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How Being Privately Fostered To White Families Impacted These People’s Lives

Kingsley Nebechi for BuzzFeed News A quick Google search for the term “farming” is likely to produce dozens of articles related to British agriculture, what challenges await the farming industry in the instance of a no-deal Brexit, or a viral TikTok account, depending on how deeply you dive.What these search results won’t quickly turn up…



How Being Privately Fostered To White Families Impacted These People’s Lives

Kingsley Nebechi for BuzzFeed News

A quick Google search for the term “farming” is likely to produce dozens of articles related to British agriculture, what challenges await the farming industry in the instance of a no-deal Brexit, or a viral TikTok account, depending on how deeply you dive.

What these search results won’t quickly turn up is insight into the practice of private fostering or adoption outside the purview of the local authority, a British phenomenon which gained notoriety in response to a growing population of African student families taking up temporary residence at British universities in the mid-1950s, coinciding with the pending decolonization of West Africa.

In 1955, the childcare journal Nursery World published its first advertisement for a private foster home for a West African child in Britain. By 1974, it was reported that of the estimated 10,000 children privately fostered in England, 6,000 were born to African student parents who personally paid for the arrangement.

Its legacy as a part of black British history has typically been limited to those who experienced it and the few who’d heard about it in passing. But its legacy prevails, and stories are finally being told through projects such as Farming, the directorial debut of British Nigerian actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. The film tells the 52-year-old’s personal story of being farmed to white foster parents in 1970s Tilbury, Essex, and forging a place for himself in a racist skinhead gang.

Similarly, Shola Amoo’s Sundance-selected film The Last Tree is a semiautobiographical account of the writer-director’s coming of age after being raised in rural Lincolnshire by a white foster mother.

Here, five people who were raised in white foster homes share their stories with BuzzFeed News about the complexities of integrating into black communities, remembering the African cultures they came from, and, where possible, rebuilding family relationships.

Derek Owusu, 31, Long Melford, Suffolk (fostered from 1988–1995)

Jolade Olusanya for BuzzFeed

When the writer Derek Owusu recalls his foster parents, he conjures up distinctive details, from their parenting style to their heavy smoking habits.

His foster mother was already in her sixties when he lived with her. Owusu described her as “very strict”.

“She had a cane which she used to beat us with when we misbehaved,” he said, “[but generally] it was good. They were lovely.”

Owusu shared the home in Long Melford, Sussex, with up to six other black children. While he knew that the other brown faces were not those of his biological siblings, he considered his foster mother and father to be his parents even though he had regular visits with his biological mum.

“It’s strange because I knew she was my mum, but I also knew my foster mum was my mum. There was no conflict in my mind there at all,” Owusu said.

Speaking about his foster father, the 31-year-old author told BuzzFeed News: “He was quiet. He didn’t get involved too much but was still friendly. I remember him teaching me how to read.”

His foster mother had a firm hand when it came to discipline, but plenty of other special memories defined his complex childhood.

“Christmases were always good. They were always fun. And birthdays. Christmas was very traditional. You would wake up, and there’d be a stocking on your bed. You’d get some presents out [of] the stocking, have a big Christmas dinner, [and] then we’d start pulling the crackers at the dinner table,” he said. “We always had a massive tree and loads of presents underneath it. It was great.”

It’s moments like these when Owusu is able to illustrate the stark differences between the childhood home he lost and the new life he would later be forced to adjust to.

In the summer of 1995, a 7-year-old Owusu made what he thought was a routine trip to London, but his mother had plans to keep him in the capital. “She just told me, ‘Oh yeah, you’re not going back there’, so I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to anybody, and she took me to Broadwater Farm.”

The contrast between his life in Suffolk and the north London housing estate was stark. The young Owusu struggled to come to terms with his new reality.

“When I came back to London with my real mum, there were no Christmases,” he said. “In Ghana they celebrate Christmas; they have fireworks and that sort of stuff. But in London, my mum was more concerned with working and making money than doing up the house with tinsel and Christmas trees and buying us presents and stuff like that.”

Owusu was bereft. “I think I tried to run away a few times. I wanted to go back badly. I must have cried for about three weeks straight. I didn’t want to do anything,” he said. “I wanted to go back to my family. My mum was just like, ‘Nope!’”

The “massive culture shock” of inner-city London life continued at primary school when all of a sudden a new identity was thrust upon him. “People were telling me that I’m an African, and I’m like, what the heck is an African?” said Owusu.

“I didn’t know what it was until I started seeing the adverts on TV with famine, emaciated children, all that kind of stuff. Obviously I was like, that’s embarrassing. It became an insult in school if someone asked you ‘Are you African?’ You’d get offended,” he said.

In private, Owusu’s inability to reconcile with his mother became more volatile and exacerbated by what he described as his own “behavioural problems”. By his own admission, he “started being a bit naughty” and, as a result, his mother would regularly beat him.

“A lot of the time I thought it was unfair, to the point where she was beating me and I thought, fuck this. So I started fighting back. So we would be fighting and stuff,” Owusu said. “So, yeah, living with my mum, that was a big challenge.”

In the thick of the friction, his mother would deliver the unfortunate news that his foster mother had died from cancer two years after he had left her home.

As he also explained in an essay that appears in Safe, a collection he edited of writing from black men, the news — and its delivery — had a deep-rooted impact on him. He told BuzzFeed News: “I was about 12. I don’t know what it meant for me. All I know is that it hurt me and I was crying a lot. I remember asking my mum why she didn’t tell me, and she was just like, ‘I was trying to protect you.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, if you say so.’”

Courtesy of Derek Owusu

Derek Owusu on his 3rd birthday.

Now in therapy, which he started attending after what he described as “a breakdown”, Owusu said he is starting to better understand how his unconventional start in life still affects him. His therapist has explained that he has yet to grieve properly for his foster mother and instead is carrying it around with him.

When asked how he felt being privately fostered and then returning to his birth mother, he replied, “It ruined my life”, before quickly backtracking. “I’m exaggerating. It hasn’t ruined my life, but it’s directly linked to my diagnosis. I have borderline personality disorder.”

“BPD affects everything,” explained Owusu. “It affects my relationships with people, friends, romantic, my sense of identity, all of these things. It just confuses everything. I can’t regulate my emotions, so it’s had a very negative effect on my life. I think the first part of healing was finding out what I had, so I’ve probably had this disorder since I was about 12 years old and been depressed since I was 12 years old.”

Owusu’s relationship with his mother remains a work in progress, and understanding her motives behind the decision to place him in foster care is still a point of contention. While he has a clearer picture of the challenges which underlined her choice, for him, it’s not quite enough.

“It doesn’t do anything to the pain. It still happened. I was still in care. I was still with my mum when I wanted to be with my other mum,” he said. “If I had stayed in foster care and never seen my biological mum again, at that point, I would not have cared at all. And I think it was hurting my mum at the time. Sometimes, even now, it hurts my mum.”

In a world of hypotheticals and what-ifs, the idea of being raised in a healthy black household for those early years of his life isn’t something he’d ever fully considered until this interview.

When presented with the thought of it, he is able to imagine how, at the very least, his hair and skin would have benefited. “The comb that they used to comb my hair — it wasn’t even an afro comb,” he said. “I don’t even know what it is, but I would have sores on my head and my skin. I don’t ever remember it being creamed.”

