You want to know what it feels like to be separated from your children?
Last August, I drove to Heathrow greatly excited. My two children (then aged 14 and 11) had been away for a month in California with their father and I could not wait to see their beloved faces and envelop them in a huge longed-for hug.
As unaccompanied minors, I got to the airport way in advance of their arrival time. How might they be feeling? I knew it was a massive emotional wrench to be torn from their Californian home. Again. The three of us had moved to the UK unwillingly in 2016 after we lost our home through the divorce. Everything my children had always known had been ripped away in terms of "home". They still had me, and we had somewhere to live over here, but it was not the same. Not even slightly. Coming back was going to be tough, America was still - absolutely - their home.
I reached the Arrivals hall and positioned myself at the barrier close to the Arrivals doors in the direct sight line of everyone coming through. Half an hour to go.
As the time approached for their plane to land, my stomach started to turn flips. Even though we have made that trip more than a dozen times from LA to London, for them to travel without me put me squarely on my knees. I say my prayers each time and commit my two to Jesus that all will be well.
The first passengers started coming through. Was it their flight? I couldn't tell.
No, it turned out to have come from Toronto.
Several more flights of passengers flooded then trickled past me and I searched hundreds of strangers at chest level to spot the two blonde heads I longed to see. Nope. Nothing yet.
It was now over an hour since their plane had landed. As unaccompanied minors I knew someone would be escorting them through so, usually, they deplane first. Where were my kids?
Another herd of passengers walked past. This time I caught a luggage label: LAX. OK! So here they come, I thought. These are their co-travelers, my guys are only seconds away from getting their hug.
Their herd passed and the wide wide doors closed in front of me like an enormous blank screen with nothing written on it.
Where are you??
I started to sweat a little. I knew they'd got on the plane at the other end, their father had confirmed it. And I knew their plane had landed. Where were they?
Where were they?
Had someone grabbed them? Did they not get an airline escort and in their tired and bleary state trusted a stranger who even now was bundling them into the back of a white van?
It was almost two hours now and nothing. I began to feel slightly sick so I started deep breathing.
I went to find someone in airport personnel to put out an APB. "Excuse me, I'm waiting for my children and they haven't appeared. Can you help me?" I kept the calm in my voice but not so calm that they thought this wasn't urgent. It was.
"What flight, madam? Where were they coming from? How old are they?" I felt sick. Their questions sounded horrible. Stay calm, I thought. God's got them wherever they are. (But Guy's only eleven!!)
Suddenly my phone rang: Sarah Jane!! "Darling? Darling?? Where are you??" She sounded very pissed off which was a great sign. She wasn't unnerved at least.
"They've got us in this room, Mum, and they're not telling us anything."
"I don't know. People from the airport."
"Well, where's your escort from the airline?" I kept the smile in my voice. "They left us. The people just told us we had to come in here." "And where are you exactly?" "I don't know."
Somewhere beyond that big blank screen of unyielding white wide intransigent double doors, my two children, my only children were being held. Why? By whom? Why? How could I get to them? I felt pressure rising in my chest.
"They say we don't have passports, Mum. Why didn't you get us passports? They say we can't come in again on our American ones!"
I feared this. Their application for British citizenship was in process and had not come through before they had to fly. I had anticipated that they might need proof, so they carried with them a signed letter from their father and me saying when and what kind of application had gone in and that he gave them permission to return to Britain to be with me.
I took a deep breath and sounded as though this was completely normal.
"Oh," I feigned mild irritation along with her. "Don't worry, darling. Your passports are just in process. Don't worry. I'll show them documentation on this side as well and they'll let you through. Did you give them your letters?"
"Good. Don't use your phone darling, OK? I don't want your battery to run out."
"OK. But BE QUICK, Mum. We're starving and I haven't slept for a day and a half."
I hung up and called my Immigration lawyer who I knew was on holiday in the far North of Scotland with spotty reception. Miraculously she picked up. "I'll call them myself and explain," she said. "Everyone is just very antsy on immigration at the moment because of Brexit. With the documentation you've given they should let the children through. They should give you a 'Six Months Leave to Remain' permission and then you'll have six months to get their passports." This would be plenty of time. Phew.
I ran back to the window with airport personnel. "They're being held by Immigration about their British citizenship which hasn't come through yet. My lawyer is calling Immigration now. Do you know what's going on?" "No, Madam." Silence.
"...OK, well can I give you some documentation to take through and show Immigration? It will support my lawyer's claims. Can you do that?"
"Wait!" I called them back. "I'm a British Citizen and they're my two underage children. I have my passport with me, may I see them? Can you let me through? Can I be with them? Can I sit with them while we wait?" "No, Madam. You'll have to wait here."
Tears threatened as I retraced my steps to my watchpost. My lawyer called me back asking for more data on the applications, the photocopies of which I had brought with me in case. She hung up to call Immigration again.
