Jabu M Emily Wood
BA (Hons) Social Work
- Received University of Bradford Sanctuary Scholarship
- Combining studies with the lead role in a touring production
- Speaker at the 12th Rosa Parks Symposium
Many students have obstacles to tackle to get to university, but few have had to overcome as many as Emily. When her uncle was killed in South Africa in 2002, she fled to the UK for what she thought would be a couple of weeks. 14 years later she remains an asylum seeker and has yet to be given indefinite leave to remain.
With no access to student finance, even after getting accepted for a place on BA (Hons) Social Work at the University of Bradford she had no idea how she would fund it. That's when she heard about the Sanctuary Scholarship and successfully applied.
"When I got the receipt for my fees, I was crying. My husband said, 'why are you crying?' I said even when I was at high school I was never able to pay my fees, and now I'm told I have paid the £9,000.
"Do these things really happen to people? I'm going to keep my receipt for the rest of my life."
The University of Bradford Sanctuary Scholarship enables those seeking asylum, like Emily, or those already granted refugee status who can't access student finance, to participate in higher education as long as they can support their own accommodation and living costs.
Zimbabwe to South Africa to UK
So how did Emily get to this point?
Originally from Zimbabwe, Emily moved to South Africa after her house was burnt down and she was raped. She became a mother at 13 years old.
"My uncle took us in. We stayed in South Africa, I went to uni, my child went to school. We grew up together."
Emily just wanted to teach, but in 2002 she got a phone call that would change everything.
"My uncle was a politician. When he was killed, I got a call to say I shouldn't go back to my house, and I travelled to the UK."
With the equivalent of about £600, Emily travelled alone under someone else's name - something that would cause confusion and delays when she later applied for asylum - and was supposed to be met at the airport by a friend of her uncle.
"The person I was supposed to meet in the UK never materialised. I sat at the airport for hours. I started crying. I didn't even know whether to go left or right.
"I met an international student from Asia who told me he was staying in an international hostel so I stayed there until the money got finished and I had to vacate.
"I took my bag and went outside. I tried to talk to people but I couldn't understand the English they were speaking. I saw a black person and just started crying out - that was the only thing I could do.
'An asylum case'
The woman told Emily she could get help in Leeds, so Leeds is where Emily went. But she ended up working for about £10 a month - "working as a slave," she says.
"One day I told them I wouldn't do something and they said they would call the police. I didn't care. I wanted to go home to my mum.
"I explained everything [to the police] and the lady said, 'this is an asylum case'."
Emily says she had no idea when she arrived at the airport that she was an asylum seeker. It took two years before her asylum case started - and then she spent years having asylum refused again and again. But thanks to confusion over her identity, she also couldn't be deported.
During this time her son, brother and father all passed away, and she couldn't go back to say goodbye.
In June 2014 she was granted two and a half years leave to remain. Finally she could work - she could study.
Emily decided on a career in social work.
"After all these years I was sort of existing. I started volunteering and realised my life isn't the worst. When I heard their stories I thanked God that there had been people who treated me nicely throughout my life.
"After volunteering and teaching, I realised it's a transferable profession. Now I look at the case - what's led this person to do this. I look at the person as an individual with individual circumstances.
"If I could help or empower even one person to be in a different situation, I will die a happy person.
"That's why I love social work - the ethos of it."
Emily's temporary status and time spent in higher education in South Africa meant she couldn't access student finance, but, "I kept on applying, I don't know why".
"When I got accepted to the university I was so happy, and then the reality sank in and I was like, 'what am I going to do?'
"But then through the City of Sanctuary I heard about the Sanctuary Scholarship. Oh my God! I applied and was shortlisted."
Nothing has ever been simple for Emily though, and at the same time she was also offered the lead role in a production about an asylum seeker, Tanja.
This meant several weeks of touring - right when she'd be starting her new degree.
"When I was told I got the scholarship I thought I might have to stop the touring, but as well as being the lead actress - they wanted someone who had experience of seeking asylum - I also sing, so they'd have to find someone else to do all that, it wasn't going to be possible."
But with some late night trains back to Bradford after shows to get to lectures on time, and with the help of a study group, Emily is managing to do both at once.
"Now when they book performances they are going to book around my schedule.
"I know it's going to be a challenge. I haven't been in education for a long time. But I'm going to try."