Page last updated at 15:41 GMT, Friday, 11 July 2008 16:41 UK

Songs of joy amid the hardship

Marshall Tafadzwa Chomore with his cousin Tapiwa Maponga and Nevaeh
Marshall Tafadzwa Chomore (left) wants to "go home and be somebody"
Hundreds of the Zimbabweans who have been left in "limbo" in Britain have come to London to rally in support of the right to work.

They told stories of hardship and hopelessness. Exiled from their troubled native land yet refused asylum status or leave to remain in the UK, they must report regularly to the government - but they are not allowed to work.

They fear years of enforced idleness mean they are losing the skills they once had.

One man who did not give his name had come from Sheffield to the rally. "I used to have a shop in Matabeleland, but they burned it," he said.

He has been in this country since 2003. Does he want to go back? That is a problem too, he says. "I've got nothing now. Where am I going to start?"

Praise Jesus

But before the rally the exiles fill a very, very English church with hymns and prayers in Shona, Ndebele and English, with cheering and applause.

The service of prayer for Zimbabwe at St Margaret's, Westminster, was due to start at noon - but proceedings got going well before that as the choir practised the hymns, and soon had the congregation on its feet, swaying, clapping and joining in.

Marshall Tafadzwa Chomore, 28, who lives in Surrey, translates the hymn - "I need to praise Jesus; No better name than His".

It is a tragedy for those who are skilled not to be allowed the dignity to contribute to this country
Dr John Sentamu

Marshall explains that he came to this country eight years ago and studied for a National Vocational Qualification in adult health.

He worked for a while on a "one-to-one basis" looking after a man with a spinal injury - then the patient had had to go into a home, and Marshall could not take up formal work.

"They don't come out and make it clear what they want us to do," says Marshall. He has an interview on his asylum status due next month, and hopes that will enable him to work and study.

The government says failed asylum seekers will no longer be deported. "They won't send me, but I'll still be nobody," he says.

He says he wants to develop his skills and "get myself a profession" so that "one day I can go home and be somebody rather than just going back".

If Zimbabwe became democratic overnight, he says, it would still take years to "put things right" and to contribute, he would need training here because the schools in Zimbabwe have ceased to function.

Walter Semwayo
Accountant Walter Semwayo says that sometimes he goes without food

One by one, Zimbabweans tell their individual stories between the prayers. "I was an engineer but I cannot practise here," says one. "I pray the British government and people will allow us to maintain our dignity."

Murmurs of approval grow into applause - this happens every time the word "dignity" is mentioned.

"I was a police officer," a woman tells the congregation, "I have been separated from my daughter for eight years and she's only 12."

Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, gives the address. More than any other one person, he embodies new life being breathed from Africa into the British Church - and soon has the congregation cheering him on.

I'm being wasted - I'll end up old
Walter Semwayo

"God - believe me He is active; He may be slow but He is active," he reassures his hearers. "God pulls down the mighty from their seats and raises up the humble... He did not create this world so that evil might triumph."

And he chides Britain: "It is a tragedy for those who are skilled not to be allowed the dignity to contribute to this country." That word again.

Walter Semwayo, 43, a former accountant, tells the BBC News website how his office was ransacked and his house destroyed in Zimbabwe.

His asylum claim was rejected, he says, because he could not prove he was a member of the Movement for Democratic Change. Every month he has to come from his home in Barking to central London to report to the Home Office.

He studied information technology at a college of further education and was told he had been accepted at university - but only if he could pay the many thousands of pounds in overseas student fees.

Good resource

Walter hopes he can be granted exceptional leave to remain so he can get his degree.

"Then if Zimbabwe goes back to sanity I can go back there to work - I will be an accountant and an information technology graduate and I'll be a good resource for the country."

As it is, the support he gets from his local council is not enough - he must pay for electricity and gas and "sometimes I go without food".

"I'm being wasted," he says, smiling grimly. "I'll end up old."

Florence Matongo, 42, from Wandsworth, has three children in Zimbabwe. She came here in 2002.

Florence Matongo
Florence Matongo: "I'm trying to keep up the skills I used to have".

Her asylum application was refused and in 2005 she was detained for seven days and told she was going to be deported. She was released on the day she was supposed to be flown out.

For years she was told she was not allowed to do work - paid or unpaid. The latest letter she had from the British authorities did not mention unpaid work, so she has been doing volunteer work at a help desk for people attending court, and as a receptionist for a project for elderly people.

"I am trying to keep up the skills I used to have," she says, so that when she can work again she will not be like someone who is just starting out. "My typing speed has gone right down," she laments.

"I want to study for a degree. This can give an opportunity to people like us - we will be the next generation in Zimbabwe."

The Strangers into Citizens campaign estimates that there are 11,000 Zimbabweans in "limbo" in the UK, unable to work. It is calling for them to be granted two years' exceptional leave to remain so they can work and study.

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