IT has been nine years since care home manager Ochuko Dafiaghor has worked. Nine years since she’s seen her family, five of whom have died, including her father.

Ochuko couldn’t attend any of their funerals in Nigeria. She couldn’t join the fight against Covid-19 in Aberdeen either, despite receiving a letter from Scottish authorities asking her to come back to the frontline.

Because for almost a decade now, this highly qualified woman has been locked in a David-and-Goliath battle over both employment and immigration rights that began when she challenged her unfair dismissal from a north-east care home in 2013. Her immigration status depended on official sponsorship from her employer and when this was withdrawn she entered a complex web of applications, appeals and tribunals.

With no income and no right to public funds, Ochuko couldn’t access legal aid and so had to represent herself without any training in almost every occurrence.

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Almost 10 years on, she’s exhausted by the effort and grieving the recent loss of her dad, the “best friend” to who whom she spoke daily. Before he died, he told her sister that “my greatest pain in life is my child in a prison”. “My sister said, ‘who in this house is in prison?’,” Ochuko says. “He told her, ‘What is it you call what Ochuko is in?’

“My father was my best friend. He told me that on Earth, suffering can be redemptive. But the consequences of my situation for my family are huge.

“I came here to make a contribution. I came here to make my life a blessing. Employment laws and immigration laws are not consistent. Immigration laws don’t make any provision for a worker who has been unfairly treated, they simply say ‘your job has ended and you should leave the country’.”

Now 47, the Northumberland University graduate was just 39 when her trouble started. From leading a team of staff and catering to the needs of the older Scots under her care, she’s now using food banks and drawing as much strength as she can from her church in Torry. “I am a very private person, I never wanted to speak about my situation before,” she says, “but there comes a time when you have to speak and let the world know what has happened to you.

“I want to start my life again.”

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Ochuko will spend this Christmas awaiting her next employment tribunal hearing, which is not due until January. The case has been further drawn out by Covid, prolonging her life in limbo. Without legal training or a right to public funds, she represented herself when she took her former employer to the tribunal. Meanwhile, the Home Office had advised it wouldn’t return her permit until the tribunal ended. But when the panel produced its ruling, it approved compensation but refused her re-employment order request.

She’s been challenging that decision ever since, winning the pro bono support of one of Scotland’s most senior legal figures, Douglas Fairley QC, through the Faculty of Advocates’ Free Legal Service Unit in a successful appeal that decided that the matter should go back before a differently constituted employment tribunal.

MEANWHILE, she’s had a separate immigration tribunal battle with the Home Office. Three times she has won the right to have her case reviewed, and three times the department has had to withdraw refusals it’s given her – only to issue a new one. On that case, her representative at SJK Solicitors in Glasgow argues that she qualifies for indefinite leave to remain, based on the amount of time she’s spent in the UK and that the Home Office should use the discretionary powers at its disposal in light of the discrimination she’s faced. They’re not at the end of the road and are fighting for a judicial review.

But it’s been a hard road for Ochuko, and a long one. “Ochuko has suffered extreme hardship,” says her friend and former line manger Linda Keith. “I find it difficult to understand why such an intelligent, well educated, caring and conscientious lady with so much to offer our country can be treated in such a way within our judicial system.”

“I have a first degree in mathematics, I have a Masters in business administration, it’s not as if I don’t have skills,” says Ochuko. “If this has happened to me, it is happening to other people.

“For years you have kept a human being down,” she says, turning her attention to the Home Office. “I am not a dog. Even when you don’t feed a dog, you are held to account by authorities, but you have kept a human being so they can’t work, can’t eat. Even in prison, you feed the prisoners. But I have done nothing wrong. If I was a criminal sentenced to 15 years, I would have been let out by now.

“In the pandemic, I got a letter from the Scottish Social Services Council saying they needed my services, but I couldn’t go back to work because I don’t have my visa.

“I couldn’t imagine this would happen to me. Sometimes I can’t understand how I am still going. It is only God that’s keeping me.”

The National:

Aberdeen South MP Stephen Flynn (above) says he’s “utterly appalled” by what Ochuko has “had to deal with through no fault of her own. As our NHS was crying out for staff in the midst of the pandemic, the Home Office prevented Ochuko from using her skills to help out our country – it’s absolutely senseless,” he says.

“The Home Office needs to stop dragging this out and give Ochuko the right to live and work – the UK Government should value the skills of people like Ochuko, not subject them to delay and deferral at every turn.”

The Home Office was approached for comment.