Stranded abroad: A Trini’s story of life in the UK during the pandemic

Tinikia Charles was stuck in the United Kingdom after Trinidad and Tobago placed a ban on travel to the twin-island republic.

Determined to work as a forensic psychologist thanks to ‘Reid Spencer’ from the series Criminal Minds, Tribagonian Tinika Charles temporarily relocated to the United Kingdom to pursue her dream.

Charles, 23, was one of many Caribbean students stranded outside her country when the pandemic was declared in March last year. When she was awarded her Master’s in Forensic Psychology last September, it was the end of an arduous feat.

Charles left her home in Trinidad and Tobago to purse a graduate degree in the UK.

In March 2020 when Birmingham City University gave students the option to return of returning homes to complete their programmes online, that option was not viable for Charles as travel to Trinidad was not allowed.

The island’s government closed its international borders to all travellers, including nationals, and implemented an exemption process for those wishing to return home. Tinika, born and raised in the hills of Laventille, Port of Spain had not lived alone before her UK move and had to face the challenges of grappling with the unprecedented situation on her own.

Tinikia Charles purses a Master’s in Forensic Psychology at the Birmingham City University.

“While everyone returned to their families to endure the lockdown, I had to endure it alone and, to say the least, it was difficult for me.” This was when the situation at hand mentally solidified, she said. “I began to feel as though I was alone, my friends who would do routine check-ins and even my flat mates began packing up their dorms to return to their homes.”

Lockdown, food rationing and unemployment, all while reading for her Master’s, which she completed with merit, were just a few of the struggles she endured.

“In the beginning, around March 2020, there was virtually no support that was extended by my home country.” She said calls to the High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago’s office in London sent her in circles. However, support eventually came in August through the government’s Humanitarian Assistance grant which provided help with expenses for stranded citizens. When her tenancy agreement ended, it was her friends who offered her shelter.

The UK underwent several phased of lockdown during the pandemic as cases soared.

The journey was financially tough as Charles’ only support, her family in Trinidad, had its own problems. “My mother had to shut her business as it was deemed unessential and my father, while being classed as an essential worker, was forced to take on fewer hours at work.” Her parents, who financed her tuition and living expenses, now found it difficult to support her.

As a freelance mentor working with disadvantaged and at-risk youths for several years, she was faced with her own mental health and anxiety struggles. “It made me regret my decision to leave home in the first place,” Charles said.

The trial of balancing her course and quarantine with limited necessities saw her penning a letter to the university to be withdrawn. Now, with her degree awarded she says, “thankfully, the university offered support services which helped individuals who were afflicted with mental health challenges to be able to navigate such spaces.”

After almost a year of wait, she was finally granted an exemption to return home last January, arriving on the 30th of the month. Now qualified to work as a forensic psychologist, the job hunting process is on in earnest. Grateful to be reunited with her family, Charles continues to brave life navigating the pandemic while holding on to her career passion and reacclimatising to life in Trinidad.

— Jody-Ann Thompson