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Julie Asumu: mother, grandmother, stalwart of Manchester’s Black community, activist and care giver

Updated Friday, 8 April 2022

Born in a rural village in Nigeria, Julie Asumu gives us a personal account of her journey to England and her support for refugees and asylum seekers.

Early years

Julie Asumu portrait

My name is Julie Asumu (Aunty July to those who know me well). I was born in a rural village in Nigeria where I spent my formative years.  Some of my fondest memories from my childhood was when my father would gather us together and regale stories of his boyhood exploits and adventures with his step-father. I didn’t know my biological grandfathers on either side of the family, but I knew my step-grandfather who was a palace chief (at that time, many towns and villages were ruled by monarchs). My Father, who was only seven at the time of his mother’s re-marriage, grew up under his step-dad and he lived with him until he was over twenty years of age.   

Despite having the freedom to play, sing and dance, I wouldn’t describe my childhood as being remarkable, just ‘normal’. My childhood was also marked by responsibilities through having chores at home and at school. At home, it was the responsibility of my sisters and I to fetch water from the river and gather firewood for cooking. At school, in contrast, it was the duty of all the children to ensure a clean and tidy learning environment. Not only were the children accountable for keeping the school building clean and tidy, we also had to prepare the school yard by using a clay and water mix to create a smooth concrete like surface. School was half day on Fridays to allow this task to be completed in readiness for the following week.  Although the work was hard, it gave me great satisfaction when it was done. The visual impact it provided to the school was a sight to be seen. Notwithstanding the hard work that would perhaps today be classed as child labour, the chores and responsibilities, I believe, implanted in me a deep sense of accountability which put me in good stead for the path my life would take. 

At the age of 12, I finished my primary school education but remained at school an extra year to mature as a primary school teacher. I applied for a teaching job and was successful so, at the age of 13, I left my home to teach in a village about 7 miles away. This was to encourage and illustrate the importance of a western education for girls in particular and also the financial benefits of having a western education. 

After teaching in the village for two years, I left my village to attend a convent school where I commenced my teacher training education. At that time, girls not receiving a western education in schools would learn farming and domestic skills; my parents however, were not averse to their daughters pursuing careers. Additionally, during that era, my father emphasised that an educated woman had a much better prospect of marriage than an uneducated one.  

The teacher training college was located quite a distance from my immediate home so the prospect of leaving home and all my friends and family was daunting but at the same time exciting as I had never left my village for anywhere further than seven miles. So, with trepidation and anticipation, I packed by bags and set out on a new phase in my life’s journey.      

Generally, to become a teacher in Nigeria during the 1950s and 60s, you had to study for two years as a pupil-teacher and pass an exam which would qualify you to act as an assistant head teacher. You would continue studying for a further two years in a higher teacher's college and at the end of those two years, you would sit and pass an exam which would certify you to work as a head teacher. I knew teaching wasn’t going to be a picnic, but I was determined to succeed. 

Arriving at the convent school was an eye opener. I was sixteen years old, quite a distance away from my family with all its traditions and customs. In the village, I knew everyone and they knew me but suddenly, I was in a convent school run by white Irish, Reverend Sisters. It was a steep learning curve and often I would yearn for home and all that was familiar. But my parents had put their trust in me and, therefore, quitting was not an option. So, I determined to bury my longings and settle into my new life. For two years, I studied and work hard to succeed because I’d set my heart on becoming a teacher. Life, however, did not follow the prescribed linear route I had planned. In fact, it took a steep curve before straightening out again, as within months of completing my first two years teacher training, I was eighteen, married and was journeying to England.  

Journeying to England: part 1

Leaving village life for the city was traumatic but journeying to England was something altogether different. The thought of getting on a plane put my emotions in a tail spin. I was afraid and excited at the same time. The idea of leaving my country, family and life in Nigeria to start a new life, with a new husband, in a new country was petrifying. Nonetheless, I felt honoured although it was my husband who was the chosen one. In those days anyone travelling abroad to study went under a government’s scholarship and admonished to go and find the ‘Golden Fleece’. The intention was to learn the western way of governance and return to your home country to take up a civil servant’s position. In this way, the country would no longer be considered a ‘third word’ (developing) country. Although I was going to miss my family, I consoled myself, knowing that I would be with them again after three years. 

