There’s nothing like a crisis to test the character of an individual, group or place. And it’s hard to imagine a bigger crisis than being told that you’re going to have to leave pretty much everything and everyone you love, just as you’re trying to prepare for the biggest exams of your life.
That was the situation facing Stiven Bregu when he received a letter from the Home Office shortly before his 18th birthday telling him that he was facing deportation from the UK. Stiven’s story was already full of upheaval. Born in Albania, his mother handed him over, aged 13, to people traffickers to escape an abusive situation at home. At the end of an arduous journey through Europe, he was dumped by the side of the road in the middle of the night in a town on the outskirts of Bristol. Speaking just enough English to find his way to a Police station, Stiven was eventually taken into foster care in the city.
What happened next is nothing short of remarkable. Mastering English in just six months, Stiven quickly settled into school and two years later performed so well in his GCSE results that the Bristol Post wrote a story about him. He was accepted onto the City Leadership Programme, set up to support high potential young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. And as he approached the end of his school career he won a prestigious apprenticeship offer with the Wealth Management firm Rowan Dartington.
Stiven’s future looked bright. Having been welcomed and supported in so many ways, he was looking forward to the opportunity to give back to the city he now called home. We can only imagine how he must have felt, just a week before his first A Level exam, when he was told that his application to remain in the UK had been turned down. The argument from the Home Office was that on becoming an adult, it was no longer ‘in the public interest’ for Stiven to be allowed to remain in the country.
In desperation, he turned to those who had supported him so far in his journey. His school, St Mary Redcliffe, started a public petition calling on the Government to allow him to stay. It went viral, attracting almost 100,000 signatures in just a month. When it came time for his appeal hearing, Stiven and his lawyer were joined by an extraordinary team of supporters. Travelling to Newport to speak in his defence were his Head of Year at school, his care worker, the Deputy Mayor of Bristol Asher Craig and the Executive Chairman of Rowan Dartington, Graham Coxell. Stiven’s lawyer said she thought the judge had probably never seen anything like it. Evidently this remarkable show of support paid off, for just 10 days later Stiven received news that his appeal had been successful and that he was to be given leave to remain in the country. “We won the appeal, so I’m definitely staying here. It’s absolutely amazing”, Stiven said. “I just want to say a big thank you to everyone”.
Stiven’s story is one of determination and success against the odds. But it’s not just a story about him. It’s also a powerful example of how a city can take in a vulnerable young person and nurture them. From his foster carers to his care workers, from his school leaders to the wealth management company – time and time again people in Bristol have gone above and beyond in standing up for Stiven and giving him the platform to succeed. When the news broke of the successful appeal, the Bristol Post’s headline said it all: “Victory for Bristol as Stiven wins his fight to stay”. At a time when hate crime has spiked in the UK and it feels like the nation is wrestling with its identity, the groundswell of support for a young boy from Eastern Europe has been a reminder of who we can be at our best.
Stiven’s ordeal has also provided a stark reminder of the madness of our asylum system. The timing of the Home Office decision to deport Stiven, coming just as he was preparing for his A Levels, is emblematic of the complete lack of humanity in the way immigration decisions are made. The decision itself, claiming that it was in the ‘public interest’ to send Stiven out of the country after years of investment in his education and care, is questionable on every possible level. The only saving grace is that the appeal judge was able to finally see sense and recognise Stiven for the asset that he is. Sadly, however, Stiven’s situation is one that is experienced by so many other young people who arrive in the UK as unaccompanied asylum seeking children, not all of whom end up with the powerful supporters that Stiven had.
So there are lessons to learn for everyone from the remarkable story of Stiven Bregu. The brokenness and inhumanity of an asylum system that’s not fit for purpose. The incredible resilience of a young man with a very bright future. And the character and welcome of a city that takes care of its own, wherever they might have been born.