face. The memories and recollections need some time to be coaxed out, but those that remain still retain their clarity. “I remember, on my first day, being made a cup of tea and lighting a gas lamp to keep warm. It didn’t work though, and I ended up fainting.” On his way to the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, he would cross paths with a familiar face. “My cousin Lee had come over from Jamaica too – we met as I was being wheeled into the ambulance!” Lee, unlike Albert, would return to Jamaica and join the clergy; they would not meet again until Albert’s brief return in 1974.

I was able to take everything as it came. I’m still here, still strong

Albert arrived in Nottingham after seven years in the UK. “I came in 1962, with very little money. The only way I knew how to make that money was to work hard, and endure.” And endure he did; after working at Beeston Boilers for a number of years, he spent time working in Chigwell cleaning aircraft engines and other heavy-duty machinery. After a healthy amount of time spent working in industry, he took up painting and decorating, before a stint at Wellington power station. Indeed, Albert’s career spanned four decades – but not once in those four decades was he asked for documentation.

Sibon Phiri, who works with United Legal Access, the organisation responsible for helping members of the Windrush generation around Nottingham, says: “I was immensely surprised to see Albert at one of our surgeries. I’d seen him around Nottingham before, looking as happy as anyone – and yet for all these years he hadn’t really existed. There was no paper trail, no birth certificate, nothing.” He’s not the only member of the Windrush generation who United Legal Access has come into contact with. Since beginning their surgeries, eleven people have successfully completed applications to the Windrush Compensation Scheme after getting settled status; a further fifteen are either waiting on the Home Office’s Windrush Task Force to deliver their settled status or are being supported by United Legal Access to compile more information together to complete their application for compensation. They’ve provided a mixture of support: some of it has been emotional, some of it financial, other aspects of it have been social. The work that United Legal Access has done has been indispensable.

Albert’s story became even more complicated when he was made homeless. He would spend three months on Nottingham’s streets until new friend Betty Scott stepped in. “I took Albert in and I’ve been there every step of the way. From getting in contact with my local Councillor to see what could be done, to helping him find any documents to build his case, to being on the phone with solicitors and being interviewed by the Windrush Task Force in Sheffield – I’ve been there every step. It’s been a rollercoaster, but it’s been so worth it.” For Albert, Betty is everything now. “Betty’s my friend, she’s my family – she’s absolutely everything” he says, a smile as wide as can be on his face.

I came in 1962, with very little money. The only way I knew how to make that money was to work hard, and endure

“The time between Albert getting his British citizenship and getting his passport was so short,” Betty recalls with a laugh. “He got his citizenship through in May, and his passport in June of 2018.” The first thing they did? Book a trip to France and Belgium, the first time Albert had left the UK since 1974 when he had last returned to Jamaica. “France was alright,” he recalls. “The journey was by bus and ferry; it was wonderful to see the sea again.”

There’s a plan afoot to go to the United States, too. “I have a cousin, Sammy, who I’ve been told still lives in Florida,” he says, with some hesitation. But Florida, France and Belgium are small beer compared to what else is planned. “I want to go to Jamaica, one last time,” he says. “I want to go to my school one last time, and see where I grew up.” Albert may still be here, and still be strong, but with his 90th birthday looming, time is of the essence. When asked how it felt to receive his British passport, the way he clasps it to his chest and smiles says more than any words can. “Albert’s been so limited for so long despite all these years he’s given to the UK,” Sibon explains. 

Sibon also remarks that Albert’s story has given others the platform and motivation to come forward with their own stories. “I had a message from a lady over Facebook not too long after Albert received his indefinite leave, saying that her grandmother was in exactly the same situation” she recalls. There are still thousands of people who are waiting to receive a solution to a problem that should not have existed, under any circumstance. But with stories like Albert’s, the hope remains. Like he says, they’re still here, still strong.

If you’d like to support Albert’s dream to visit his homeland of Jamaica for a final time, visit his GoFund Me page.

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