On the day of the flight, having said my goodbyes, I walked across the tarmac with my husband by my side towards the plane, trying desperately not to become overwhelmed with fright, anxiety and excitement. So, I took a deep breath, glanced back for a final farewell and walked up the steps into the belly of the beast that was taking me away from home and all that was dear to me.  Once the plane took off and we were on our journey, my fears subsided; I settled down for the long haul and my thoughts turned to England. My mind was awash with questions.  Will the country be as we were taught in school?  Will I get to see Buckingham Palace and the Queen? What about the weather, the people and food? Finally, after 26 hours and stoppages in several countries for refuelling, we arrived in London. It was another five hours, however, before we arrived at our final destination of Manchester. 

Arriving in England: part 1

Nothing I’d learned about England at school prepared me for the harsh realities of the country. We were greeted by a bleak, wet and grey landscape which was nothing like the pictures I’d seen or the country I’d left behind.  The houses were dark and grim looking with smoke bellowing from chimneys like an angry dragon. More importantly, nothing prepared me for the stark contrast between the weather in England and Nigeria. The biting coldness was a constant reminder that I was far from home. 

Journeying to England in the 1960s was both a folly and an opportunity.  It was an opportunity because the Nigerian Government was paying for my husband to get a British Education which was prized at that time.  Equally, he was guaranteed a government job on returning to Nigeria.  It was a folly however, because there was racial tension in Britain during this period and navigating the streets and life in general became an obstacle course. It was challenging to find housing, jobs and even being able to buy food as some local shop owners refused to serve Black people. Due to these challenges, it was also a revolution in small business and home ownership for some Black people, in particular in the Moss Side area of Manchester. 

Life for me during this period was very isolating because I was a young mother with three children and no family support. I felt the available childcare provision at the time was not adequate or safe; therefore, I refused to leave my children with a childminder. My husband was at university each day so taking care of the children was my responsibility.  The weather, racial tension and three young children made it difficult to integrate within the Black community. Consequently, soon after my husband completed his studies, we returned to Nigeria and in my mind, life was once again on a straight path. 

Returning to Nigeria

Returning to Nigeria, was a time of great joy and merry-making.  I was excited to be back on familiar territory with my family and friends. Eventually, my children were enrolled in early years education and along with the fact that I had a village to help care for them, I was able to recommence college to complete my teacher training qualification. This enabled me to work as a fully qualified teacher and over the years raised to the rank of headteacher. After leaving my headteacher’s position, I began work in community development with Nigerian women at grassroots level.  I travelled across the twelve states where I helped them to set up small enterprises so that they could become self-sufficient. The women worked as a cooperative in their villages, supporting each other to set up individual businesses. Although I was making a difference and I was happy doing this work, life was destined to throw me another curved ball. 

England: the second coming

My first son had returned to England after obtaining his first degree in engineering to pursue a PhD in Manchester. After qualifying, he obtained a job at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In the same year he returned to Nigeria where he got married, then he and his wife travelled back to the UK. Within two years of marriage, I received communication that my daughter-in-law had given birth to twins and my son was desperate for me to come back to England to help look after my grandchildren. As I was no longer a first timer, I knew I’d be better prepared for life in England this time so, I heeded the call and set out for a second journey to Manchester. My community work in Africa had engaged my interest in family support, therefore my second coming was full of plans that I hoped would help me meet the needs of families. 

On returning to England, I helped my son to nurture his children and at the same time, I enrolled at MMU where I gained a BSc in psychology.  As I was interested in family stability, I didn’t pursue a career in teaching but rather engaged in voluntary work with various organisations including OXFAM in order to understand the areas of family needs in the community. As a consequence of being involved in voluntary work, I met Mrs Elouise Edwards (Mama Edwards) and Mrs Louise Da-Cocodia. These women who were community activists, trailblazers and beacons of the Black Community in Moss Side and Trafford became family to me. My encounter with them were transformative in that they engendered within me the desire to dedicate my life to the service of others. In addition, Dr Margaret Clarke, who is now a retired paediatrician, also contributed enormously to my commitment to community work at grassroots level. These three women became my role models and helpmates with their ideas that contributed to the development and wellbeing of family life in Manchester in general and in Moss Side in particular. 

Welcome to Moss Side

At the time of meeting these women I was living in Ancoats, but Mama Edwards encouraged me to relocate to Moss Side for more meaningful and result oriented community work. When I discussed the proposed move with my family and friends, they tried to dissuade me because at that time Moss Side was classed as a ‘no go’ area; Manchester itself was labelled ‘Gunchester’ and consequently they feared for my safety. Nevertheless, I packed my bags and moved to an area where the police and other emergency services feared to go. 