Beyond the surface, however, he said the biggest impact could have been to his self-esteem: “I think my self-esteem may have been built up if I was around a black family, especially if we were a black family in that white area, because then I know they would [have] put more emphasis on me to believe in myself, [to not] let people talk down to [me] — just to make sure that I was prepared for the world outside.”

Even with all the love poured into him by his foster parents tucked away in idyllic Long Melford, he admitted they failed to equip him with the tools needed to navigate society as a young black man. “That’s one thing my foster mother didn’t do. She didn’t prepare me for the world, for the racism. I never heard the word ‘racism’ or the word ‘racist’ in our house,” he said. “I didn’t know what those things were until I was in year 6. I think all of it could have made a big difference.”

MoJo, 26, Lincolnshire (fostered from 1993–2004)

Jolade Olusanya for BuzzFeed

MoJo, a 26-six-year-old social media influencer and mental health advocate, isn’t a young woman who lives with many regrets, but over the course of revisiting the many twists and turns life has thrown her way, the legal case over who would have primary custody of her is still a heartbreaking situation.

“She fought so hard for me, and I feel so stupid for not choosing her,” MoJo told BuzzFeed News as she recalled how as a 12-year-old she was torn between her Nigerian birth mother and the woman who took her in and raised her and then fought for custody in court. She chose her birth mother and it’s a choice she has struggled to make peace with.

When MoJo recalls her early years, she tells the tale of how her Nigerian mother arrived in Britain in the early ’90s, met her father, and conceived her as part of a scheme to secure legal residency. At least that’s the version of events she has long believed.

After a failed attempt to place her with a Nigerian family in east London at 3 months old, MoJo was relocated to rural Lincolnshire in the north of England, under the care of a foster parent she refers to as her grandmother.

“My foster grandma states that she fell in love with me from the moment she had me in her arms,” she said. Her memories from that time are pieced together with notes from personal health records and what her grandmother has relayed to her.

MoJo is measured and protective when it comes to speaking about her childhood home and how her foster grandmother raised her, starting with her guardian’s conscious decision to have children she cared for call her “grandma” as opposed to “mum”.

“She made that decision,” she said. “Because all of the kids were going to go on and be adopted, and it would confuse them to go from [birth] mum to temporary mum to adopted mum. So she said, ‘I will be your grandma. I’m attached to you but it’s still healthily detached.’ And I really appreciated and respected her for that.”

MoJo speaks passionately about her grandmother who she remains in contact with. “She’s the absolute love of my life,” she said. She is my hope in a very dark and lonely world. Her voice brightens my day. I love her because she’s taught me how to love freely, and I think that’s what I’m able to pour from. Because I’ve seen it given freely, I will always give back.”

Even with all the admiration, there are certain realities of her childhood that MoJo refuses to repress. “Grandma gave me a good experience, but it was never what I needed,” she said. “Because I love her, I don’t want to disrespect her at all.

“It was not meant to be her. It should have been my mum. Everyone gets picked up from school by their mum. I get picked up by someone who doesn’t even fucking look like me, and so it will always fall short. And that’s so hard to say because I am so majestically grateful. There’s so much beauty in the story, but when I look back I was confused. I felt like I pretended so well. My personality worked against me. I’m so good at pretending and knowing how to smile that you don’t actually see … this is awful.”

Courtesy of MoJo

MoJo with her foster grandmother

MoJo said she was bullied as a child, leading to a severe identity crisis as she tried to make sense of her differences in a largely white town and within the household bustling with children who didn’t resemble her.

She said: “I always questioned my skin colour and so did people in school. I remember being bullied at about 4 or 5 and having to miss reception for a week.

“Grandma tried. She gave me treats and let me bunk off school and told me I was pretty and got me all the things in the Argos catalogue, but it just wasn’t what I wanted. People wouldn’t see it as racism because it’s just kids ganging up on another kid, but it’s because she’s different. Why is she different? Her skin. So at the age of 4, I wasn’t directly being called a nigger. No, that was later on.”

MoJo’s birth mother would make the trip to Lincolnshire to see her roughly twice a year. In her primary school years, MoJo would return to London during the major holidays. She doesn’t recall the trips as happy affairs. MoJo said her mother was verbally abusive, picking on her weight and the state of her hair. At 5 years old, she said she was forced to have her natural hair chemically straightened.

It was during these visits to London that MoJo said she was sexually assaulted by someone close to her and much older. The incident, coupled with her difficult time in foster care, would push her into a dark place. “When I was 8, I tried to hang myself from my bunk bed,” MoJo said. “I didn’t get to play like normal. And grandma was so wishy-washy in her parenting.”

MoJo elaborated, explaining that when she had been racially abused, her foster mother would say things like “I’ve always thought your skin was beautiful, sweetheart, just ignore them.”

She felt that wasn’t enough to help deal with a child’s self-confidence. “That doesn’t do shit. That doesn’t do anything for you,” she said. “I hated my life and I despised it for a very long time, and I’m still trying to understand it now.”

The bustling household would be home to several children across the duration of years MoJo lived there, some of whom would return to their parents, while others would go on to be adopted, the revolving door of children while she remained. It made her feel “very unwanted”, she said.

“I’m thinking, if I’m in foster care, I must be getting adopted as well. Even though no one said it out loud, I had to be adopted at some point. Everyone else is in care. They seem to come and go, come and go, and I’m still fucking here. For 8 years, 9 years, 10 years, 11 years…the fuck?”

It was during her 12th year that her life would take the dramatic turn that she called “horrendous”. During a Christmas visit to her mother’s home in south London, it was decided that she would be staying indefinitely.

“She said to me, ‘You’re too big, you’ve put on too much weight. You’re not going to see your grandma again.’ I just remember falling to my knees and begging her, ‘Please don’t do this to me. Please.’ I literally begged for my life because I didn’t know [my own mother],” MoJo said.

In the years that followed, MoJo said her relationship with her biological family completely disintegrated.

MoJo’s struggles with her racial identity were not alleviated by her move to south London. Instead, the crisis deepened, and her confusion was quickly replaced with hatred. “Based on what the media had shown me and my experience of black people, I hated them. I really did.”

The 26-year-old began going to therapy in January this year. She received a preliminary assessment of “emotionally unstable personality disorder, which I didn’t understand the symptoms as well as I do now”, she said.

“In psychodynamic psychotherapy, it’s very intense. It’s linking everything back to my childhood. It’s very hard. Because as a performer of happiness, I don’t realise how damaged I am sometimes and how vulnerable I am and what’s still quite perverse and distorted in my mind because of my trauma.”

Nels Abbey, 39, Benson, Oxfordshire; Rugby, Warwickshire; and Derby, Derbyshire (1980–1990)

Jolade Olusanya for BuzzFeed

Nels Abbey was in foster care “practically from birth”, he told BuzzFeed News. Moving between three English towns, he eventually spent his early years in Derby. And what may have appeared unconventional to others was, for him, entirely normal.

“For a long time, I didn’t think there was anything strange about me having white parents. It was perfectly normal. Thinking back to that time, it was just the way it was,” Abbey said. “The same way in which anybody would view their parents is how you would view your foster parents when you’re born into it. Those are your parents. Mum and dad — for me as I knew them at the time — were a German lady and a white man of Scottish descent. They provided us a good life with stability and a happy home.”

