Cynthia Masiyiwa came to the UK aged 15 from Zimbabwe to escape political violence. She settled in South London with her sister where she had a tough time as the only black student in her year at school. Because she was picked on for being different, she became a ‘sprinter’ so she could run away from the bullies at the school gates.
Things got tougher when she turned 18 as her temporary immigration status expired leaving her unable to study or work. Instead of sitting at home she started volunteering at Active Horizons a youth project near her home and when Citizens UK came looking for youth leaders she signed up, and this is why: “I wanted to do something about what my community was facing – the racism and the unemployment. But the turning point for me was when I wanted to go to university. I was really excited, I’d made the applications and then I realised I couldn’t go to university because I didn’t have any papers. And I realised that I needed to do something. Luckily, I found a youth centre near my home called Active Horizons and through them I met Citizens UK. They trained me in leadership and gave me the motivation and self belief I needed.”
Through Citizens UK she learned about power, community organising and how telling her story could change how people saw her and she started going into schools to speak up about why she had come to the UK. Soon she joined Citizens UK team, negotiating with the Head of Asylum Policy at the UK Border Agency on issues that affect asylum seekers.
Cynthia was also involved in negotiations with the Minister for Immigration to find an alternative to the detention of children while fighting to stay in the UK – the fight she won in 2010.
She even met David Cameron as she was shortlisted in the Young Hero category of The Spirit of London Awards in 2011.
After the London riots in 2011 she realised that many young people had joined in because they were bored, and so again with Citizens she started organising young people in her area to apply for work with the London Olympics, resulting in 60 of them getting jobs. This was a painstakingly slow process as she first had to convince LOCOG to open up opportunities for young people in south London. Cynthia knew she had taken a risk because many young people lacked the confidence and skills to apply for jobs, but she put in the time and energy and worked with many of them one to one as well as organising training on interview skills.
She says one of her proudest moments was when they came into the office waving their first pay cheques. Now at 21, she says that ‘you shouldn’t give up just because someone tells you that you’re not good enough’.
Cynthia is not giving up, she is studying and continuing to organise young people at Active Horizons and Citizens UK and is building relationships with local employers to get her peers into long term work. In 2012 she presented Citizens UK National Diaspora Assembly for 420 delegates and was one of the young refugees chosen to front the Unsung Heroes campaign during the 2012 Refugee Week.
photography by Jason Wen, Spot of Bother