On arriving in Moss Side, as my family and friends feared, I was greeted with a hail of bullets that very night. So, I hid in my new house until the following morning. On venturing outside the front door, the next day, I noticed that my car had not escaped unscathed – the windscreen was shattered by a bullet. Taking heart that the shooting was not aimed at me personally, I refrained from sharing this event with my family and decided to make Moss Side my home because I believed in Mama Edwards and Mrs Da-Cocodia as well as the work they were doing in the community. We believed and trusted each other and therefore we worked hard to put plans and structures in place for the benefit of all dwellers in this inner-city area of Manchester. 

The emergence of Chrysalis

During the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a significant proportion of single young mothers in Moss Side and across the country in general. Some would argue that this phenomenon happened because for some young people, at that time, the only way they could secure social housing was to have a child. Due to this, a large number of young pregnant teenagers or mothers frequented Alexandra Park Surgery, (now known as Whitswood Practice). A substantial number of these young women grew up in the care system and subsequently were clueless about taking care of a baby. These young women, on attending clinical appointments, would remain at the surgery socialising with each other until closing time. This became a daily occurrence which was problematic for the nurses and other staff working at the surgery. 

Dr Margaret Clarke, the paediatrician at the surgery, recognised that this situation was not sustainable for a working environment so, she approached some community elders including Mama Edwards who was then the community development worker at the Family Advice Centre. After a series of meetings, it was agreed that a service known as a ‘befriending’ would be set up to support these teenage mothers. The intention was to organise them to support each other and to acquire some parenting skills to help them care for their children. Dr Clarke was encouraged by the decision and subsequently a management committee was organised.  Dr Clarke further went on to raise funds from BBC Children in Need and the Local Health Authority for the first three years of the project.  This was to pay the wages of a co-ordinator, an administrator and two sessional nursery nurses.  

At the outset, the project (as it was called) was located in the health centre in the hope that it would become an arm of the Local Health Authority. Dr Clarke, however, recognised that the process for this would be lengthy, therefore she suggested that the management committee approach the local authority and negotiate for premises from which to operate the service.  

Mama Edwards and I approached Clare Nangle who was then the councillor for housing at Manchester City Council. Initially she was reluctant to take the idea forward to a council meeting. We, however, persuaded her by showing her a video illustrating the benefits of the service from a similar organisation in London. This convinced her and she decided to offer help in securing premises. Securing a property felt like winning a battle but we knew that the war wasn’t over because the property was on the notorious Gooch Close, which was deemed to be the heart of the gang, gun and drugs culture in the area. Due to the notoriety of the street all the houses were unoccupied and boarded up. In addition, the street was a gathering space for jobless young people who would smoke, play loud music and litter the centre’s garden with rubbish. 

The location of the premises was also a step too far for some members of the committee, but knowing the hard work that went into securing it, we tried to convince them to stay, but they chose instead to leave. I, however, was on a mission so I remained determined to help establish the family support centre. Those of us who endured now turned our thoughts to naming the centre. Originally, we discussed naming it ‘Moss Side Befriending Service’ but since we were modelling the centre on a similar one called Newpin, some members felt that the service must take on the name ‘NEWPIN’. Mama Edwards, however, was not in favour of this and decided that we should break away from Newpin and the new name for our service would be ‘Chrysalis’ and so, on 24 September 1994, Chrysalis officially emerged. 

However, we recognised that our achievements so far were winning small battles not the war. Despite the fact that we were able to provide a service for these young mothers, the location of the premises was still an issue – it became a battle between the service users and the ‘posse’ of youths hanging about outside. 

The battle for a safe space

After the first three years, the coordinator left and I was asked to take over the position. The battle against the Gooch posse (as they were called) was still on and the first funds raised by Dr Clarke were depleted. Simultaneously, however, we secured another three years lottery funding and I started proceedings to clean up the street by trying to disband the group outside the centre so that clients could access the service without fear. This I envisaged would be an ordeal. In order to achieve this goal, I decided to make enquiries as to who was the leader of the group and on discovering this, I sent a message to say I would like a face-to-face meeting with the individual. To my surprise, he agreed to the meeting. What followed wasn’t the ordeal I had thought but a civilised conversation with a young man who, after a fruitful exchange of ideas, agreed to withdraw the group from outside the centre. So, by the end, my supposed enemy left as a friend. This was achieved within the first six months of my tenure as coordinator. 

