Sandwiched between a Greggs and a Walkers crisps vending machine, the international arrivals exit at Newcastle airport is an underwhelming welcome to Britain. But for Irene Clennell, it is the best thing she has seen in a long time.
Walking through the doors with a wide smile on Wednesday morning, she still can’t quite believe she is here. “It feels like I just got up from a nightmare,” she tells BuzzFeed News, shaking her head. “As soon as we landed I was thinking, Yes! I’m in Britain again.”
Six months ago Clennell was deported to Singapore with £12 in her pocket and no time to gather her things or say a proper goodbye to her family. She had been the main carer for John, her British husband of 28 years, and had lived in the UK on and off for three decades.
But in January her life in the UK was brought to an abrupt end when the Home Office took her into detention and ruled that since her latest visa had expired she could no longer stay.
Her arrival back in Britain comes six months after her case made headlines around the world following BuzzFeed News articles about her detention and subsequent deportation. Her situation provoked public outrage and a GoFundMe Page raised more than £50,000 for her legal costs.
Despite being issued with a fresh spousal visa, Clennell was so nervous about returning after her treatment during the deportation that she asked her sister-in-law Angela Clennell to come to Singapore and escort her back.
The pair were the last people through the gates after an immigration officer spent 10 minutes double-checking her paperwork because the computer system was not updated with her fresh status. “They had to check everything before they let me though. And [the immigration officer] said, ‘Yeah, everything is fine. You can go,’ and he said ‘Welcome back’ and I was happy to hear that.”
Walking out of the airport to a cool but sunny morning, they have a cigarette then jump into a taxi.
“God, what an ordeal, man,” Angela says, slumping into the front seat.
“Was it a holiday, like?” the driver asks – and neither know quite how to answer. “It’s going to be 5 degrees tonight and it’s meant to be August,” he carries on.
But Irene doesn’t mind. Watching the hedgerows and fields whizz by on the way to her home in Ouston, County Durham, she can’t stop smiling. Gesturing out the window she adds in her Geordie twang: “It’s not very exciting, like, but it’s home."
As the cab pulls up outside their house, Irene’s son Sonny, 25, is sitting on the wall waiting, with a smile almost as big as hers. She gets out the cab and hugs him.
“Sonny, you’ve put on weight,” she teases. “So have you, Mum!” he shoots back, glad to see her looking less gaunt now her immigration nightmare has ended.
As she opens the gate to the front garden, her dogs Russell and Cleo race to meet her, jumping up and licking her face.
The reunion with John is bittersweet. He is sitting in the kitchen by the front door when she walks in. Irene puts her arm around him and he blinks back tears. He has been suffering from depression while she’s been away, and has got sicker too, with another operation due next month.
He still struggles to contain his frustration that they have been put through this at all. “It shouldn’t have had to get to none of this, that’s the thing,” he says later, shaking his head.
Within minutes of getting through the door, Irene has put the kettle on. “Do you want a cuppa?” she asks, rummaging round the kitchen for mugs as her beloved dogs run around at her feet. Her husband speaks to them: “Where’s your ma? Where’s your ma, eh?”
Despite his struggles with his health, John has clearly been moved by the support from the community for Irene. “There’s going to be a party tonight,” he says. “A few of the neighbours are coming round. We’ve known lots of them for 20-odd years.
“Even the shopkeeper, this morning when I went to get some milk, said ‘Good news, John’ and I said, ‘Yeah, she’ll be back at 10 o’clock.’ Everyone’s so happy that she’s back.”
For the last six months while Irene has been in Singapore, she has been in limbo, unsure whether to start a new life there but clinging to the hope that she would be able to come home. “Even seven months was like hell for me. I wasn’t ready to be there for much longer.”
Now she is getting ready to celebrate. “As soon as I landed in Newcastle it was like “Oh god, I’m home!” It was really nice. You can’t really explain that feeling. You’re home and back without any restrictions and it feels really good.
“It’s really nice to be back because I didn’t know whether I was going to come back or not, because I thought I’ve got a 10-year ban. So I was a bit nervous but as soon as I got it I was over the moon, really happy.”
Despite her happiness and relief, there are still some lasting effects of her ordeal. “Every time I see a police officer I do get this nervous feeling,” she says. “Even now if somebody with a coat were to say ‘excuse me’ I think I would panic… Is he going to say it’s time to leave? That feeling – it’s there.”
She also worries about John. “At least he’s coping, but not that well… So now it’s just looking after him. At least I’m going to be here, so it’ll be alright.”
The media attention has proved tough for John, since it has coincided with a period of depression. “They’ve been banging on the door all weekend,” he says, adding that he ended up hiding in the back of the house with the curtains drawn.
But his sister Angela points out that the family owe their situation to publicity. “Without the press and without the public putting into the fund, I don’t think we’d be in the position we are today,” she says.
Irene agrees. “There’s no way I could afford that much money to pay for the lawyer’s fee and stuff like that. I would have been in Singapore and that’s it. It’s because of all those donations that came in, helped me through. I didn’t expect it at all. People are really generous.”
The donations have even continued to come in since news of her fresh visa broke. “People are saying, ‘Here’s another donation for you to celebrate.’ It’s really nice.”
Sitting on the sofa at home, Irene looks dazed. She was awake for the whole flight, too wired to sleep.
The fact she is finally here is still sinking in. “It’s like a dream, isn’t it? For me it is, because the visa came on the 24th and straight away we booked the flight and everything moved really fast,” she says. “I think I’m not even 100% sure if it’s still a bloody dream.”
Emily Dugan is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Dugan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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