I could just imagine my children. They were tired and hungry and already emotional about leaving their father and their beloved California. I now realised, stupidly, that Sarah Janey's strop was just bravado. Why wouldn't they be strung out, for God's sake? They were sitting entirely alone in a room with no one else and all they'd been asked was if they were British. Good God, I was FURIOUS.
I texted close friends with an urgent request for prayer. Getting their immediate responses and encouragement made me feel a lot less alone, but none the less powerless in person.
It was now almost four hours since they'd landed. Sarah Jane called again, "Mum, I feel like I'm going to puke. I don't even have any water." I wanted to scream: WHAT? WHAT THE FRICK WAS GOING ON??
The Incredible Mother emerged from her Britishness. I marched back to the window.
"Actually, can I just say this is not acceptable?" I listed on my fingers: "No one has explained to my children what is going on. You have not been able to give me any answers and you have held my children without charge for over FOUR HOURS! At the very least PLEASE GIVE THEM SOME WATER. They've been on an eleven hour night flight, they're dehydrated, exhausted, starving and now scared. If you won't let me through to be with them, PLEASE GIVE THEM SOME FOOD."
To her credit, the Heathrow rep looked sympathetic. "OK," she said. "I'll see what I can do."
I returned to my watch post. By now I was sitting on the floor leaning against the glass of Marks and Spencer (see pic). I was crying and I was getting filthy from the floor. More and more travellers were passing by me joyously greeting loved ones, picking up rides. I felt horribly and desperately alone. Where was a husband? Where was a protector? Where, for the love of God, was there simply a man who could fight this battle for me?
It was just me. Dirty, tired, sweating and camping on the filthy, hard airport floor. I sobbed. My back had given out with the waiting.
What if they didn't allow Sarah Jane and Guy to come through? What if I never even got to see them before they put them straight back on a flight to the States? I could feel the scream rising in my throat. OH MY GOD! I felt like the three of us had unwittingly been caught in the mawing jaws of some monstrous machine and we were inexorably moving toward death. My life seemed surreal. I was in shock.
"Jesus has got them, Josie." My heart spoke. " Jesus has got them." I began to pray in tongues.
Over an hour later, someone came out to see me. Yes, they'd received all my paperwork. Yes, they'd spoken to my lawyer. Yes, they were writing up their report. So, I asked, was I going to be given a 'Leave to Remain' permission? No, they couldn't tell me. I'd have to wait and see.
A further hour - almost seven hours now, it was late into the evening - my children miraculously appeared through the yawningly huge white doors. I grabbed them in my arms and crushed them. Then I turned to the staff member accompanying them and - with relief and white hot fury - metaphorically ripped her head off.
Her face went red as she waited for me to draw breath. "I'm so sorry, Madam. I've got nothing to do with Immigration, I'm just the rep from American Airlines..." I apologised profusely. She said something about paperwork and what I needed to do, handed me some sheets of paper and left.
I didn't looked at the papers, I shoved them in my bag and made for the car with a child under each arm. All I cared about was that my kids were still on English soil and I'd got them. Everything else could be sorted later. I drove home as Sarah Jane and Guy slept the sleep of the wrecked.
The following morning, I awoke and read the papers I'd been given. We had not been issued a six month 'Leave to Remain'. Her Majesty's Government was deporting my children in four days. I was to deliver them to Heathrow by midnight of the third day where they would wait - alone - until 3.00 pm the following day before being flown back to California.
I felt numb. The monster was going to get us after all.
So began three days of constant phone calling with my lawyer, the Home Office, my MP, I even considered contacting the press. The children knew nothing of any of it so I had to be normal Mum. I got no sleep. All I could think was, if they're going then I'm going to have to go with them. And then what? I had moved our entire life here.
For no good reason other than prayer, on Sunday morning I received a phone call from the Director of the Immigration Office. If I could fax through a copy of my application for the children, they would grant me a six month 'Leave to Remain.' Dear God, where was I going to find a fax on a Sunday? Who even uses faxes anymore? I had just over twelve hours until the children's deadline at midnight to check in at Heathrow.
Could I email it instead? Yes. So I tried to email it and it wouldn't go through. I tried again, and then I tried again. What in the name of all things reasonable was going on? I had the worst migraine of my life.
By this time I had my whole church leadership praying and I called a friend from church to ask if I could come to her house nearby and try and email it from hers. She said yes.
Finally, at midday on Sunday (the kids had arrived at Heathrow early afternoon Wednesday), we got our stay of execution.
Even now my kids don't know that they were going to be deported. Just dredging up this story to write a blog, I feel incredibly agitated. It was every parents' worst nightmare - to have your children screamingly close and have no power to connect with them. To save them.
I am so stirred up from remembering those five days last August, that when I drove to pick up my son from school this afternoon and he didn't appear, I started to panic. Which was a little ridiculous. When he came out, I jumped out of the car to crush him in a bear hug (which he promptly shot down with a hissed, "Not in front of my friends, Mum!" He's twelve now.)
So this is my story. And I'm a British citizen on British soil. I speak English as a first language, I am middle class, I am highly educated and I have many resources open to me in this country. And I still have PTSD.
Do you care to?