A Sierra Leonean sprinter who absconded from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 and was found sleeping rough on the streets of London has been granted leave to remain in the UK after a long legal battle.
After three years of attempts by the Home Office to force Thoronka out of the country under its “hostile environment” policy, a court ruled in Jimmy Thoronka’s favour last month.
In a psychiatric report seen by the Guardian, Thoronka was said to be in a “chronic traumatised state” exacerbated by the lengthy legal process and having discovered that Ebola had killed his mother and four siblings since he left his home country.
Thoronka was first threatened with deportation after being found sleeping rough in London in 2015. His initial arrest came after he was stopped and searched without explanation while running in a south London park.
The Guardian’s reports of his plight provoked widespread public sympathy and offers of food, shelter and money for Thoronka, who was once Sierra Leone’s top 100m sprinter.
Thoronka, who ran in the 4x100m relay at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, had been homeless for about five months when the Guardian journalist Diane Taylor first met him living in Burgess Park, Southwark. He had survived by begging or carrying people’s heavy shopping in exchange for money. Thoronka washed himself and his few clothes in public toilets.
Thoronka’s mother, a nurse who adopted him when he was five, contracted the Ebola virus while treating patients at a police-run hospital in Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital. She died, as did three of Thoronka’s sisters, a brother and members of his extended family.
In March 2015, police investigating drug dealing and burglary stopped and searched Thoronka without explanation after spotting him running in Burgess Park. He was identified as an overstayer and arrested.
On the advice of his lawyer, he applied for leave to remain rather than asylum. As a result he was released from Home Office accommodation, shortly after which he moved in with Taylor and her partner, Simon Hattenstone, also a Guardian journalist.
In an article for the Guardian’s Weekend magazine to be published on Saturday, Taylor describes what followed as “a long and often cruel journey, covering more than two years of legal argument and court hearings, compounded by unexplained delays, reversals and refusals from the Home Office”.
Thoronka was offered a sports scholarship by the University of East London (UEL) but the Home Office rejected his application to stay in the UK as “clearly unfounded”, despite a consultant psychiatrist assessing him as being in a “chronic traumatised state” and suffering from night terrors and PTSD as a result of his bereavement.
The report said Thoronka’s “current immigration status and the uncertainty and stress of proceedings acts as a major ongoing factor causing deterioration and preventing recovery”.
His mental health further deteriorated after the rejection and he was temporarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he was placed on suicide watch.
Further submissions to the Home Office based on his poor mental health were refused but he was eventually granted an in-country right of appeal in front of an independent judge at an immigration tribunal.
In May last year, a judge ruled in Thoronka’s favour. The Home Office appealed and in February a second court hearing took place. In April this year, three years after his first application to the Home Office, he was granted leave to remain.
He is now hoping to start a degree in computer studies in September at UEL, where he currently volunteers.
“My dream has always been to be the best sprinter,” said Thoronka. “But an even bigger dream is to go to university and pursue my education.”