The NHS needs Denzel Darku

Written by Tom Freeman on 19 June 2018 in Inside Politics

The story of Denzel Darku neatly encapsulates Scotland’s uphill battle with UK immigration rules and an ongoing struggle to fill public sector jobs

Denzel Darku speaks to Holyrood - David Anderson

In a country with growing vacancy lists for doctors and nurses and a demographic time-bomb which will see its working-age population shrink, it seems unthinkable that it would want to deport those who seem able and desperate to contribute their bit to the NHS.

Yet that is exactly what happened to Denzel Darku, a student nurse and former member of the Scottish Youth Parliament who carried the Queen’s Baton before the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Ghanaian-born Darku was already a poster boy for the open, welcoming Scotland much championed by our politicians and our universities, but he was not immune to the hostile environment which characterises Theresa May’s stint as Home Secretary, a policy which has continued to be pursued by the Home Office during her premiership.

The 23-year-old was set to be deported to Ghana after eight years in Scotland before high-profile political interventions saw the decision lifted by the Home Office.

That 11th-hour decision followed the rejection of two appeals to stay, and in the wake of a campaign by local MSP Neil Bibby to get the Home Office to change its mind.

The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who had previously met Darku, called him “an absolute credit to Scotland” during First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament. 

The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, also later said she had spoken to UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid about the case.

Darku himself tells Holyrood the news still hasn’t sunk in. 

“I’m just really grateful that everything’s taken a turn for the better,” he says.

“My status has been assured now. Now I can live my life and never again worry about being deported from a place I now call home.”

The threat of deportation had hung over his head for two years. 

Now, with his future settled, he is itching to resume his nursing studies at Stirling University.

After spending a year studying at the university’s Inverness campus, Darku was pulled out of his final exam as his immigration status became unknown. One lecturer bent the rules to allow him to sit the paper after hours.

“Imagine preparing for your big exam, your final exam, sitting in a lecture hall, ready and stressed because you want to pass, you want to do well and then you get pulled out of that. Then three hours later, they make you sit that. You forget everything that you studied,” says Darku.

But he passed the exam, and Stirling gave him a year’s leave of absence while the Home Office reviewed his case. It was still not resolved when the year was up. The university then gave him another year of absence, which conveniently ends in time for him to resume his studies after this summer.

Darku tells Holyrood the support from the institution was a comfort during a two-year limbo during which he was not allowed to work, claim benefits or travel abroad. He secured a small studio flat in his home town of Paisley – complete with holes in the walls – and taught himself to rewire and plaster it to create a home.

“I didn’t really know if it was going to be fine, but I kept in touch with the lecturers. Some of my mates from class were calling me all the time to tell me how they are doing, how they miss me and all that. 

“It gave me assurance that I have got some support there. Some of the mentors I managed to go on placement with, when they heard the news, they phoned me to personally tell me that I had their support. It was hard, but I was pleased with the support I got from people.

“Qualified nurses were calling me and texting me. I don’t know where they got my number, but that was nice.”

Darku’s enthusiasm for nursing is palpable, and stems from the fact it runs in his family. He describes watching his auntie coming home from 12-hour shifts after she got work in the NHS.

“I’m quite a caring person. I like to see the interests of people and help people out in my own way. That’s how I am, naturally,” he says.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t know much about nursing. Growing up in Ghana, it’s not a profession a lot of people get into. 

“In Ghana, you either become a footballer or try for a ‘higher’ profession, like a doctor, lawyer or politician, something like that. I wanted to play football before I came over here. Football was my thing, I loved playing football. 

“But when I moved over here, I saw the difference of what I could become, in terms of helping people. The NHS and all that. It opened up my eyes.”

He describes the way the facilities of the NHS are used to help medical students learn their craft as “a great set-up”.

“From where I come from, healthcare is not as good as the one we have here. I mean, we are really privileged to have free healthcare. You don’t get that in other countries.”

But while the NHS has provided a supporting environment for Darku, another British institution, the Home Office, has provided a number of obstacles. 

Darku says officials “have a job to do” but could have dealt with his case better. The first he heard was a letter advising him to get ready to leave the country.

“What they said was ‘get a plane ticket and meet us at the airport, we’ll give you a passport and you can go.’ That’s not how to confront someone. 

“I mean, for people who don’t have the help I had, in terms of family support, their friends, the nurses and everybody else involved in my case, if I didn’t have that support, how would I have dealt with things? Mentally, physically, emotionally, it’s very draining.”

Such pressure was being exerted on Darku to leave the country, he described it as “a self-deportation case”.

“To be honest, if I hadn’t had help, that is probably what would have been the end result. Trying to find a way back to Ghana, a place I’ve not been to for so long and know nothing about. I left Ghana when I was 14. The only person that was there was my grandma and now she’s passed away.”

He describes the cultural shock of moving to Scotland at 14.

