Over 6,000 miles separate Liverpool from Jacob Viera’s home city of Nairobi. To say he felt far from home on arriving at the Birley Court residence for asylum-seekers on Percy Street would be an understatement. It was November 2014. Jacob was 18. Yet he found a place of welcome at St Anne’s Church.
‘It was so cold and the language and culture were different but the people from this church really supported me. I didn’t have any family or anybody and that was the first place I went to and all the lovely people welcomed me,’ he says. ‘They wanted to know where I’d come from, and wanted to hear my story.’
The story they heard – of the promising young Kenyan footballer electrocuted by a drugs gang – is an arresting one. Thankfully, it comes today with a few new chapters, featuring his wife and young daughter and a fresh footballing challenge as a referee on the FA’s CORE (Centre of Refereeing Excellence) programme. A story retold on the Football Association’s website during National Refugee Week in June – complete with a photo of his parish priest, Father Peter Morgan. ‘I always say Fr Peter is just a living saint,’ says Jacob. ‘One thing he’ll never say is no. It’s not in his vocabulary.’
Let’s start at the beginning, though. It was in June 2014 that Jacob’s refusal to cooperate with a gang who had asked him to take drugs into Tanzania during a football trip nearly cost him his life. Returning home one day, he was electrocuted when opening his front door. ‘The only thing I remember is I put my hand to open the door and then … bang! I was unconscious. After I’d been electrocuted my skin turned very dark and there were pink spots where the skin came off my face. My neighbour saw wires connected to the door handle which went right to the socket.’
Jacob was then playing football in Kenya’s top flight. Two months later he arrived in Britain for a trial at Newcastle United. It was Liverpool, though, that would become his home and St Anne’s his place of support after the rejection of his initial application for asylum – and then a failed appeal. ‘It feels like the end of the world but Fr Peter said, “You’ve got to keep trying and got to keep praying”. I used to report to the Home Office every week and he used to take me and explain to them we’d lodged a new appeal “so give him some more time”.’ It was Fr Peter who arranged for a fellow parishioner, retired solicitor Peter Simm, to help with a second appeal.
Support came too from Everton Football Club. Stuart Carrington, then the academy manager, invited Jacob to train with the youth teams. Mike Salla and his team at Everton In The Community paid for a series of courses. ‘They made sure I kept myself busy while waiting for my decision,’ says Jacob. ‘I kept believing and never gave up. I knew that at the end of the tunnel there’d be some light.’ He was right. A cruciate ligament injury sustained on the football field led him into refereeing and by 2017/18 he had received the Liverpool Match Official of the Year award. He has since refereed an England v Portugal Under-16 international. Last May, meanwhile, the Home Office granted him leave to remain in the UK.
His next goal? To be a Premier League referee. ‘It doesn’t happen in a day or a week or a month, it takes time,’ says a 24-year-old who knows plenty already about the value of perseverance.