Trafficked to the UK from Nigeria as a child, 33-year-old professional boxer Bilal Fawaz is still in a legal limbo, awaiting British citizenship. The boxer continues to fight in the ring for the British national team.
Life can be full of obstacles, delivering blows that either build you up or break you down. For Bilal Fawaz, his life’s obstacles motivated his pursuit to become a professional boxer.
Fawaz was born in Lagos to a Beninese-Nigerian mother and a father of Lebanese origin. During his early years, his mother raised him as a single parent. Fawaz said his early days were peaceful, despite an absent father.
“It was difficult to accept, but I saw my mother doing everything possible to make me and my other brothers and sisters happy. When you are a child, you want simple things and I quickly understood that life can unexpectedly take a turn for the worse ,” recalled Fawaz.
At the age of eight, his uncle took him in after his mother, unable to care for all of her children, asked for help.
In his uncle’s household, Fawaz discovered combat sports by watching karate films out of the corner of his eye as he did household chores. Jackie Chan became his idol of him.
“I was punching bags of rice and laundry with my fists and feet, to vent frustration and try to channel my negativity. Without even knowing it, I was starting to build myself up as a fighter because I had no choice,” Fawaz said. “It has always been my outlet, and it was my only possibility of escaping a daily life that no child should have, even if it was only for a few hours.”
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Becoming a victim of human traffickers
Fawaz’s life took another unexpected turn. His uncle informed him that his biological father finally wanted to meet him.
At 14 years old, Fawaz was offered the opportunity to go to London to meet his father and start a new life. He took a flight from Lagos and arrived in a new country with a much colder climate.
A group of men claiming to be family picked up the young Fawaz at Heathrow Airport, and brought him to a residence north of London.
At first Fawaz felt ecstatic, imagining the possibility of a happier and better future. But his arrival in the English capital quickly turned into a nightmare.
“I arrived at this house and I was told that my father would come in the next few days to pick me up. I soon understood they weren’t going to let me do anything; I couldn’t even go to the garden to play or get some fresh air. I was trapped in an ambush and my father wasn’t going to come,” he recalled.
At the house, he was treated like a slave. The traffickers whipped him with television cables and forced him to work. Fawaz suffered from numerous forms of physical abuse.
“I was taking beatings all day and I couldn’t see the end of the tunnel. I was broken physically and mentally, but I had no choice but to think of a better tomorrow,” he said. “I was whipped and treated like no human being should ever be treated. I was caught up in human trafficking in its most horrible dimension.”
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One morning, Fawaz summoned up his courage and decided to take advantage of the absence of his abusers to escape.
He ran for several kilometers before a passer-by noticed him, offered him assistance and accompanied him to the nearest social service center.
Seeking recognition through boxing
As a teenager, Fawaz moved through several institutions and foster families.
He discovered boxing by chance, while walking on the campus of Brunel University. Fawaz remembered the gloves, the boxing ring, the sweat, the endurance.
“I saw this as fate, as something that was going to help me fight my past wounds, but also and above all as a way to feel part of a group, of a club, of a family I no longer had,” said Fawaz . “When you are alone, you cling to simple things and you try to be accepted by others as you are. Boxing gives me the feeling of being part of a group, a “clan”, an “entity.””
Fawaz quickly stood out as a boxer. His trainer at the time, Tobias Jones, who became like a surrogate father for Fawaz, said he would never forget their first meeting.
“He was special, very talented even without having ever worn gloves in his life. He was always driven by the desire to make a place for himself among us, without ever discrediting training partners,” Jones said. “He always wanted to be a good teammate, a good guy, a good brother for the club. Bilal is a man who gone through hardships, but his selflessness has always been remarkable, he is a golden man.”
The young boxer gained experience in amateur fights where he quickly built a solid reputation for himself.
The fight for success and citizenship
The legal challenges, however, remained. After having taken responsibility for Fawaz for years, the English Home Office threatened him with expulsion.
In 2014, authorities placed him in a detention center and planned to deport him to Nigeria. Fawaz was released after his trainer from him and local officials pressured the administration to assess his application file for citizenship. The authorities never issued him an official document. Instead, they acknowledge him as a victim of human trafficking.
But Fawaz trains at an international level with the UK national team.
“Because of the administration, I was unable to fight during the Rio Olympics in 2016. It remains a deep injustice for me,” Fawaz said.
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In 2021, Frank Warren, the agent of world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, offered him a contract.
“Again, I had to accept lesser terms because I can’t travel outside of the United Kingdom. I can only fight in the UK, but I see the beginning of the end of the tunnel; I consider this as a great victory that will bring other victories,” Fawaz said.
On February 12, he knocked out his opponent, Vladmir Feishchauber, by the end of the fourth round. Three weeks later, I won a second time with a knockout.
“The feeling of winning against all odds and showing what I can do is unique and impossible to describe. I had tears in my eyes, I thought of all the hardships I went through and I can only be grateful and thank all the guys who help me and who have always believed in me. These guys are my family!”
Today, Fawaz wants to become one of the best boxers in the world. But another fight continues: obtaining a British passport.
“I’m doing everything I can to obtain it, and I should have had it a long time ago. It’s important for me because I’m proud to be English by adoption. I want to represent the country and inspire other young people who are going through the same kind of difficulties I went through,” Fawaz said.
“It would also be a sign of individual recognition to be part of a country and serve as an example to the youth and the citizens here that we must always fight no matter the cost!”