“There wasn’t even a lot of black people in my class. I had to try to do well in school because that’s why my dad had brought me here – to have a better life and education, and the social aspect of life. It was a challenge. 

“But as human beings, we have to adapt to situations, we have to adapt to the opportunities we get, and I wanted to take every piece of opportunity my dad has given to me. I had to study hard, I had to make sure I was passing my exams, I was doing well personally. I’m privileged to be here, and this place is more like a home. I wouldn’t have exchanged it for the world, to be honest.”

Darku joined the Scottish Youth Parliament after a modern studies teacher recognised his enthusiasm would be an asset. It opened doors to opportunity for the young man, including travelling across Scotland, volunteering at the Commonwealth Games and connecting with some high flyers.

“Dame Kelly Homes was there; I managed to get a picture with her. These are things that will live with you for the rest of your life, and I owe it all to my modern studies teacher. She gave me that opportunity and I made the best of it,” he reflects.

As it turns out, throwing himself into every opportunity also gave him the profile and contacts which ultimately sped up the resolution to his visa situation, with politicians of all colours intervening.
Sturgeon highlighted Darku’s story in her address to the SNP conference to raise the issue of the UK’s immigration policy.

“We need and we want people to come to work in our country. Our prosperity and our public services depend on it,” she said.

“So if Westminster cannot or will not act in our best interests, it is time that our own parliament was able to do so. It is time for powers over migration to come to Scotland.”

The point is not just a moral or political one. Vacancies in frontline public sector jobs have increased in recent years despite investment in recruitment and training.

With over 20 per cent of Scotland’s workforce employed in the public sector, how the spread of those particular jobs is planned for has an impact on the country as a whole.

Yet for all the national planning and high-profile disputes over pay, long-term vacancies in jobs for teachers and doctors persist. And for nurses, too, like Darku.

The Scottish Government has several plans to address this, but are there enough people who are able or willing to do the jobs?

As schools struggle to recruit teachers, unions are threatening strike action over pay and conditions, something which has not been reviewed since the 2001 McCrone report.

The Scottish Government is proposing several new avenues into teaching including new university courses, but EIS president Nicola Fisher recently said not enough value was being placed on the profession.

“What we do to teachers in this country is ridiculous,” she told the union’s conference.

“We underpay teachers. We overwork them. We tell them, incorrectly, that they are part of a failing system. We tell them that what they are doing in the classroom is insufficiently ‘excellent’. We cut budgets and constantly expect them to do more with less. And then we’re surprised that 40 per cent want to leave the profession.”

The NHS workforce, meanwhile, faces reform.

Long-term vacancies for consultants and nurses have increased by around a quarter in one year, according to the official NHS stats body, the Information Services Division, while the use of agency staff remains high.

Newly published legislation will require Scotland’s health boards and care providers to have “suitable staffing in place to enable all patients to receive safe, high quality care”.

There is no fixed ratio for staff to patients in the new bill. Instead, safe staffing will be calculated according to local context such as regular inputting of data on patient need.

But again, recruitment will depend on people being willing to do the jobs, people like Denzel Darku.

He tells Holyrood he has seen people drop out of nursing at 18 because of the pressure and suggests the “stereotype of the NHS” depicted in the media contributes to fear of going into the profession.

“It’s not about the profession,” he says.

“If you think about it, if it wasn’t a job, it would still be you helping someone. It’s you giving up your effort and time, your everything, to look after someone who needs help. 

“Maybe I’ll get to 80 or 90 years old and someone will have to look after me. If you put in things like this to motivate younger people, [to say] ‘If I went into nursing or care, or became a doctor, I could make the NHS better’.  

“You need to promote [the job]. You need to tell people what it actually is.”

What is the job to Darku, then?

“If you go about and ask people I have done placements with, or the patients, I’m not saying this to be big headed but I put my absolute everything into it. I feel for their pain. I feel for how they are. They need to be treated like human beings. 

“Sometimes you can go into a placement and there’s a patient lying there and no one talks to them for a whole day. Nurses are so busy doing other stuff they have to get done before they leave. Twelve hours is a short time to be able to do a mountainous task. 

“Me being there, talking to someone alone, even to say, ‘How are you doing?’ is enough to put a smile on their face. That’s what I yearn for in care. 

“Medicine is important, looking after them is important, but to sit there and actually speak to them is the most important thing of care. Imagine sitting in one place, not being able to move, not being able to go anywhere. I know what that’s like. 

“You’re stuck in one place for the rest of your life because you’re not able to go back, and you don’t have anyone to speak to. Those who don’t have family or anyone else to dwell on, who do they turn to? That is what I yearn to do when or if I become someone in the nursing profession. I yearn to speak to people. You need to prioritise patient care. That’s the most important thing.”

Darku’s enthusiasm for public service raises the question – how many like him is Britain removing from the country? 

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