Abbey formed a particularly good bond with his foster mum “more than I did even, for a long time, with my own mother, and it will probably be painful for my mum to read that”, he said.

Revisiting what he described as “the happiest days” of his childhood, Abbey shared how as a little boy with an appetite for Belgian buns he would become subtly aware of his differences on the doorstep of a bakery.

Aged 5, he was approached by a group of white teenagers hoping to find answers to a very peculiar question. “They were speaking in very sincere terms, and they said to me that they had heard that Velcro was made out of black people’s hair,” Abbey recalled. “I didn’t know what Velcro was, and I didn’t know what black people were. So I asked them, ‘What’s Velcro?’ And they showed it to me right there. And then, from that point, I just made the assumption that ‘black people’ is me.”

For a price, the teenagers asked a young Abbey if he would be willing to let them test out the theory by demonstrating on his own hair. “I was aware of the concept of money,” clarified the author of Think Like A White Man.

“I knew that I could get a little money from these guys and use it to buy myself a Belgian bun, which was my favourite thing in the world at the time, and so they brought out their tennis bags and they tried to put the hard bit of Velcro on my hair — but, of course, it didn’t really attach.

“You could feel the disappointment oozing out of these children as they walked away. And it wasn’t like these were kids who were doing this from a malicious perspective. It was like a science experiment, and as they walked away they left me with a bit of money. But they also left me with full awareness of what Velcro was and of the fact that I was a black person.”

As an adult, Abbey would grow to better understand the significance of his foster mother’s German heritage and how it enabled her to articulate racism to him in response to his treatment at school which often left him punished more harshly than his white counterparts.

“I was born in the ’80s, so 1945 was just 40 years earlier, which might seem like a long time but it’s really not. She was alive during the war era. She was young but she was very aware of what was going on. So the learnings of the post-war — particularly for the German population, where they had to confront this notion of what racism is and the impact it has — was clearly something she knew of.”

More than 100 miles away in west London, Abbey’s birth mother was making plans to bring together her children under one household. In one summer, his world as he knew it would be dismantled.

“I didn’t differentiate between the word ‘mum’ for both my mum and my foster mum. They were both just ‘mum’ to me. When I got to the age of 9 or so, we would then spend our summer holidays with our mum. I remember going to stay with our mum this particular summer. As it was about to end, my foster mum was supposed to come and pick us up. As I remember it, she called to confirm the details. And my mum said to my foster mum, ‘It won’t be necessary for you to come pick the children up anymore. I’ll take things forward from here with my children.’”

The news came as a shock for Abbey and created a “very traumatic experience” as he said his final goodbye.

“I remember my foster mum got on the telephone, and she was crying her eyes out. I was crying, but she was crying more. And she kept repeating, ‘They’re trying to take you away from me. They’re trying to take you away.’”

“When she put the phone down, I kept crying for a bit of time. And one of my aunts who was there looked at me and said, ‘Why are you crying? What’s so bad about us? Why don’t you like us? Why don’t you want to stay with us?’ And it did make me think, what is so bad about my mum or staying with them? And I kind of stopped crying from that point, and part of me almost felt as if I had a responsibility to not cry for my foster mum or to want to go back to my foster parents by virtue of the fact that it was kind of offensive to my actual parents. And to some degree, I suppose it is, in retrospect.”

Their tearful goodbye over the phone would be the last time Abbey spoke to his foster mother, and their blunt separation would be something he never properly dealt with: “You just move forward with life,” he added.

“My mum to this very day calls her ‘the nanny’. To a certain degree, I don’t really say anything about it because it’s a very complex situation. To my mum, that’s what she was. She was just someone looking after the children, but to us it became more than that. It was deep.”

Life in west London would come as “a big culture shock,” for the newly relocated Abbey, who had become a full-fledged member of the club of then-beloved children’s presenter Rolf Harris, who hosted the show Rolf’s Cartoon Club. (Harris was convicted in 2014 of sexually assaulting four underage girls.)

“Week one, it was all good. Everyone took a liking to me, and we were all cool. So week two, I thought I’d up the ante and see what these guys were into, and I made the stupid mistake of wearing my Rolf’s Cartoon Club badge to school. I didn’t know how unhip that was, and everyone started ripping into me. And I realised that London was not this centre of innocence that the countryside was.”

Similarly, Abbey came to realise how his Nigerian heritage further tanked his social capital in the playground and forced him to take extreme measures as an act of self-preservation.

He said: “Me and my Rolf Harris badge and my Nigerian heritage quickly became sources of ridicule. Luckily I had an Anglo-sounding surname, so I quickly lied and went into the closet. I said that I was from Barbados or something, and everyone believed me. And I stayed in that closet for a few years.”

Abbey would spend a further two years in west London before another dramatic change meant he spent most of his teenage years at a boarding school in Nigeria, where he received a baptism of African culture by full immersion. It was during this period he would receive the heartbreaking news that his foster mother had died.

On the news of her death, he said: “I think my foster mum taught me what love meant, and I really did feel loved. She wasn’t perfect, but I do know she loved me very dearly. I really did feel that — particularly when I think back to when I was in Nigerian boarding school and I found out she was dead. I found out in a letter and I stayed up all night long crying.”

The proud British Nigerian spoke with gratitude for the different cultural lanes he’s lived in. He credited both sets of parents for instilling a strong sense of values and moral good.

“The life that I have lived with foster care, with my mum, with my dad, with boarding school and everything else,” he said. “I cannot think of a different life, because that was my normality.

“Don’t get me wrong, when I speak to other people it’s now that I realise how crazily abnormal that was. The foster care process, I am a product of that environment. That environment helped shaped me into who I am today, and I’m very grateful to my foster mum and dad and of course my parents too.”

Gina Knight, 36, London (fostered from 1984)

Jolade Olusanya for BuzzFeed

Gina Atinuke Knight was born 10 weeks premature at a private London clinic. Shortly after her birth, she and her Nigerian mother travelled to Nigeria for a short stay. They returned to the UK when she was 11 months old, and she was placed in private fostering by her mother, who “never came back”, Knight said.

What was designed to be a temporary arrangement became permanent. It would become a defining feature of Knight’s childhood and forever change the mother–daughter bond. When Knight was 6, her case was brought before the courts, where it was decided that she would remain in the permanent care of the family she had lived with since she was an infant.

From what she can recall, Knight said, “The judge determined that for my benefit, because I had been raised by these people for six years, that the best place for me was with them.”

She continued: “As a young girl I obviously thought that my mum didn’t really care. … There was no reason for her not to keep me. She wasn’t poor, she wasn’t unable, she wasn’t so very young. She was capable of taking care of me.”

As an adult, and a mother now herself to two children, Knight said she has come to understand the challenges that may have explained her mother’s absence. “As time goes on and you figure out all the aspects of the story, you kind of think, ‘Oh, well, actually that might’ve been the reason for that,’” she said.

The feeling of abandonment complicated their relationship. Even when her mother did reappear, their encounters would be cold. “I would see her every now and again,” she said. “She would visit me, or she would send an uncle or an auntie to visit me, but I was always very standoffish because I was a child and then a teenager, so I was like, ‘I don’t really want anything to do with you.’”

Knight said that today their relationship is civil, but they don’t really talk.

