This month I have to be the bearer of sad news. Many of you will have already seen but on Tuesday 20 April one of our original residents and my close friend, Ken Silver, died. He had been diagnosed with a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and he died in intensive care at the Royal Sussex County Hospital. The community, both the local Gambian community and the wider T4K family, raised the money to repatriate his body. He will be returning home on Thursday next week.
I have never written a eulogy before and I feel ridiculous doing it. It seems to be an impossible task. One of the things that I have found most distressing about his death is the way that a complicated and, at times, difficult person is flattened into a two-dimensional, cardboard saint. It’s not just that I want to scream, “but my friend was more complicated than that”. More fundamental is the simple fact that he was a person and not words. No description, however accurate, can be substituted for a human being. Every individual is unique, unpredictable and changeable. A description is finite. It says: this is who Ken was; now we know. Of course, to do that is to say that he is no longer and this is precisely the problem.
Of course, what else can we do than eulogise our friends? Ken arrived in this country at least 21 years ago. The reason I am unclear about it is that the reality of Ken’s life and the version that he presented to the Home Office don’t always match. One of the things that I have learnt through doing this work is that the immigration system has very small and strangely shaped holes through which each applicant for Leave to Remain must squeeze her complex, messy life in order to be granted the right to carry on being a complex, messy human being in the UK. It’s a problem that confronts people who are claiming asylum. It is not enough that you were treated awfully in your country of origin, you have to show that you have a “well grounded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion”. Each of those terms, “well grounded”, “fear”, “persecution” and so on themselves have a particular meaning. They are, in effect further small and strange shaped holes into which you must fit yourself. But it’s not only refugees who face this problem. Anybody who is trying to navigate the immigration rules must become a contortionist if they are to win the magic Biometric Residence Permit. Of course, the Home Office, the judge of this strange sport of extreme gymnastics, is inflexible and capricious. The net result is you have to justify your own existence by presenting a version of yourself that is comprehensible and acceptable to a powerful and hostile authority. It is a form of domination. I like to see the tortuous and conflicting stories that Ken told the Home Office as a form of resistance.
In all Ken’s time in the UK, despite repeated attempts, he was never able to justify his existence to the liking of the Home Office. Some of the time, particularly in the early days, he supported himself by working for employers who weren’t too fussy about checking his immigration status. Of course, doing that involved committing a criminal offence and Ken spent three months in one of Her Majesty’s prisons. He also spent more than 18 months in immigration removal centres whilst the Home Office tried to send him to various West or Central African countries. At the time of his death, Ken was preparing an application for leave to remain on long stay grounds. His lawyer warned him that these failed removals constituted a breach in his continuous residence. He would not, in fact, have beenable to rely on having lived in the UK for more than 20 years.
Ken was homeless for most of the time that he was in the UK. He slept rough or relied on the kindness of friends, family members or strangers to keep him sheltered and comparatively safe. I was privileged enough to get to know Ken back in 2016. He had damaged his knee, or had it damaged depending on whose story you believe, playing football with his friends. It required an operation and he had been discharged into emergency accommodation whilst he recovered. Although, as somebody without Leave to Remain, he had no entitlement to assistance under the Housing Act or to housing benefit, he could, whilst he had care needs, be accommodated by social services. Of course, once his knee had healed, he was facing another period on the streets. We were approached by Doctors of the World, who had a clinic in Brighton, to see if we could help with housing. We found a lovely host for Ken and then, when the housing co-op, Out Of Town, rented us our very first house, Ken became a founding resident.
I like to think that the support you were able to give Ken means that even if his life has been cruelly cut short by cancer, he had the stability and the love that, like any human, he needed to take part in communal life. Certainly he was a much loved member of the Jollof Café and Sussex Refugee and Migrant Self Support Group. His cooking for the café was no nonsense, oil, onion, tomato, chili, cassava, peas and rice, but none the worse for that. As long as you didn’t mind a bit of heat in your food, you knew that you would be full and happy by the time your plate was empty. He could be prickly, but his fundamental honesty made it easy to resolve conflicts. You knew that there was no hidden agenda. He would tell you what he thought and expect you to tell him likewise. As somebody who is very conflict averse, I have tried to learn from Ken. Challenging injustice or even behaviour that I find unwelcome might lead to angry words, but it does not need to lead to the loss of friendship. Indeed, in the end, it is easier to be friends with somebody who will tell you what they think and feel.
Two other qualities stood out for me. He was utterly sincere and he never gossiped. I knew Ken really well. He trusted me. I didn’t know, until after his death, that he had a brother in the United States and a sister in Dubai. He wasn’t trying to hide anything. He simply didn’t talk about other people behind their back. He would tell you to your face if you had annoyed him. He would not tell anybody else. I will miss his laughter, his hugs, his intimate knowledge of Brighton’s underbelly, his guitar, his dancing, his ability to delight children, his clear-cut takes on controversial penalty decisions, his presence, his being. I will miss him. He was my friend and now he’s gone.
I can almost give Ken the last word because he let me interview him for the newsletter a few years ago. Here is what he had to say about how he kept going:
First of all, I will thank our creator for giving me life and health to be here today and giving me two beautiful boys. Secondly I have faith. It is a journey that we are going through, but this journey has many bumpy roads which we have to overcome because no condition is permanent. Because I practice my religion and try to follow it. It teaches me to be patient, humble, kind and be tolerant and disciplined. I am only going on because of these terms. And I also believe that sometimes things do really happen to you, but you are not in control of it and that’s life, but you always have to find a solution for it. That’s life no matter what condition we are in, we still have to make the best use of it. I think that’s what keeps me going and getting stronger every day, I guess.
Thank you Ken and thank you everyone for all that you do,