The first thing that I noticed about Bilal Kelvin Fawaz is his energy.
His hands jump and dance as he speaks gesticulating feverishly. Dark expressive eyes dart every which way and a wide smile spreads across his face with ease and frequency.
Fawaz is an open book, he has shared his story with many, many people through a variety of outlets. However on the off chance that the reader of this article is unfamiliar with Mr. Fawaz’s backstory and current situation I feel obliged to share it again on his behalf in the hopes that the boxing community can show its collective strength and support for this young man as he chases a dream and pursues a better life.
The old saying goes: what does not kill you makes you stronger.
Fawaz should know.
At just 14 Fawaz was brought to the UK from Nigeria by an uncle and placed in the care of strangers. He was told his father would soon be along to get him.
His father never came. His mother never came.
Fawaz’s parents were killed during a riot between Muslim and Christian factions.
What followed can only be described as torture - the term child abuse would be too kind.
Fawaz was beaten and starved by the people who had custody of him. Fawaz literally escaped that hell and not long after circulated into British social services.
Like so much flotsam & jetsam Fawaz found himself going from foster home to foster home to halfway house. While being given leave by The Crown to stay in the UK until 18 when a final determination could be made regarding his status, the aimless young man had already collected a variety of charges for petty crime and drug violations.
Fawaz was treated like a stray dog by society and then we wonder why he bit the hand that never fed him.
So it was only natural that in a bid to obtain full legal status in a UK immigration court he would be denied. On paper Fawaz was exactly the kind of person Right Wing dog whistlers like Nigel Farage warn British citizens about… dark skinned foreigners with strangely spelled names, committing crimes, acting like a weight on social services already stretched to the max.
Farage, Trump and their ilk willfully forgo complicated reality in favor of simplistic, unsophisticated tropes that play to people’s base fear, paranoia and hatreds. Those latent and blatant racists have been emboldened thanks to the rise of Far Right factions throughout England, Western Europe and America. As such they are able to exert more influence over the political machinery that someone like Bilal would be relying on for a just resolution.
Currently Bilal is trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. He was brought into the UK via Nigeria, though the African nation declared Bilal was born in the country he is not a citizen. Bilal’s biological father is of Lebanese descent his mother was from Nigeria’s neighbor Benin and Bilal has no legal status in either of those countries as well. Therefore Bilal is a man without a country - he has not legal standing in the nations of his parentage nor does it appear that Britain wants him despite Bilal having no say in being deposited there more than a decade ago.
Nigeria has continued to reject his applications for citizenship since neither of his parents were nationals and that complicates Bilal’s attempts to obtain British citizenship through legitimate channels and complete legal migration to this foster nation.
Therefore Bilal is stateless.
A citizen of nowhere
A man without a country.
Boxing is Life
The story of Bilal Fawaz is dreadfully incomplete without boxing. This sport and men like manager Aamir Ali who owns the gym Fawaz trains out of and coach Toks Owoh - a former pro boxer himself are among the few rays of light in Fawaz’s life.
Fawaz has been boxing for 12 of the 15 years he’s resided in the UK and calls the Stonebridge Boxing Club in central London home both literally and figuratively. Many nights Fawaz has slept in the ring or on the unforgiving couch in Ali’s office. Fawaz is living with Owoh for now.
Fawaz has poured himself into the discipline of boxing and it’s not hard to see why. Combat sports have long been a constructive outlet for anger, frustration and enmity as well as a way for an individual to make a living who finds other avenues closed due to a troubled past.
By all accounts Fawaz has made the most of his instruction and the opportunities afforded him by boxing. Fawaz has boxed for the GB squad 6 times, his contemporaries being none other than Anthony Joshua and Coolhand Luke Campbell.
Ronald McIntosh who covers Olympic boxing for the BBC described Fawaz this way:
He is an immense talent - tremendous speed, boundless stamina, good punch, good punch variety and also creative in the boxing ring.
This creativity is exemplified by Fawaz’s use of the Superman Punch, a flashy MMA technique made famous by Georges St. Pierre!
Fawaz has earned significant praise and accomplished quite a lot considering the UK immigration bureaucracy has conspired against him at nearly every turn. This includes winning the British Junior Middleweight title, one once held by the great Joe Calzaghe.
Boxing proved the gateway to a better life for Fawaz even a way to payback Britain for taking him in despite his strained relationship with her. Yet, thanks to the convoluted immigration process and the intransigence of Nigeria to issue any kind of formal status Fawaz could see his dream of being a pro boxer even his very life come to end if he is sent back to a country that has known little stability, a country that claimed the lives of both his parents, where he knows no one and has nothing.
Once Mohandas Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western Civilization.
Supposedly he quipped, I think it would be a good idea.
There’s little evidence to support the origin of the quote, however the sentiment viewed through the eyes of Bilal Kelvin Fawaz and its implication is stark.
Britain and the US are - according largely to themselves alone - the bastion of Western Civilization and its ideals.
Reason. Logic. Equity. Democracy. Freedom. Justice. Judeo Christian values.
Yet, police burst into the Stonebridge Boxing Club - as they had before, to arrest Fawaz - as they had before, and detained him at Tinsley House detention center… for 34 days... throughout the Christmas and New Year’s holiday and was released just two weeks ago.
Fawaz was barely saved from abrupt deportation back to Nigeria, the place of his birth. A country recently referred to as a ‘shithole’ by the US President.
Should the worst happen and Fawaz is summarily deported back to Nigeria, a country where he has no legal status either, it’s hard to be hopeful, as Stonebridge owner Aamir Ali put it;
What you’re sending back is a dead man walking...He doesn’t have the tools to live in the country.
There are many elements to this story. To pretend ignorance, bureaucracy, race, religion and basic human decency and empathy are not among them is beyond foolish as far as I am concerned. Nevertheless, I realize that they are far too complicated and complex for a boxing blog to nail down in one story or ten… and Fawaz’s story is still ongoing.
The first act of that story is marked by tragedy and pain.
The second act has been plagued by setbacks but also achievement and inspiration.
The third act is still being written and I am imploring you the reader to help this story have the ending it deserves - on either side of the pond there are actions that can be taken on a practical level - there are officials you can call and email in the Home Office lending your voice in support of a just outcome for Fawaz. Here in the States; call your congressperson, vote for humane immigration reform or for candidates that support it.
Send Fawaz a kind message through social media.
We are one human family in and out of the ring.
Meanwhile I know Fawaz will be back in the gym, working out with coaches Ali & Owoh. The metronomic beat of rope skipping, the thud of the gloved fist against the bag, the sweat and the tears baptizing this young man as he fights for his dreams in the sport we all love; the discipline giving him the strength to continue his now more than decade long fight for status as a human being outside the ring.
Boxing is the one place Fawaz has control over his life.
The ring is the one place he exists and is truly free.
Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.