Knight was raised in multicultural southeast London, an important detail that offered her a strong sense of identity even in the midst of an unorthodox home life. While she was the “odd one out” inside her white foster family, the community she lived and socialised in reflected her cultural identity.

“I was always very aware of being different,” she recalled. “A lot of people ask, ‘When did you realise that they weren’t your parents?’ There was never any doubt, for obvious reasons, and also I always felt like I wasn’t really their child, I was just sort of like…an extended house guest for a really long time.”

Her foster father, she believes, tolerated her presence, but rarely expressed any affection. “It wasn’t a loving relationship. It was just more of a financial transaction. I personally felt at the time, and probably still do, that I was a bit of a burden on him,” she said.

She is cautious when speaking about her foster mother who would become her primary caregiver until she died when Knight was 21 years old. “She was quite a normal mum, very much a mother bear–type,” she said. “She was protective of her children, and that’s what I remember about my mum. She was very loving and protective of anyone that she was taking care of. She was very loyal, was very protective of them.

“But then she was also quite oblivious as well. So she would almost get on with her everyday life, I think she just didn’t really… I don’t know. I’m not going to talk about her anymore because it makes me a bit sad, so I’ll leave it.”

Knight did experience some frustration of being raised in a household where the only person who appeared to validate her difference was herself. “I just don’t think that a lot of these working-class people had the capacity to articulate what we would go through as black children being raised by white people,” she said. “It’s just not something they could fathom in their head.”

She went on: “There was no differentiation. The differences were obviously there, but there was no kind of acknowledgement of those differences. In turn, you don’t really know how to navigate the feelings that you’re having because they’re not being acknowledged by the people around you.”

As a result, Knight said, the complexity of her living arrangement meant she did struggle at times to really connect with both her black and white friends. “In essence you are transracial, and I hate that word, but it’s a very difficult space, and I don’t think at that time there was enough knowledge,” she said.

She is critical of an entire system that left her with little say in how she would be raised and even less support about how best it could be done. “Those social workers should have done more to prepare [the foster parents] for what I would go through growing up and how I would feel and ways in which to help me navigate that, and I don’t think that was done at all,” she said. “Especially not back then. That’s just not something that was discussed.

“I don’t think they were pulled aside and asked, ‘Do you understand what you’re sort of going to be doing going forward? That you’re going to be looking after someone who is not the same race as you. Do you know what kind of impact that’s going to have on that child’s life?’ I don’t think those conversations were ever had.”

Knight’s experiences and discovery of other black British adults who were also in the foster care system at that particular point in time stirred her into building a private online space for that community. Reflecting on some of the “horror stories”, she is equally critical of the parents who volunteered their children as she is of foster parents and social workers who don’t consider the damaging impact transracial fostering can have.

“I just don’t think that that generation of parents thought it through and thought of the dangers that could befall the children in some of these circumstances,” she said. “Not just psychologically, but physically and emotionally. It was a very dangerous thing to do because people have put advertisements in papers, and you don’t know these people. You don’t really know what they could be doing to that child.”

Knight said she could never imagine putting her two daughters in the situation she was put in and finds it hard to forgive the decisions her biological mother made.

However, becoming a mother for the first time in 2012 was the impetus to seek peace. “I just decided that obviously I needed to know certain things, because I’m about to have a child, so I need to know about my family history,” she explained.

Today, Knight admits that she still sometimes feels “out of place”. But through her skills as a hairstylist, she has been able to grow and nurture relationships with other black women. “I’d never really connected with anyone, so for me it was all about hair. And that was the only way that I could find to talk to other black women and form friendships,” she said. She now runs an award-winning wig business.

Knight, a mother of two, is fiercely protective of her own little family and is a staunch believer that when it comes to caring for children of other ethnicities, there is no room for so-called colour-blind politics.

She urges prospective parents for black children to “make sure that they’re doing it for the right reasons”.

“I think that if you’re not 100% committed to antiracism, then you have no place to really be adopting outside of your race, or even adopting at all — because you should be antiracist,” she said. “If you think that all a child needs is love, and that’s it, that they don’t need any sort of other tools to be able to function in life, you’re probably wrong.”

For Knight, the worst thing a parent can do is to say that they “don’t see colour”.

“That’s bullshit, and it’s actually detrimental to that child’s wellbeing that you don’t see their race — because that means you don’t see them,” she said. “I think you just have to be aware of race and not try and brush it under the carpet and try to be in this little colour-blind bubble … because this utopian world just doesn’t exist.”

David Gorgeous, 39, Brighton, East Sussex (fostered from 1980–1990)

Jolade Olusanya for BuzzFeed

If you ask David Gorgeous, he will tell you that he had three mothers.

“It was quite funny to feel like any mum that I showed more love to, I would be hurting the other mothers,” he told BuzzFeed News. “It’s just that I love them differently because they’re different people. What I can speak to one foster mum about is different to how I would approach my biological mum. I wouldn’t tell my biological mum everything, but I would mostly tell my foster mum everything because the way she receives information is made different.”

Gorgeous, as one of the thousands of West African children farmed out to white working-class families, characterised the three matriarchs and three very different households from his childhood.

“I moved from the first home which was free and open, to the second home which was a bit more disciplined and more about education, to my Nigerian home, where it’s ‘Don’t talk unless you’re spoken to, be respectful, and listen to your parents’,” he said.

Appeasing the adults in his life and the weight of loyalty would create a splintering effect which the 39-year-old experiences even to this day.

He said: “I had to learn how to be totally different people. Even now when I go back to see my foster mum, ex-partners have said to me that they can see a total difference.”

A self-described comedian, Gorgeous works as a makeup artist. His story of being farmed begins in early 1980s Brighton with a couple who had no children of their own but had opened their home to other black children before fostering him. While he can speak at great length about the open and progressive environment they created, it was in that household where he was sexually abused by a family friend.

“I never went into detail, and that person passed away,” he said. “I guess that’s something I will always keep private because there’s no point in time that they’re going to face justice. It was a sick man who needed help. I was extremely young. Only as an adult I figured out what the hell was happening.”

Nevertheless, the experience still affects him. “It affects me and my relationships,” he said. “How close I am to people and how close I let people in — I say I’m an open book but with glued pages.”

At the age of 6, he was relocated to a second home in Brighton to join his biological brother; however, a stark difference left him unable to adjust and longing for his previous family. “They were lovely, but I just didn’t settle there,” he said. “It was mainly because I was so used to my foster mum. There was a lot more rules than I’d ever had before. My second foster mum had five children of her own, then me and my brother, so it was very spread.

“I went from being the sole person of attention to a pecking order in the second foster home. That took me a while to get into, and so I withdrew within myself a little bit more than I had done in the first foster home.”

When it came to identity, for Gorgeous, coming into manhood took precedence over any other descriptor; for his blueprint, he looked to his first foster father. “I was taught to be a man first before being black, white, or anything else,” he recalled. “When my foster father would dress up in a suit, I would dress up in a suit, like at special occasions. He was teaching me how to be a boy first and then a man, rather than differentiating by colour.”

It was his first foster mother who first spoke to him about race.

Courtesy of David Gorgeous

David as a child pictured on his foster father’s lap.

“As a child, I didn’t identify with black or white, but my foster mum was very clear: I was her little black boy, so she was very much establishing me as a black boy,” he said.

And nothing punctuated his blackness more so than the outside world. Gorgeous recalled his time in primary school, where he would be called every name but the one his parents actually gave him.

