Bilal Fawaz: ‘I wouldn’t wish what I suffered on my worst enemy’

Trafficked to the UK as a child, Bilal Fawaz won the national championships as an amateur. He’s been unjustly held in a detention centre and has only now been given a work permit so he can turn professional

MY official name is Bilal Fawaz. But when I came to Britain I told people to call me Kelvin because they couldn’t pronounce my name and Kelvin stuck with me.

My childhood was the worst ever. Growing up in Nigeria, I
was beaten mercilessly. Because I don’t look Nigerian. I am mixed race, I have
a Lebanese father and a mum from Benin. So when they looked at me, they saw me
as an outcast. I was transported to Britain [at 15 years of age] where I was a
servant in someone’s house. There I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t go out. I
was washing the clothes, cleaning the house, doing everything for them. So all
of a sudden I saw this and said this is not meant for me. I’m going to go out
and make something of myself and ran out of the house. [He was eventually taken
into social care, up until the age of 18.]

I smoked cannabis when I was kid in high school. I drove a
car without insurance. I wrote my name on the bus stop, just one time, on one
occasion. And that was it. All because I wanted to feel a sense of belonging to
the people that I was with. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know that
this was going to have a detrimental effect on me in the future. I just wanted
to belong to a family, to like a group. And the group was the kids that I went
to school with.

But after a little while I realised that all this was not
worth it. I needed to focus on myself. I wanted to feel a sense of belonging
and the people that I wanted to feel a sense of belonging to I realised that
they were not going anywhere.

If I’d had a parent to tell me Bilal don’t do this, this
will haunt you for the rest of your life, you’re a boxer, you’re good at what
you do, you’re intelligent, you’re on the right path academically, mentally and
this will have a detrimental effect in future, I would never have done that.

The worst moment of my life was when I reached the top. I won the ABAs. When I got to the top I was told that I couldn’t turn professional because I didn’t have citizenship or permission to work in the UK. I wanted to turn professional or box for the country or even go to the Olympics and they turned around and said I’m not allowed to do that.

I couldn’t fight. I couldn’t do anything that would generate
income and allow me to survive. That was the worst moment and then when they
arrested me, that took every ounce of fighting spirit out of me. I didn’t know
where to go from there. I didn’t know what to do. I felt lost mentally.

Kelvin Fawaz
After the longest struggle, Fawaz is finally able to turn professional

I’ve never been in prison, I’ve never done anything that
would warrant them treating me the way they treated me. They locked me up
unlawfully in a deportation centre. Because the Home Office knew I couldn’t be
deported. The Nigerian embassy wrote to the Home Office with a document stating
that this boy cannot be deported. He came from Nigeria to Britain but there is
no record and we are not issuing the travel document. But they still locked me
up again and took me to the detention centre, with them knowing my medical condition,
that I am depressed.

When you are in a detention centre, it is not something that
I would wish on my enemy. Because it strips you of all sense of dignity. It
strips you of all sense of ownership or belonging. It makes you feel like you
are not even a human being. They are literally slaughtering us but without
cutting us. They are taking our life away from us. I understand them behaving
like this to certain people. But they have to look each case. I was trying to
do something or make something of myself. They shouldn’t take that away. They
took that. I felt depressed, I felt lost. I felt like something in my life is
missing. I felt mentally drained. Weak. I didn’t know what to do. I started
hurting myself.

I wanted to end it. I just didn’t feel like there was
anything worth fighting for any more. Because I’m fighting, I’m fighting, I’m
fighting, I’m bleeding, I bled for them. I literally bled for them in the ring [he
had boxed in international amateur fixtures in the UK] and then all of a sudden
they turned around and tell me, ‘Oh sorry, you’re not one of us. We’re sorry
about that.’ That kills. It really, really hurts.

Because my lawyer saw that the Home Office arrested me
unlawfully, they fought the Home Office so they released me. But they still didn’t
release me with the paperwork so I could work. They released me to go into the
public but it was still the same. I had to sign in with the Home Office at
least once a week, which I’ve been doing for the past 11 years. The sensation
of that is not a sensation that anybody would want to go through, I tell you
and I feel so sorry for the young kids, the young kids that have been or are in
the same predicament as me and they have no way to voice their opinion.

