Comfort Etim came to Britain to be a soccer star but her dreams were wrecked when she was imprisoned by strangers and then made homeless.
Football has given her hope – as a coach for a National Lottery-supported team of women asylum seekers.
Here, in her own words, Comfort details her incredible but harrowing journey…
"As a young girl in Lagos, Nigeria, I knew that football was in my blood. My mum had been a soldier who fought in the Nigerian Civil War, but she fell in love with football and became the country’s first accredited female coach.
I inherited that love from her. I lived and breathed the game. It was my escape. When there was no food I would play football to distract myself from the hunger; when I wanted to hang out with friends, it was to play football. It was my everything.
Though we both adored the game, Mum’s ambition for me was to finish my studies. But my parents couldn’t afford to send me to university and I knew that I needed to get a job and start earning money. The only thing I could see myself doing was play football, so I went professional, signing up for a second division team when I turned 16. Then, in 2003, I got the chance to go to England to spend four weeks training to be a coach at Loughborough University.
I remember thinking: ‘This is the life I have always dreamed about.’ But I didn’t have the means to stay in the UK, so returned to Nigeria at the end of the course. I’d only been home for a few weeks when I was approached by a scout. He said he wanted to take me to play soccer for an American college.
It was exactly what my mum had always wanted for me – the chance to play and study. Getting me there wouldn’t be cheap but she was determined, so she started selling all her belongings to pay for me to go. She gave up everything that she had.
The night we got to the airport the scout said: ‘Oh, you know what? We have to go to America via London. You go on ahead, someone will pick you up at the airport. I’ll be coming tomorrow.’ I got on the plane and that was the last time I ever saw him. When I landed in England a man met me at the airport and drove me to the house of two strangers – a woman and an older man – and just left me there. I was so scared.
I was so young, just a teenager, l had no idea where I was, I had no way of contacting anyone and I wasn’t allowed to leave the house. When the woman went out she would lock me in. I don’t remember a lot about that time, I’ve blocked it out really. I know I arrived in London in November, there were Christmas decorations at one point, and the woman gave me my first ever chocolate Easter egg, so I must have been held for months. I fell into a big depression, and so many of my memories of the time are hazy.
The man was creepy and spied on me when I was in the shower, so one day I took a bucket of water in with me and when I heard the door open I threw it and he screamed.
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Later I heard him arguing with the woman and not long after that she said: ‘I think it’s time for you to leave.’ I was then sent to another woman’s house where I had to look after the children, but she later threw me out and so I was homeless. I was totally abandoned, with nowhere to go. I had no money or passport and just the little red and white bag of belongings that I had brought with me when I flew to the UK from Nigeria. My English was very poor at the time and I had absolutely no idea where I was.
I didn’t know what to do, so I just walked and walked. Eventually, I found myself at Brixton train station in south London, and ended up, a girl wrapped in African fabric, living under the bridge there. I was so scared, so alone and too ashamed to call my mum to tell her what had happened. I knew it would break her heart. In my bag I had a small notebook that I used to keep phone numbers in and while flicking through it, I spotted the details of a friend who used to play for my mum’s football club. I remembered him coming to the stadium one day bragging: ‘Oh, my brother’s going to play in the United Kingdom!’
And just like that I had a plan. I started asking passers-by for 20p and after four days and nights under the bridge, I finally had enough to phone Nigeria to ask my friend for his brother’s number. When I finally got through to his brother in London, I just had time to say who I was before my money ran out. I was devastated, but as I started walking away from the booth, the phone rang. He had called the number back. It was such a relief. He asked how he could help but all I could do was cry and cry. I could not even express how I was feeling, I was just crying. He said: ‘Where are you?’ and I said: ‘I don’t know, bro. There’s a train station where I am staying. It’s called Brixton.’ I remember him shouting: ‘Oh my god!’. He was so shocked I was sleeping rough. He came and collected me and took me to where he was living with friends in New Cross.
Finally I had somewhere to sleep and food to eat, and slowly began to rebuild my confidence. My new friends encouraged me to start playing football with a team in nearby Peckham so I wasn’t stuck in the house all day. By coincidence, one of the other players had known my mum back in Nigeria – she was a very popular coach, everyone knew her – so he offered to hook me up with someone who played for Tottenham Hotspur. She invited me to try out for the club, but I had to admit I didn’t even have my own boots. She said just to come and they would sort me out.
I was selected for the second team, then moved up into the senior team. I finally felt like me again, it was so amazing to play for Spurs and being there felt like I was making progress. By now, though, I was in a relationship and I fell pregnant with my son Ezekiel in 2004, so I had to leave the team.
For a long time after that I never even watched football, I didn’t even talk about it for years. I buried that side of my life. All this time, I hadn’t dared to phone home but I decided to make the call and finally made contact with my mum. All I said to her was: ‘I’m not playing football anymore but I just want you to know that I’m okay.’
And I remember her crying her eyes out and saying: ‘I hope one day you get to open up and tell us what happened, and how you got to where you are today, because nothing makes sense right now.’ But I just locked everything up inside of me. I couldn’t imagine her selling everything and giving everything away for me to have my dream, and me just returning with these awful stories. (In fact, what I’m sharing here now I only told my mum three years ago, when I went home for the first time in almost 15 years.)
We play in the Sunday leagues, but it’s all about having fun. We’re building confidence, promoting integration and empowering the women, as well as helping them get active.
Two of our ladies have qualified as referees and several want to train as coaches. These women are going through a lot, but when you see them on the pitch it’s a beautiful thing and none of it would have been possible without funding from The National Lottery. The women are always saying: ‘Thank you, Comfort’ and I say: ‘No, thank you’. The team brings so much joy to my life."
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