“I would always hear ‘nig nog’, ‘golliwog’, the n-word. I didn’t know what those names meant. I didn’t know why I was being called those names, and for some reason ‘golliwog’ really upset me. I don’t know why, but it really did. They were calling me a name which wasn’t my name, and they were being mean, even down to adults calling me ‘golliwog’.”

His foster mother’s response was to reassure him and attempt to translate the way in which racism operated: “She tried to put me at ease as much as she could and tried to make sure that I felt comfortable in my own skin. She made me aware that we are different colours and some people aren’t so welcoming to different people of different colours. So she tried to put it in as simple terms as possible for me.”

In contrast to his first foster mother, his Nigerian mother, whom he described as “strong” and “bold”, kept in regular contact and routinely took sons for the summer holidays. For that, Gorgeous considers himself fortunate. “She very much stayed involved. We weren’t just left by her,” he said.

With his biological father back in Nigeria, where he had started a new family, his mother was left as a single parent, working in London to ensure that the families fostering Gorgeous were paid on time.

By the time Gorgeous was 9, his fostering experience would come to an end. He went from Brighton to Britxon, in south London, within walking distance of the now-iconic Windrush Square. “I went from being surrounded by white people — the only black in the village — to being literally surrounded by black people. In school, understanding there was Nigerians, Ghanaians, Jamaicans — and everyone wanted to be West Indian at that time as well. So it was a culture shock and a half because I was a very British child. I wasn’t used to that.”

The adjustment would be better described as a free fall, with very little explanation or support for the transition — all aspects that Gorgeous believes are “harmful”.

“You’re not explaining to [children that] they’re just moving from home to home. There was no social workers involved. There was no psychological support. It was just literally move, move, now you’re back with your Nigerian family you should be a Nigerian boy.”

By the age of 13, Gorgeous found himself embarking on another journey. On a family holiday to Nigeria, he suddenly found himself being fitted for a school uniform. “The day that me and my mum were supposed to come back to London was the day they dropped me and my brother off for boarding school,” he said.

Despite his protests, he spent two years at the school becoming familiar with his Nigerian heritage.

Gorgeous now sits on a panel for foster children, where he hopes that his experience outside the formal system can be used to improve the experience of England’s thousands of children in need of homes. In England, children of black and mixed children are more likely to be placed in care, with the majority of looked-after children being survivors of abuse or neglect.

Regarding his experience of being raised in a white household, Gorgeous has no immediate objections to transracial fostering, but he is mindful of what is at stake. “I wanted to give back and do something, and this comes across so much in terms of matching the keywords,” he said, “so you have to try and match a child with familiar cultures, religion, race.

“Sometimes a child just needs a home, and this is how I believed for many years, but being on the fostering panel is like feeling that sometimes if you don’t match correctly it can go so wrong.”

Reflecting on his life’s trajectory as charted by his mother’s choice, Gorgeous reserves judgment and instead poses a hypothetical question: “What could I have expected her to do? She chose the best decision she could based on her circumstances. At the same time, there’s always going to be scars and things that happened that we’ve had to overcome from those foster homes.” ●


A quote from this story was removed after publication to protect the privacy of a family member.

Kingsley Nebechi for BuzzFeed News

Click here to see more stories from Black History Month 2019.

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Stressed Students, Bridesmaids Drama, And More: An Advice Column From A Total Amateur

Hi! A while ago I asked the BuzzFeed Community to tell me a problem they’re having, so that I — a person with absolutely zero professional qualifications to help anyone — could give them advice. So, here are the results! NBC 1. “Dear Andy,I have NO idea where I should go to school… I’m applying…



Stressed Students, Bridesmaids Drama, And More: An Advice Column From A Total Amateur

Hi! A while ago I asked the BuzzFeed Community to tell me a problem they’re having, so that I — a person with absolutely zero professional qualifications to help anyone — could give them advice. So, here are the results!



“Dear Andy,

I have NO idea where I should go to school… I’m applying to 12 schools, 10 on the west coast and two in BC. I’m a high achieving student (I’m in five AP classes, president of two clubs, volunteering and a job, etc.) and I don’t want to go somewhere that’s all about the pressure, but I still want a high quality education. I’m so lost, help!”

—The Overwhelmed Student

Dear Overwhelmed,

You posted this just to dunk on all of us academically, didn’t you?

Kidding. In all seriousness, you can get a very good education at a bunch of different schools. And when you’re done, you’ll have a degree that probably nobody will ever verify! In my completely amateur opinion, the only reason people think the “Ivy League” schools are better is because a lot of wealthy, well-connected people go there (and have gone there), and therefore when you graduate from one, you’re more likely to get in at some fancy law firm or whatever because of your connections. So if you aren’t planning on being like, IDK, the CFO of Waystar Royco or something, just pick the school that you really want to go to. Where are you going to be happy living? Is one of the schools in a city you already want to move to and/or the city that has jobs in your future profession? Is it important for you to be close to home? How many Wendy’s are there on campus, and do they carry Spicy Nuggets? These are the questions you should be asking.

Oh, wait, actually…forget all that. Go to the school that will cost the least when you factor in tuition, room & board, and any scholarships you might get. Student loans are a curse and you want as little of them as possible. In the end, you might not even end up doing the thing you studied in college. Wanna know what degree I have? A BFA in Theater Performance. An acting degree. And now here I am, writing for a website. You’ll be fine.



“Dear Andy,

I got married this summer, and I decided to choose only family to be my bridesmaids. For me this included three female cousins and my (now) sister-in-law. My husband, on the other hand, decided to do a mix of family as well as friends from high school for his groomsmen. I had no problem with this at all.

I had a few friends who I knew would expect to be bridesmaids, so I made it clear to them from the very beginning that I would be choosing family only as to not have a huge wedding party, but I told them they were not any less important to me and that I still wanted them to be involved in the wedding as much as they felt comfortable with. Most of the friends I had this conversation with were very understanding, however one straight up told me that she was disappointed (this was two years before the wedding).

Now it’s been a few months since I got married and this friend (a friend from childhood) started talking about the wedding. She told me she felt left out of the wedding since she wasn’t part of the wedding party. It particularly bothered her that my husband included friends and I didn’t. She then proceeded to tell me that it was difficult for her to be there the day of my wedding because of these feelings. AT MY WEDDING. She also included the fact that she didn’t want to upset me and that it doesn’t change our friendship. But if that is the case then why say anything in the first place? I’ve already said one too many times the reason for my bridesmaid choices and how important she is to me regardless. And she says she understands. I just wish she would let it go. Ever since this conversation I feel like I’ve been seeing her in a whole new light.

I do care about her feelings, but I stick by my decision and I don’t regret anything. I feel like I’ve done everything I can to make her feel better.”

—The Besieged Bride

[TL;DR: Bride had only family as bridesmaids, groom had some friends in the mix, bride’s childhood friend felt left out and complained about it a few months after the wedding.]

Dear Besieged,

Question one: How drunk was your friend when she brought this up to you? If she was like, a 6 or more out of 10, I say let’s give it a pass and hope she got it out of her system.

Question two: Has your friend had a wedding of her own yet? If yes, then she should’ve understood the situation, because wedding planning is a special kind of hell and inevitably you have to make difficult decisions like this one that might hurt people’s feelings. So if you’ve planned your own wedding, you know the deal and you’re able to say to yourself, “It’s their wedding, I’m just going to be supportive and have fun.” If she hasn’t gotten married yet, she’ll realize later that it was totally inappropriate to complain about this to you. Hopefully.



