On the Romania team: Surelle Stevens

Engage London’s Surelle Stevens always has the longest eyelashes, stylish wigs and the best soundbites. Here’s her story. Interview by Nicola Baird

Surelle Stevens talks to camera (c) Engage LONDON

Q: What’s your connection with Islington?
I was born in Pretoria, South Africa. Then I moved to the UK – Waltham Forest – when I was 11 years old (Year 7). At 16 I went to City and Islington College, at Angel and did Media, English literature and Drama. That’s how I got introduced to Islington and fell in love with Angel. It’s one of my favourite places. It’s where it’s happening.

I used to be homeless and stay at Pilion Trust in 2014. Then when I was working I’d go back and help once a week, just drop in. I’d go and speak to people, see how they’re doing. Like an emotional sister. I’m an outreach worker! One day Savaas told us about this idea Hear Me Speak and said if I was interested come and do it. We fell in love with the project. It’s on a bigger scale.

Q: How did you become homeless?
I went to Central School of Speech and Drama in Swiss Cottage, studying performing arts and acting for screen. I was this 18-year-old with aspirations to become a super star. Then I met somebody who changed my life dramatically. It was like a movie. My mum was working nights all the time – we had nothing.

He was 28. He said move into his house in Hampstead. We lived really well. I had things I never thought I’d have. First year it was magic.

Eventually it turned into an abuse situation. I was a battered woman. I stayed because I wanted to finish university and I was ashamed to tell my mum – I was afraid to fail. Everyone knew he’d changed my life and given me what I wanted. I felt like I owed him.

It’s a tough story for me: be careful what you wish for. Me and my friends would take the 38 and go to the bars in King’s Cross and Park Lane to bump into a man. But I bumped into a man who doesn’t just change your life, he takes your life. That’s what rich, messy people do, they take drugs and leave you dependent.

One day in December, when it was really cold, he just came home and said I should take my fur coat off and I should leave. He took everything he bought me. Nothing I had on me I owned. I didn’t know what to do. I was like what? He took the key back and I was out. I just got on a bus. I heard someone speak about the Pilion Trust on that bus, the 394. I googled it and I spoke to Savvas (CEO of the Pilion Trust). I was meant to move in. I was so distraught though, I didn’t.

I was thinking how can I go from mega mansion and flying first class? I’d lived with him for three years. I loved him. I was 21 but it was a bad time for me. He just left me with a fur coat and a duffle bag. I’ve still got them.

A week later I called Savvas again.

Q: How did Pilion Trust help you?
At Pilion they do an assessment to see what your needs are. They gave me a key worker. Savvas and Sam are really nurturing. I wasn’t allowed friends when I was with him. I had no money. I really believe the Pilion Trust saved my life. I was broken. There were so many shattered bones in my body you couldn’t even fix just one part.

They helped me get benefits and an address. I was there for one whole season. After that got housed at the YMCA. Then I fell ill and had major surgery. Then I got a house to stay and a job working for Amazon, the biggest company in the world. Just left a month ago.

I’ve been sober, no drugs, for five years. Didn’t go to rehab. I was so dumb. I was 18. It

It was the xmas I woke up. For three years I felt like I was asleep.

I live in Hackney with my mum now. I moved back home in August. I felt like I left my mum because I wanted to make it. I just dreamt about me and my dreams. Now I’m having to learn my mum again.

She’s confident, strong and a survivor. She was born to a white father and a black mother in the 1970s in apartheid South Africa. I was born in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. Our aspirations are just so different. For many years I don’t think she understood me, and I was so blind to the love at home that I went to look for it outside.

Q: How are you finding Engage London?
This project is allowing me and my peers to showcase on an international scale. We’re taking it to higher grounds and putting Islington on the map! We’re going to Romania. It’s been a learning experience. It’s new for all of us. Get to see different sides to people and see real raw talents.

This project exposes our strengths and lets us work on our weaknesses. It’s great for communication and sharing our thoughts around the world. I would never have spoken about knife crime and how to get around London safely. I was in my own conceited box.

I’ve learned media skills take more than meets the eye. There’s so much editing and planning, and it’s important to have knowledge and facts about the things that you speak on.

  • See Surelle on the TV panel live Question Time show here. She’s also presented on our podcast/radio show and joined all the workshops.

Surelle Stevens (right) with #HearMeSpeak colleague, Marcus, in City’s TV studio. (c) SS for Engage London


5 places Surelle likes in Islington

  • I used to work near Angel. It’s close to central London and east London where I’m from. The 56 and 38 buses are amazing. And I love to sit at Islington Green in the summer after a long day and reflect.
  • I love Upper Street because it is very vibrant and currant. Appeals to me because I love socialising.
  • I like to sunbathe and party in Finsbury Park when the sun is shining. It’s a good place for a picnic – jollof rice, chicken wings and frozen ice cream made into jello shots with tequila.
  • I get my wigs at Stroud Green Road.
  • I loved the church we slept in one Thursday night, St Mary Magdalen’s church, on Holloway Road. It’s magical – so nice. The 10 commandments were on the wall. Only slept there one time.

Surelle is one of the three members of Engage London team who is due to go to Romania to meet  Engage Europe. Safe travels, or as they say in Romania, cālātorii sigure.

I’ve learned media skills take more than meets the eye. There’s so much editing and planning, and it’s important to have knowledge and facts about the things that you speak on.

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