When news of the Windrush generation controversy first made major headlines in 2018, it never occurred to mother-of-four Sekeena that her family would become embroiled in the nationwide scandal. For Windrush Day, Stylist spoke to Sekeena, her mother and daughter, about how the government’s failings affected their family.
When Sekeena, 36, received a letter from her daughter Lynette’s school in 2019 about an upcoming trip to Barcelona, she knew she’d need to apply for a passport in order for 13-year old to be able to fly out of the country with her classmates. Having never travelled abroad herself, this was Sekeena’s first time filling out a passport application. Born and raised in Preston to a white British father and a mother (also named Lynette) originally from the Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sekeena submitted the application oblivious to any reason as to why the passport may not be approved.
But that’s exactly what happened when a letter from the Home Office arrived around a week later. “[It said] I had to prove that I was British,” she says. Shocked and confused by the government’s response, Sekeena attempted to grapple with the accusation that – despite both her and her daughter being born in the UK – they had to justify their citizenship and would be without the passport that Lynette needed for her school trip until they had done so to the government’s satisfaction. “I was just thinking ‘What are they talking about’? What do you mean ‘Prove I’m British?’”
Sekeena quickly made the link between the Home Office’s rejection letter and the Windrush scandal which was steadily unfurling in the press. She explains: “That’s the only thing I could think of, because in the letter it stated that I took my nationality from my mum’s father because my dad wasn’t named on my birth certificate, and Lynette’s dad wasn’t named on her birth certificate either.”
Unsure of what to do next, Sekeena contacted Glenda, a friend who she suspected may have been from the Windrush generation. Glenda revealed that although she wasn’t from the Windrush generation, her parents were, and she was in the middle of building a case to prove her mother’s citizenship. “[I just wanted some] support. Anything to get the passport for Lynette to go on the school trip basically, because I thought ‘Why should she miss out?’. In the letter about the passport it said I had to ring the task force at the Home Office to deal with it, so when I spoke to Glenda she helped me do the forms and send all the documents and proof I needed.”
Sekeena also had to break the news to her then 64-year-old mother, Lynette Snr, who first moved to England legally in 1962, aged seven, on her uncle’s passport.
Lynette Snr was granted her own British passport in 1976 when she travelled back to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines for a six-week trip – the first and last time since moving to England that she’d been back to her home country. In the years that followed she lost her passport, and was told by the Home Office in 2019 that they had no record of her ever being granted one. Speaking about her granddaughter’s struggle to acquire a passport of her own, Lynette Snr tells Stylist: “Oh, I was really upset about it. That [my daughter] had to fight for it to get done.”
Anthony Brown, co-founder of the Windrush Defenders Legal C.I.C. who himself fought against deportation in the 80s, is supporting Sekeena who is now helping her mother put together an application for the Windrush Compensation Scheme which has been widely criticised for failing to offer compensation quickly enough to victims of the scandal. This includes a National Audit Office investigation published last month which states that the scheme ‘started accepting applications before it was ready’, and that ‘until it started enacting the changes it made in December 2020, it was not meeting its objective of compensating claimants quickly’.
Offering an explanation as to the government’s failing in Sekeena’s case, Brown tells Stylist: “Sekeena’s mum would have come to the UK as what was then called a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies. Under the 1948 British Nationality Act if you were born in a colony or in the United Kingdom you were a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies. So it would have just been like somebody coming across from Wales and living in say Bolton. Just as there are no passports between Wales and Bolton, there were no passports needed between St Vincent and the UK because they were all one citizenship.
“But then when Britain passed a law saying that St Vincent was independent, in that law it revoked her mother’s citizenship of the UK. So she was living here, and one day she was a citizen, then the next day she wasn’t. And that was what the Home Office did wrong. They didn’t tell the people who were living here that they were no longer citizens. Fifty years later they’re asking them for documents to prove that they are citizens. And so although Sekeena was born here, because her mother’s citizenship had been revoked, it meant that Sekeena wasn’t a citizen. And because Sekeena wasn’t a citizen it meant her daughter wasn’t a citizen either.”
While gathering her childhood medical and school records, Sekeena’s mother had to apply for citizenship by naturalisation which she was eventually granted, and little Lynette finally received her first passport, much to the family’s relief. “Lynette was traumatised by it. She was embarrassed by it,” says Sekeena. “She’d say, ‘I’m going to get bullied now at school’ and stuff like that. It was the emotional side of it [that impacted] her.”
As the reluctant catalyst for the events that subsequently unfolded, Lynette, now aged 15, is still unclear as to exactly what happened and why, but she tells Stylist: “My mum told me that I might not be able to go on the Barcelona trip and I got really sad because I wanted to go. [So when I found out I got my passport] I ran upstairs to pack my bag!”
Just two days after Lynette’s passport arrived, Sekeena set up Preston Windrush which offers advice and support for those affected by the immigration and humanitarian problems caused by the scandal. Asked about her motivations for founding the organisation, Sekeena explains: “It’s really for everything that’s happening now to just stop. The deportations, people losing homes, jobs, getting their children taken away for no reason, all of that. You heard Theresa May, she apologised but I don’t think she meant it. If she did, why is it still happening now? Why does it keep repeating itself?”
Despite the government pledging £500,000 towards celebrations to commemorate the third annual Windrush Day on 22 June, it’s no wonder Sekeena is unconvinced by the former Prime Minister’s apology. We can only hope that one day justice is truly served for the Caribbean immigrants whose undeniable contributions are so deeply etched into British history. But only time will tell to what extent the government will right the wrongs perpetrated against the victims of the Windrush generation and the callousness with which many of them were treated by the country they call home.
Images: courtesy of Sekeena Muncey