“Dear Andy,

I have been taking so many of the relationship quizzes on BuzzFeed but they all say I’m single. The major problem is I have an S.O. Is she just faking or am I?? Help me!! Is my girlfriend not actually mine or are we real?”

—The Quizzical Quiz-Taker

Dear Quizzical,

You’re not real. This is all a simulation.

—Andy (or am I?)


“Dear Andy,

I’m not sure where to live. I live in Milwaukee, WI, right now. Moved here three years ago for school, but that fell through because Milwaukee is friggin expensive. My family wants me to move back to the other side of the state, towards Minneapolis/St. Paul. What should I do?”

—Meandering the Midwest

Dear Midwest,

Get the fuck out of there, it’s so cold! Listen, I used to live in Michigan, and it was depressing because it was grey and miserable nine months out of the year. Now I live in Southern California, it’s sunny and beautiful and my vitamin D levels are through the roof. Migrate south, seriously.

But if you HAVE to stay, I will say that everybody who lives in Minneapolis seems to LOVE Minneapolis for some reason.



“Dear Andy,

My problem is that I struggle with feeling attractive. I started taking birth control when my boyfriend and I started dating (six years ago). I started gaining the weight right after. I’m now a size 12 and my boyfriend is a slender guy. I haven’t felt attractive in the last year. I gained so much weight at one point I was a size 16. I’m back to a 12 and trying to lose weight again. I don’t feel sexy or beautiful in any way. I prefer to keep my shirt on during sex now. I don’t know why my boyfriend still finds me attractive. I have a tummy, I have rolls when I sit down, I just don’t know what he sees anymore. Any advice you could give me would be much appreciated.”

—Struggling With Size

Dear Struggling,

First off, don’t worry about your boyfriend. Clearly he finds you attractive, and when you actually care about someone, the size tags on their clothes don’t matter to you at all. Appreciate that fact and find some security there.

Now, consider the possibility that if your boyfriend finds you attractive at any size, you can too! It’s not easy. It requires shedding every bit of toxic influence that the media and our society overall has thrown at you for your entire life. That takes time and work.

But if you are worried about your physical health at all, consult a doctor. There are many different types of birth control and like 40 different pills, and everyone reacts to each one differently. It can take time to find the right one, and not every doctor is going to be helpful about it. Advocate for yourself if you’re unhappy with your medication. You may have done all of this already and I’m just sitting here mansplaining BC to you, but if so at least you can cross that off your Mansplaining Bingo Card.


That’s it for this week. But if you’re having a problem that you need advice about, let me know! It could be anything: petty arguments that you need a judge to decide who was right and who was wrong, help making life decisions, relationship issues — I’m your completely unqualified man. Email (for total anonymity) or leave a comment here!

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Doctors Can Already Refuse To Prescribe The Pill. The Religious Discrimination Bill Could Make That Easier.

The Australian government is pushing ahead with its proposed religious discrimination laws, and doctors and lawyers are concerned the legislation could allow practitioners to deny or delay medical care when it comes to reproductive health.But as signs in GP’s offices provided to BuzzFeed News show, doctors are already refusing reproductive healthcare under the current guidelines,…



Doctors Can Already Refuse To Prescribe The Pill. The Religious Discrimination Bill Could Make That Easier.

The Australian government is pushing ahead with its proposed religious discrimination laws, and doctors and lawyers are concerned the legislation could allow practitioners to deny or delay medical care when it comes to reproductive health.

But as signs in GP’s offices provided to BuzzFeed News show, doctors are already refusing reproductive healthcare under the current guidelines, before a patient has even walked into an appointment.

Laura — who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy — saw this sign in the waiting room for her GP’s office in Sydney’s north. It makes clear the doctor will not prescribe any kind of contraception or referrals for sterilisation or in-vitro fertilisation.

“I just felt really angry that you can basically say ‘I’m not interested in seeing women aged between 15 or 16 and 50’, and that a bulk billing doctor receiving Commonwealth funding refuses to see certain people,” she told BuzzFeed News. “It is within the law to go to the doctor and ask for contraception so I don’t feel like it should be the right of the doctor to refuse it.”

Laura said it was “really alienating” and she was shocked that the sign was allowed under current guidelines.

“It seems to contravene a woman’s right to access healthcare and it sends a really negative message to young women who might be sitting in the waiting room,” she said.

The doctor can be booked online and Laura worries that some patients might not see this sign and then be refused care.

A Melbourne midwife saw this sign in her GP’s surgery making clear the doctor would not give referrals for abortion and featuring the Badge of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a Catholic devotional article.

The sign itself does not breach Victorian law, nor professional guidelines governing abortion, as a termination has not yet been requested by — and therefore hasn’t been denied to — the patient. If a patient was to request a termination, the law dictates that they must be referred to someone who will provide it.

“According to the legislation, a patient who requests an abortion must be referred to another practitioner — we expect this law to be upheld by all clinicians,” a Victorian Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

Chair of the Australian Medical Association Ethics and Medico-Legal Committee, Dr Chris Moy, said the religious discrimination bill was, to some degree, “a solution searching for a problem”.

“With respect to abortion every [jurisdiction] pretty much allows people to conscientiously object,” Moy told BuzzFeed News. “Most people accept at this moment in time that there can be conscientious objection, but the biggest controversies have always been about your obligations after that and the impact of a delay in treatment should be considered by doctors.”

Australian Government

Religious Discrimination Bill explanatory notes.

The association’s position statement on conscientious objection for any treatment says the impact of a delay in treatment, and whether it might constitute a significant

impediment, should be considered by a doctor if they conscientiously object: “For example, termination of pregnancy services are time critical.”

Moy said doctors need to consider not only their own needs but those of the wider community.

“We as doctors have a right to conscientious objection if we have deeply held beliefs but we cannot walk away from patients and we owe a responsibility to patients in urgent situations,” he said.

Equality Australia chief executive and lawyer Anna Brown said the government’s religious discrimination bill gives additional rights to health professionals who wish to refuse treatment to patients based on personal religious beliefs.

She said it makes it difficult for any health organisation — hospitals, pharmacies, clinics — to enforce standards requiring medical staff to provide “judgement-free treatment, or even treatment at all, regardless of any personal religious views”.

“Because you will not be able to ask current or prospective employees about their religious objections, employers will not — and cannot — know whether someone is willing to do the job until it’s too late,” she said.

“[If the bill passes] a health centre cannot ask its GP whether he objects to prescribing the pill before a patient seeking access books in for an appointment. This will make it very difficult for hospitals, clinics and practices to take steps to ensure continuity of care for their patients.”

Australian Government

Religious Discrimination Bill explanatory notes.

Brown said the bill would “expressly authorise adverse impacts on patient health” to accomodate the religious objections of a health professional, which could have serious implications for patients, particularly those outside major cities.

“If a pharmacist in a small town refuses to dispense a script, how far should the nearest pharmacy be, and how much should it cost to get there, before the law will protect the patient?” she said. “This law doesn’t provide an answer.”

Brown predicted the law would allow “religious judgement” to interfere with the relationship between health professionals and patients.

