Sheffield man with 78,000 supporters tells how volunteering keeps him from ‘crumbling’

Victor Mujakachi is not a man who seeks the spotlight, but the humble Sheffield volunteer was unwittingly thrust into the public glare earlier this year.

Thursday, 4th April 2019, 9:18 pm
Updated Thursday, 4th April 2019, 9:34 pm
Victoria Mujakachi has won awards for his volunteering in Sheffield (pic: Chris Etchells)

When the 58-year-old former banker was detained and threatened with deportation to his native Zimbabwe, where he fears he would face political persecution, one of the many charities for which he volunteers launched a campaign to free him.

Within days, nearly 78,000 supporters had signed an online petition demanding his release and for any plans to forcibly remove him from the UK to be dropped until his safety could be guaranteed.

Campaigners show their support for Victor at a demonstration in Sheffield

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Victor became a figurehead for the estimated 2,500 Zimbabweans fighting deportation from the UK to a country where they say their political views could mean prison, beatings or even death awaits them.

He has since been released but, like many others, still faces an anxious wait to learn his fate as the Home Office considers his case.

“I’ve been waiting for over 10 years now so I'm used to it,” he said.

Victor Mujakachi is team leader at ASSIST Sheffield's night shelter

“I’d like to thank everyone for their support, which has been amazing, not just for me but for everyone else in a similar position.”

Having come to the UK in 2003 to study marketing and business at Middlesex University in London, Victor was close to completing his course when in 2008 the Zimbabwean government issued a warrant for his arrest.

His ‘crime' had been to criticise what he called ‘undemocratic’ elections which returned then-president Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party to power that year – not on a public forum, he says, but in an email to a former colleague which was intercepted by officials.

Fearing for his safety should he return, he sought asylum in the UK.

Four applications for the right to remain have so far been rejected and he is awaiting the outcome of a fifth.

It is now more than a decade since he last saw his wife or youngest son – who was then aged just 11 – in the flesh.

He has been living in Sheffield all that time and – prevented from working, as an asylum seeker – has thrown himself into volunteering.

He gives up his time for numerous charities and good causes, including ASSIST Sheffield, where he has proved invaluable as team leader at its emergency night shelter for failed asylum seekers.

He is also stamping out prejudice with Football Unites, Racism Divides; helping refugees and asylum seekers improve their English skills and make new friends with Sheffield Conversation Club; and providing vital equipment for impoverished communities through Sheffield Tools for Africa, among numerous other commitments.

Through his selflessness, he has provided a lifeline for some of society’s most vulnerable people and become a hugely popular figure in the city he now calls home – earning himself the South Yorkshire High Sheriff’s Award and the Nether Edge and Sheffield Community Star Award in the process.

But he modestly claims volunteering has been his salvation, too, by keeping him from dwelling on the cruel hand life has dealt him.

“I miss my wife and my youngest boy so much, and it’s been incredibly hard being apart from them all these years,” said the keen boxer, who is a member of Sheffield Amateur Boxing Club.

“I like helping people and making friends, but for me immersing myself in volunteering is also a coping mechanism.

“If I wasn’t doing anything to keep myself busy and get by on a day to day basis, I would crumble.”

As a failed asylum seeker, Victor receives no government support and relies on the £10 a week and free bus pass provided ASSIST Sheffield, plus the generosity of the family who have put him up rent-free in their spare room for the past decade.

Despite everything he has been through, he can incredibly still see the positives – and for him, the biggest one is ending up in Sheffield, where his two elder sons and his grandson also now live.

“For all the negative decisions affecting me that the Home Offices has made, sending me to Sheffield was the one positive. I’d describe it as a resurgence in my life,” he said.

“I immediately fell in love with Sheffield and feel incredibly lucky to have ended up in what is one of the best cities in the UK, if not the world.

“I didn’t know anyone here when I first arrived but the welcome and support I received from the beginning was amazing, and I’ve made some brilliant friends.”

There had been hope when Emmerson Mnangagwa replaced Mugabe as Zimbabwe's president in 2017 that it would spell an end to years of oppression, during which political opponents were violently suppressed.

Victor says the new leader ‘made the right noises’ at the time but has since shown his ‘true colours’, with Amnesty International detailing how protesters have been killed, tortured and raped this year in what it described as a ‘brutal crackdown’ launched by Zimbabwean authorities to silence dissenters.

He told how his niece's home had been attacked and her husband was beaten up and thrown in jail for two weeks.

“We feel so dismayed about this arrangement to send us back to a country where our lives would be in danger,” he said.

“People are still being killed, tortured and put in prison for their political beliefs, and it feels like we’re being sacrificed for financial reasons.”