The growth of the service

I went on with the support and co-operation of the other committee members to set up a focused service that addressed issues facing families, young parents and children. We established services that fulfilled the aims and objectives of Chrysalis. We worked tirelessly with social services children’s departments in Manchester and beyond. These services included a nursery for pre-school children that was approved by OFSTED and a family support service that helped parents whose children were taken into care. This service was embraced by the children and families’ unit of social services.

Community in Manchester

We supported refugees and asylum seekers with their English language needs in partnership with the University of Manchester. We worked in partnership with the University of Salford by taking social work students on placements so that they gained first-hand experience of the ordeals facing families in the city and across the country. We provided a space where young mothers could learn to cook healthy and nutritious meals for their children. We established a parenting course to bridge the cultural gaps for families who either came to the UK as migrants to study or as settlers from other parts of the world, in particular from Africa and other ethnic minority communities. We provided a space where young people could develop skills in cooking and sewing.

Chrysalis became the ‘go to’ space for statutory bodies such as health visitors, senior managers in the social work sector, teachers and the police. We worked very closely with Greater Manchester Police to help bridge the divide between the police and the Black Community in Moss Side. During the summer months when lessons could take place outdoors, the police would visit the centre on horses so the children could become familiar with them. Additionally, we had visitors from as far afield as Poland and Serbia who wanted to set up similar services in their countries. As a result of the education and support the young mothers received, some of them went on to set up their own child-minding businesses. 

Police in Moss Side

During the mid-1990s, Manchester City Council also decided to redevelop its housing stock after Moss Side was described as ‘one of the most deprived areas in the city’.  The Alexander Park Estate in particular saw the remodelling of its houses and renaming of streets so the notorious Gooch Close became Westerling Way; the houses were redeveloped and a diverse range of families moved back into the neighbourhood, creating a vibrant and thriving community. 

The battle for survival

Between 1997 and 2000 the project was funded by Lottery funding. After that we were able to obtain small grants from various organisations including the local authority. In 2008, however, we were unable to secure funding and was at serious risk of the centre closing. To prevent this from happening, I elected to continue the work as a volunteer. In that time, I similarly contacted The Big Life organisation in an attempt to secure partnership working.  This happened for a short period but the relationship became unsustainable. Consequently, the ties were severed and Chrysalis was once again struggling for survival. Despite the lack of funds Chrysalis continues to be a beacon in the community of Moss Side. 


In addition to my commitments at Chrysalis, my work extended to Her Majesty’s Prison Service supporting young women detainees in Styal and men in Strangeways and Risley. I supported young offenders as ‘Appropriate Person’ under the Greater Manchester Police in 2016/2017. I am still actively volunteering full time at the Chrysalis Family Centre supporting families, especially migrants whose children have been taken into care and I was a foster care giver to numerous children for ten years. All the children I fostered grew up in my care in a relaxed, caring and loving environment. As a result, some of them have gone on to achieve, becoming engineers, nurses, lawyers and a host of other qualifications at university level. The majority of my fostered children still visit me today as a sign of their appreciation of my contribution to their wellbeing in life. 

I can describe myself as a proud stalwart of the community living and working in Moss Side, supporting people from multicultural and disadvantaged communities at a grassroots level. I have served on various committees in the voluntary and statutory sector both in Africa and in the UK. I supported the development of ‘Home Start’ in Manchester, I trained in facilitation of parenting skills programmes such as ‘Webster Stratton’, ‘Strengthening Families and Communities’ and Parenting Across Cultures. Manchester City Council has awarded me accolades on three occasions: two for my service to the community and the other in recognition of my ten years commitment as a foster parent. 

My abiding hope, though, is that Chrysalis as an ethnic minority service stands the test of time. This can only happen if we focus on those issues that complement government efforts by properly informing our local community to engage meaningfully at grassroots levels.  Annual monitoring and evaluation of our work over the last twenty-six years has indicated that we should continue to focus on working with young people and families whose children are taken into care.  Our aim is to come up with solutions that can contribute to Government’s efforts in supporting these categories of people in our society. It is also to assist and encourage positive parenting, support young people to reduce anti-social behaviour and crime so that the stability of family life can be maintained.



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