They released me out of the detention centre. But I promise
you I didn’t feel free. I feel like they just toyed with me, they played with
my emotions. Because if I was free I would be able to go straight into working,
make some money. They released me but I was just in a bigger prison.

No one can fight with them because they are the biggest
authority in the country.

This is not an easy thing. Anyone that has this event being
put upon them, they will have a certain degree of mental breakdown. It’s not
easy, I’m telling you. It’s hard. It strips you away of your dignity. It’s hard
to believe in yourself… I can’t explain it. It’s just not good. It’s not
something that you would want to wish on anyone.

However last week I had permission that I could work in the
UK. I got the news when I was on the bus. I started screaming on the bus and
people were looking at me like this boy’s crazy. I ran out of the bus and
people were looking at me. Then after that I knelt down on the floor and I
kissed the floor. That’s how happy I was. I was crying. Because I am free. I am
so free.

Kelvin Fawaz
Bilal Fawaz’s amateur team that boxed against Nigeria

What that means is my life can begin. I can decide to put my
foot down and choose what path I am going to go and no one can dictate my
future for me. Before I had people giving me this, giving me that and telling
me I have to do this or do that. Now I can work, I can stand on my feet, I can
provide for myself, have a house. Still the Home Office neglected to give me
ability to claim benefits, not that I want to claim benefits but if I wanted to
use the NHS for example, I would have to pay for it now.

My lawyer is arguing that it was unlawful detention and
they’re also fighting for an extension for me to get indefinite leave to
remain. They gave me 30 months. We are pursuing legal proceedings against the
Home Office.

You can survive but I’m telling you it is not an easy avenue
to adventure on. It’s not. I tried. I lost myself a couple of times. I lost my
ways, I lost my momentum. I lost my mindset and I got it back. I became a
champion again.

Now I can make money from something I am so good at. You
know when kids are given presents for Christmas or their birthday, you know
they get butterflies in their tummy. The last time I had butterflies I can’t
remember. I am having butterflies now. Honestly, every time I’m walking on the
street and I think about my situation, I just smile, like a big smile. It’s
from my soul. My soul is smiling.

It has been such a long time. I liken my situation to Muhammad Ali’s situation. Remember when they put Muhammad Ali under strict rules where he’s not allowed to box or do anything, because he wouldn’t go and fight and kill people in another country, at his prime, at his peak. They did the same to me. I’ve lost my peak. It would have been great if I still had that time at my disposal. But I’m still a force to be reckoned with. I train a lot. I have my mindset ready for this.

They have taken my prime athletic years away from me. But
that doesn’t mean I don’t have enough left in me. Because I still have that
fighting spirit. When I train in the gym there are people that are younger than
me and I still beat them up. They train and they’re champions. I’ve sparred
with world champions, I’ve sparred with Josh Taylor, I spar with loads of other
boxers and I stand my ground. I even give them a hard time. It’s not like I can
turn around and say I haven’t got enough energy in me to make it. It would be
nice if I had the whole duration of my career. I’ve still got years in me. I
haven’t had crazy fights. Like crazy, big, big fights so I haven’t worn out my

And I’m so keen. I am so motivated to box. I need to pick up everything I’ve lost. I am so excited. I’m looking for a promoter and looking for sponsors. Eddie Hearn, let him give me one fight, let me show him what I’m capable of and after that fight, he can decide whether he wants me or not. I beat Ted Cheeseman in the ABAs, and everyone thought he was going to win. I was the last person that beat Ted Cheeseman before he decided to turn pro.

It would be a great story: he came as an asylum seeker, he
couldn’t work, they put him in detention and then all of a sudden he turns
professional and he’s winning fights. Come on, that would be a story and the
public would lean to the person who signed me.

BBC News and Sky News are already contacting me saying make
sure I contact them when I have my first fight. I was a high profile case so
I’m a high profile boxer. I’ve been on Sky, ITV, on the BBC, in the Guardian.
129,000 signatures went on the petition to ask for me to be released from the
immigration detention centre.

People don’t know what’s coming for them. They have given me
the key to the kingdom. I’m feeling amazing, I feel great. I feel like yes,
life is beautiful now for me. Before it wasn’t, now it is.

Bilal Fawaz was speaking to John Dennen

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