“Patients will have less protection if a health worker makes certain discriminatory statements during a consultation on the basis of their religious belief,” she said. “For example, women may lose existing discrimination protections if they are told they should ‘pray for forgiveness’ for having sex outside of marriage, falling pregnant outside of wedlock, or sleeping with other women.”

A spokesperson for the Medical Board of Australia told BuzzFeed News that its code states doctors have the right to “not provide or directly participate in treatments if they conscientiously object”.

“However, they must inform patients and colleagues, and not impede patients’ access to treatment,” the spokesperson said.

The code is “not a substitute” for the law.

“If there is any conflict between the code and the law, the law takes precedence,” the spokesperson said. “Anyone who has concerns about the actions of a registered health practitioner, such as a medical practitioner, is encouraged to report this to AHPRA so the concerns can be investigated.”

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists president Vijay Roach said the college’s response to the bill is consistent with its position on conscientious objection, the right of patients to access health care and the duty of a medical practitioner to ensure that a woman can access the health care she needs.

“RANZCOG respects the personal position of all of our members, and recognises the right to conscientious objection in relation to provision of certain aspects of healthcare,” Roach told BuzzFeed News.

“However, the college emphasises that health practitioners owe a duty of care and must refer the patient to other health practitioners or health services where a woman is able to receive the health care she needs.”

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The Sick Refugees Held In Island Camps Have Become A Defining Political Issue For Australia

The health of the hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees held on island nations in the Pacific has become a defining political issue for Australia. World Vision / PR IMAGE A Sri Lankan asylum seeker looks out to sea on Manus Island in 2017. More than seven years have passed since Australia reopened its offshore…



The Sick Refugees Held In Island Camps Have Become A Defining Political Issue For Australia

The health of the hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees held on island nations in the Pacific has become a defining political issue for Australia.

World Vision / PR IMAGE

A Sri Lankan asylum seeker looks out to sea on Manus Island in 2017.

More than seven years have passed since Australia reopened its offshore detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru. There, and in Papua New Guinea, refugees and asylum seekers were sent to wait in limbo for years, the human collateral of a harsh policy. Many got sick, both physically and mentally.

Fast forward to today. The government desperately wants to repeal the “medevac” law, which, by giving doctors a greater say, makes it easier for the hundreds still in island detention to access medical treatment in Australia.

The issue has become a defining one, and debate on the medevac repeal is likely to feature in Australia’s final political sitting week of 2019.

But how did we get here?

When Kevin Rudd unseated Julia Gillard to return as prime minister in 2013, he made a surprise announcement: nobody who came to Australia by boat in the future would ever be settled in Australia.

Australian Government

Gillard, who led a centre-left government, had reopened detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island for offshore processing in 2012, as thousands of people tried to make it to Australia by boat. But Rudd’s ban on ever being re-settled in Australia was new.

The policy was justified as an attempt to discourage people from taking the treacherous boat journey to Australia and halt the people smuggling trade in its tracks.

When the conservative Coalition won the election in September 2013, they doubled down on Rudd’s pledge and introduced Operation Sovereign Borders — a military-led operation that includes intercepting boats before they arrive in Australian waters and turning them back to where they came from.

The numbers of potential refugees in the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island escalated, starting from Rudd’s declaration.

Eoin Blackwell / AAPIMAGE

Asylum seekers at the Manus Island detention centre in 2014.

By June 2014, there were more than 2,500 asylum seekers in offshore detention: 1,198 men on Manus Island, and 1,268 people on Nauru — including women and children.

24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Khazaei, who was held on Manus Island, died from a leg infection in September 2014.

Refugee Action Coalition / PR IMAGE

After Khazaei contracted the leg infection, he developed flu-like symptoms. After three days, the Australian government approved his transfer to Port Moresby. He had a series of cardiac arrests. He was transferred to Brisbane, Australia, but he died a week later. A coroner would later find that Khazaei could have lived if he had received appropriate medical care when his condition first deteriorated. He found that Khazaei would have survived if he had been evacuated to Australia for medical treatment earlier.

Darren England / AAPIMAGE

Khazaei was the third man to die in offshore detention. Earlier in 2014, Reza Berati was murdered by security guards at the Manus Island regional processing centre, and Sayed Ibrahim Hussein drowned.

Meanwhile the number of people needing medical treatment for serious and complex complex in Australia was escalating. But in mid-2015, the government put on the brakes, deciding transfers to Australia should become “increasingly rare”.


In 2013, 92 people were transferred to Australia. The following year that number went up to 362. The first half of 2015 saw similarly high numbers of transfers.

But in May 2015, after a review of the number and purpose of medical transfers, the government decided they should become “increasingly rare”. According to a directive issued by immigration department secretary Michael Pezzullo, a patient would need to be in a “life and death” situation, or one “involving the risk of life-time injury or disability”, to come to Australia. He said he expected at least half the asylum-seekers temporarily in Australia for medical treatment to be returned within a month.

Previously, family members of a patient were automatically transferred with them. After the review, the immigration department would decide on a case-by-case basis.

The review also led the government to invest in more medical facilities and expertise on Nauru and Manus.

A failed legal challenge to offshore detention saw people take to the streets for the Let Them Stay campaign at the start of 2016.

Carol Cho / AAPIMAGE

A Let Them Stay rally in Sydney in February 2016.

On Feb. 3, 2016 the High Court rejected a claim from a refugee that Australia’s system of offshore detention was illegal.

In the wake of the case, refugee advocates launched the Let Them Stay campaign, demanding that 267 people in Australia for medical treatment (including 37 babies and more than 50 children) not be sent back to Nauru and Manus Island. The campaign achieved widespread support, with churches offering to provide sanctuary, and the 267 people were able to stay in Australia.

Paul Miller / AAPIMAGE

Demonstrators in Sydney in February 2016.

While the government largely stopped returning people to offshore detention, transfer numbers dropped dramatically.

Supplied: Department of Home Affairs.

In the calendar year 2016, just 73 people came to Australia from offshore detention. The number fell to 37 in 2017.

Although it is not government policy to keep sick refugees from offshore detention in Australia, since the Let Them Stay campaign very few people have been returned, even if they are not granted a visa. The last person went back to Nauru voluntarily in April 2018.

In the middle of 2016, two more refugees aged in their 20s died.

Dave Hunt / AAPIMAGE

A vigil for Omid Masoumali outside the inquest into his death in February 2019.

Omid Masoumali, 26, set himself on fire on Nauru on April 29, 2016. More than 24 hours later, he was flown to Brisbane, where he died several days later. Just two weeks later, Rakib Khan died at 26 from a suspected overdose.

A groundbreaking case in May 2016 laid the foundations for a legal campaign to get sick refugees to Australia.

Paul Miller / AAPIMAGE

The National Justice Project’s George Newhouse, who represented the woman.

A young woman refugee who became pregnant after a sexual assault on Nauru, and wanted an abortion, brought the case in the Federal Court. The Australian government wanted to take her to Papua New Guinea for the abortion, but the court found she could not receive a safe or legal termination there. The government gave evidence that they did not bring her to Australia because her case was not “exceptional” enough to comply with their strict policy.

In a landmark ruling, Justice Mordecai Bromberg found that the Australian government had a duty of care to the people it holds offshore.

In November 2016, the United States agreed to resettle refugees from Nauru and Manus Island.

