Social Justice

I endured homelessness and a decade in UK asylum system to become a stand-up comedian

Refugee Week ambassador Nico Ndlovu made a promise to himself he would perform at the Edinburgh Fringe on the day he arrived in Scotland. Now he’s a stand-up comedian and runs a podcast to help refugees and asylum seekers living in the UK

Refugee Week ambassador Nico Ndlovu

Nico Ndlovu has become a comedian and podcaster after arriving in the UK as a refugee from Zimbabwe. Image: Supplied

A Zimbabwean refugee who has made the UK his home has called for more employment opportunities for refugees after he overcame a decade in the asylum system to create a comedy career.

Refugee Week ambassador Nico Ndlovu had been living in Glasgow for a decade as he applied for the right to stay in the UK after fleeing Zimbabwe in 1994.

On the day he arrived in Scotland in 2008, Ndlovu pledged he would perform at Edinburgh Fringe, which was taking place at the time.

His dream came true almost a decade later when he entertained crowds as the master of ceremonies for Ghanaian dance group Fanti Acrobats International. Ndlovu now runs a podcast Siyakhuluma to help refugees and asylum seekers living in the UK and campaigns on migration, destitution and homelessness issues.

Now a recognised refugee with 2.5 years leave to remain in the UK, Ndlovu told the Big Issue he believes people who come to the country for safety should be allowed to contribute more to society.

“I think asylum seekers, refugees and migrants have been used as a tool for politicians to win their votes,” said Ndlovu, who is an ambassador for Refugee Week. “For me, I think there’s a lack of awareness from the public. They don’t know what the difference is between a refugee and an asylum seeker. Every case is different.

“The public are told we’re here to get your jobs, here to get the NHS, I’m here for safety.

“I noticed that jobs created for refugees don’t have space to grow. People should be given more space to actually explore what they can bring and what they can create instead of things being like, ‘Oh it can only do this please this is the only job we have for you.’”

Ndlovu fled Zimbabwe 30 years ago fearing his safety and went to South Africa.

He told the Big Issue he was from the region of Zimbabwe where the Gukurahundi killed 20,000 ethnic Ndebele people in a genocide back in 1983.

South Africa offered no place of sanctuary either. But arriving in the UK sparked a dream for Ndlovu.

“In 2000 I decided to leave South Africa because it was really bad for Zimbabweans. As a young person I thought, ‘I’ve got a good case’ because Zimbabwe was not safe and, secondly, I was looking for a place where I could be safe and have opportunities,” said Ndlovu.

“I moved to Scotland in 2008. I didn’t know about Scotland at all but I arrived in Edinburgh during the Fringe and I was with my Scottish friend – the first person I met in the country who is still my friend now.

“We were drinking and I said, ‘I’m going to perform at this festival.’ I didn’t know why I said that because, at the time, I didn’t have any clue about comedy. 

“Someone just told me I could do something – and then it happened. I never stop thinking about this.”

Ndlovu started working cash in hand for an agency until they changed policy and required workers to be paid into a bank account.

“That was difficult for me so I took a risk: I went to the bank with my old passport to try and open a bank account,” he said.

“They called the police on me. They arrested me for attempted fraud. The judge dismissed the case the next day and said it was a migration issue.”

Ndlovu spent three months in a detention centre and began the long process of claiming asylum.

On New Year’s Day this year, he was given leave to remain for a 2.5-year period before he must apply again.

“My case was refused many times. I kept appealing,” he said.

“I don’t know if I was excited. I was a bit disappointed because I don’t know if I’m really happy about two and a half years after 24 years. I think that to me it seems like an insult but it’s still better than nothing. But I think I can progress and do a lot more than before.

“Before there were things I could not access without the right identification, like work. So instead of thinking negatively, I want to use these two and a half years very wisely and be creative.”

While he was trapped in the asylum system, Ndlovu threw himself into activism and entertainment.

He has been taking part in comedy open night mics since 2015 and finally got his nod at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017. He has returned in the years since.

“Even now I’m still excited about it. Every time I want to create something, I know it’s possible, that I can do this,” he said.

“I write about cultural differences in my comedy. I always use this joke about when I arrived in the UK and British dogs – they can’t walk themselves. What are you walking a dog? That doesn’t happen in Africa.

“One of the things I noticed is that outside the bank you often see ‘free cash’. If you’re from Africa, you can spend all day there waiting for free cash. The English language can confuse people.

“I was born in two worlds – half my life here and half my life there and when you combine these two lives together it is amazing. Completely wonderful.” 

Away from comedy, he has also become an activist.

Ndlovu has worked with NACCOM – a UK-wide network tackling destitution among people seeking asylum, refugees and migrants with no access to public funds – as a researcher to use his lived experience of the asylum system for research.

In lockdown he started a podcast called Siyakhuluma We Talk.

The podcast helps refugees and asylum seekers navigate issues such as education, volunteering, working, banking and finance and more in the UK.

“I always make this joke: because no one was talking to me,” said Ndlovu when asked why he started the podcast during lockdown.

“But the truth is I thought our voice needed to be heard because during the lockdown there was nowhere to go, there were no projects or charities to go to.”

Refugee Week ambassador Nico Ndlovu
Nico Ndlovu’s comedy focuses on cultural difference between the UK and Africa. Image: Supplied

Homelessness, too, has been a subject close to Ndlovu’s heart. He has been turned away from support because of his immigration status while on the streets, he told the Big Issue.

He is due to deliver a workshop at the Museum of Homelessness next month.

“I think refugees should be given opportunities,” said Ndlovu. “I’ve been homeless, I know how bad it is when the day ends and you don’t know where you’re going. It’s so painful and it’s really sad because you’re just wandering around. We should stop homelessness for refugees.

“Everyone’s got this feeling and dream to do something and they should be able to do it.”

Immigration has been a big part of the general election campaign with the issue the third most important issue to the public, according to Ipsos’ Issues Index behind only the NHS and the economy.

Ndlovu has been following closely and plans to vote now that he is allowed to, hoping for a better future in the UK for people who have fled their native country for safety like him.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? Get in touch and tell us moreBig Issue exists to give homeless and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy of the magazine or get the app from the App Store or Google Play.

Support your local Big Issue vendor

If you can’t get to your local vendor every week, subscribing directly to them online is the best way to support your vendor. Your chosen vendor will receive 50% of the profit from each copy and the rest is invested back into our work to create opportunities for people affected by poverty.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Labour warned that crackdown on shoplifters risks 'criminalising' poverty: 'Some are out of options'
shoplifting
Shoplifting

Labour warned that crackdown on shoplifters risks 'criminalising' poverty: 'Some are out of options'

Premier League clubs step up gambling sponsorship on front of shirts ahead of ban: 'It's shameful'
A montage of Premier League shirts from Brentford, Everton, Southampton, Nottingham Forest, and Crystal Palace, over a pixellated backdrop of Wembley Stadium as Southampton FC returned to the Premier League
Exclusive

Premier League clubs step up gambling sponsorship on front of shirts ahead of ban: 'It's shameful'

Summer holiday childcare costs surge to more than £1,000 per child: 'Stressed out to the max'
child drawing
Childcare

Summer holiday childcare costs surge to more than £1,000 per child: 'Stressed out to the max'

I was in a violent relationship. I wouldn't have got free without financial help
Person using ATM
Financial inclusion

I was in a violent relationship. I wouldn't have got free without financial help

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know

Support our vendors with a subscription

For each subscription to the magazine, we’ll provide a vendor with a reusable water bottle, making it easier for them to access cold water on hot days.