A FLIGHT from Nairobi to the UK usually takes about nine hours. But for Julia Kariuki the journey from the Kenyan capital to a new life in Coventry lasted nearly 11 agonising years.
Along the way she was threatened by a murderous sect in her own country, trafficked to London and forced to work for a pittance in what were virtually slave conditions. She had to spend a night in a British police cell and she was diagnosed with cancer.
Many would not have survived to tell the tale. That the 39-year-old has come through it all and can smile as she tells her story is testament to her strength and determination.
And she’s not just a survivor. Julia is now using her dreadful experiences to help other people who have gone through similar – sometimes even worse – horrors.
For Julia, it all started in 2007. A young graduate, she landed a job with the Kenyan electoral commission. But it was a time of great upheaval with political rivals accusing each other of rigging elections.
One sect in particular, the Mungiki, accused the establishment and anyone involved with running a presidential election of fixing the result. Julia had a choice. To avoid being a target herself, she could join the Mungiki.
“They believed in abolishing Christianity and returning to a very traditional way of worshipping – things like human sacrifice,” she said. “It’s a criminal sect, a murderous group. And once you have been asked to join, you are in danger.
“A lot of people were killed in 2007. My uncle disappeared and we never saw him since. We don’t know what happened to him.”
Then in what seemed like a stroke of luck, Julia spotted an advert: a college in Northampton, England, was recruiting students and promising to take care of all the visa and travel documents. She applied and got a place – but it proved too good to be true.
The visa and the tickets were genuine, but when Julia got to Northampton, there was no college, just a conman who kept her passport and visa and a large chunk of her savings, and insisted on regular fees to keep the visa up to date.
“He made it look like he was helping you,” said Julia. “He had an agency doing care work and I had to work for him. It went on for three years. He kept my money and he just gave me some money for my accommodation, but it was his accommodation. “
Julia was one of three women being put to work by the conman, living in a house in Northampton, constantly afraid of being found out by the authorities and sent back to home to danger. But with no money and no documents they were helpless.
“It was modern slavery,” she says.
To compound the misery, Julia was diagnosed with cancer and although she didn’t know it yet, her captor was getting her deeper in to hot water. After her visa expired and she could no longer work, unknown to her, he fiddled the benefits system in her name to keep money coming in.
Eventually, in November 2014, the inevitable happened. The police came knocking, arrested the conman, who later went to jail, but also rounded up Julia and the other trafficked women.
What followed was a brutal new twist in her long-running nightmare. The police assumed she was in the country illegally, and charged her with benefit fraud and conspiracy. After a night in a cell she was presented with a choice: leave the country, or face trial and a possible jail sentence.
“They gave me a paper to sign to agree to leave. But something told me not to sign it. They said, ok but you will be charged. They let me go but I had no job, no money. I was ill and I was kicked out of my small flat. It was very terrible.”
Sick, far from her family, scared, and sleeping on friends’ sofas, Julia finally got the advice which proved to be a turning point: apply for asylum. Making the application was the first real step to a new life. And since the Home Office is obliged to support asylum seekers, however minimally, Julia had a breathing space at last.
And although the Home Office is often criticised for delays and lack of sympathy, Julia was lucky. She was given help to leave Northampton for a safe house in London, and help from a solicitor with the highly complicated paperwork. In addition to her asylum application she had to show that she was a victim of trafficking and therefore innocent of the offences she had been charged with.
“At this time I was developing my own shock absorbers,” she says. “After everything that had happened I was thinking, what else can you do to me?”
She was offered accommodation in Birmingham, but the minibus taking her there dropped her off at a grimy flat in Foleshill, Coventry, with all her worldly possessions packed into two suitcases.
“I was scared. I was in a strange city, I didn’t know anyone to talk to or trust. The flat wasn’t very nice. The bed was filthy, I couldn’t sleep in it. You are given £90, and the first thing I did was buy a bed.”
Somehow she found her way to the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre and although there was no help they could offer her – her applications were still pending – they suggested that she volunteer with them to meet people, end her isolation, create a routine for herself to help settle in, and to help others at the same time.
Life started to look promising but the wheels were turning slowly. Julia started volunteering in July 2015. Two years later the authorities accepted that she had been trafficked, and soon after that she was granted asylum.
That allowed her to look for paid work, and early this year she landed a job as an employment officer with the CRMC, and moved in to a nicer flat.
Her work with the CRMC has proved a lifeline for her, and the people she helps.
She said: “When I was a volunteer I mostly helped people go through what I went through. I had to do a lot of research so I knew what my rights were, that way I could help people going through things like applying for accommodation. I had gone through that.”
Now Julia helps Syrian refugees with learning English and finding work, how to write a CV and how to behave in an interview.
“They are all things I had to learn to do, all by myself,” she says.
“It’s very rewarding. I don’t want these people to go through what I went through. I do everything I can so they don’t have to suffer like I did.”
She knows she’s been fortunate. Her claims were dealt with in three years, but she said: “Some people wait for five years and then they are not believed. Then they have to go before judges. I can see why people get desperate, go into depression.”
Her new life in Coventry is tinged with sadness because she misses her mother and father and three brothers back in Kenya. Perhaps they will be reunited one day.
For now she’s taking her time to settle down, furnishing her flat, making it a home.
She said: “I have been so lucky. I just want to continue working, to build my life…maybe even have a holiday.”