Saul Loeb / Getty Images

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and president Donald Trump meet in the Oval Office in February 2018.

After a famously heated phone call, US president Donald Trump agreed to continue the arrangement, which prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had negotiated with the Obama administration. The first refugees left for the US in September 2017.

In the face of the “unique and complex” medical problems facing refugees on Nauru and Manus Island, the government convened a taskforce of bureaucrats to decide who would come to Australia.

Mick Tsikas / AAPIMAGE

Home affairs department secretary Michael Pezzullo.

The transitory persons committee, established in mid-2016, sat without a doctor among its members for nine months. Meeting records obtained by BuzzFeed News showed the committee discussed the department’s reputation and the likelihood of litigation when considering what to recommend. Until the medevac law, the secretive committee was the forum where transfer decisions were made.

The memo setting up the transitory persons committee noted that the government continued to see “unique and complex” cases, involving a combination of physical health, mental health and child protection issues. It said the committee’s purpose was to consider the “medical, legal, diplomatic, policy and financial implications” of medical transfers to Australia.

After reading the minutes, a former doctor on Nauru, Nick Martin, told BuzzFeed News: “They’re coming at it from the position of, what can we do to keep this person out of Australia? That a dangerous point to start off from.”

Taiwan and Australia secretly reached a deal in September 2017, allowing sick refugees to receive high-quality care for complex medical conditions — without being brought to Australia.

Solomon203 / Wikimedia

The first transfers happened in January 2018. At least 33 people have gone from Nauru to Taiwan for treatment, but many have refused to go.

Between August 2016 and November 2017, five more detainees died. Four had been held on Manus Island, and one on Nauru.

Building on the May 2016 decision, a flood of cases seeking medical transfers from offshore detention hit the Federal Court throughout 2018.

Refugee Action Coalition / PR IMAGE

A group of men protest in the Manus Island detention centre in November 2017.

Some of the cases were brought on behalf of children on Nauru suffering from serious psychiatric problems.

All up, lawyers brought 48 court cases between December 2017 and February 2019 to have clients transferred for treatment. They won every case.

Lawyers who fought the cases have said the government routinely ignored requests to evacuate desperately ill refugees, forcing lawyers to front court on weekends and in the middle of the night.

In the midst of the legal onslaught, the Department of Home Affairs formalised its hardline policy: nobody would come to Australia unless there were “exceptional” circumstances.

Supplied: Department of Home Affairs.

The policy, from June 2018, stated that transfer requests would only be considered if a patient had a “critical and complex” medical condition that would result in their death or “permanent, significant disability” if they were not transferred to Australia.

The transitory persons committee would later discuss whether there was “room for compassion” in the policy.

A health crisis was building. Evidence grew that the environment of offshore detention not only made it more difficult to access medical treatment, but was causing health problems in the first place.

Danny Casey / AAPIMAGE

MSF doctors addressing the media in Sydney in October 2018.

By mid-2018, health contractor International Health and Medical Services had started regularly reporting that the environment on Nauru was a factor causing ill health among refugees and asylum seekers.

International medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières agreed. “Living under a policy of indefinite processing creates a perpetual state of despair, making it impossible for asylum seekers and refugees to recover,” said the organisation’s Australian president in December 2018. After spending 11 months working on Nauru, MSF was expelled by the Nauruan government. MSF described the mental health situation on Nauru as “disastrous”.

“In fact the mental health situation and suffering is amongst the most severe that MSF has seen around the world, including in projects providing care for victims of torture,” president Stewart Condon said.

In mid-2018, two more asylum seekers died.

Children on Nauru developed Resignation Syndrome, a rare psychological illness where they withdrew from the world.

Mike Leyral / Getty Images

A 12-year-old Iranian refugee girl, who had attempted to self-immolate with petrol, on Nauru in September 2018.

BuzzFeed News reported, and MSF later confirmed, that a number of children held on Nauru had developed the condition, which doctors liken to “going into hibernation”. Children with the condition withdraw from the world, cease eating, drinking, speaking, and using the toilet, and fall into a seemingly comatose state.

Revelations in the media and the courts meant the Kids Off Nauru campaign gathered pace in the last months of 2018.

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The front page of the Sunday Telegraph on October 28, 2018.

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A billboard outside parliament in November 2018.

This is big. Page 2 of today’s @dailytelegraph, which is a Murdoch newspaper. #KidsOffNauru

This is big. Page 2 of today’s @dailytelegraph, which is a Murdoch newspaper. #KidsOffNauru

Meanwhile in Canberra, home affairs minister Peter Dutton launched a leadership challenge against prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.


Dutton announcing his challenge on August 23, 2018.

Dutton was unsuccessful in the first spill, but over the course of a chaotic parliamentary week, Turnbull lost the numbers and resigned as leader.

A second spill saw Scott Morrison emerge victorious and be sworn in as prime minister in August 2018.

During her campaign, Phelps had spoken out about the treatment of refugees in offshore detention.

Her victory, together with the resignation of MP Julia Banks from the Liberal party because of her disgust with the leadership spill, left the Coalition with less than half of the seats in the lower house of parliament.

In February 2019, Phelps and the combined forces of Labor, the Greens and other independents succeeded in getting the medevac law through parliament.

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It was the first time a government had lost a substantive vote on the floor of the House of Representatives in 78 years. The government stridently opposed the changes, which gave doctors a greater role in deciding who would be transferred. The government claimed it would lead to a flood of people smuggler boats making a dangerous sea voyage to Australia.

The first people transferred under medevac came to Australia on March 29, after the law commenced at the start of March.

Meanwhile, the health crisis in detention was worsening. In the first three months of 2019, 43 detainees were admitted to Nauru’s Regional Processing Centre Medical Centre (RPCMC), for stays between 1 and 44 days. The majority of admissions were for mental health treatment and some of the 43 were admitted more than once, with 73 admissions in total. There were 359 detainees in total on Nauru at the end of March.

Although the minority government could not repeal medevac, it fought the law in the courts, but lost in the Federal Court and the Full Federal Court. It has also tried to argue the courts cannot order refugees to be transferred from offshore, but was unsuccessful in the Full Federal Court. It wants to appeal the judgment in the High Court.

In February 2019, the last four children left Nauru, boarding a plane for settlement in the US.

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A woman and her daughter protest in Canberra in November 2018.

The Morrison government was returned in the May election, this time with a majority.

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Morrison’s victory speech.

But that election also brought back Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie.

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Lambie returns to parliament in July 2019.

With its newfound parliamentary majority, the government passed a bill to repeal medevac through the lower house in July. But it needs Lambie’s vote to secure a victory in the Senate before it is passed into law and medevac is gone.

Meanwhile, medevac has continued to operate.

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Doctors call for medevac to be saved, at parliament house this week.

Under the first six months of the medevac regime, 127 people were approved to come to Australia. Since medevac became law, there have been no deaths in offshore detention. The independent panel which reviews government vetos of medical transfers has agreed with the government most of the time.

With one week left for the government get it done before the end of the year, all eyes are on Jacqui Lambie. She’s said she’ll vote to repeal medevac, on one condition…

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…but has refused to reveal the condition, citing national security. Nine newspapers reported that she wants the government to secure third-country resettlement for the people remaining on Nauru and Manus, perhaps by taking up New Zealand’s offer.

What happens next? We’ll find out this week.

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