Lucy Stevens works for a fostering service and fosters an unaccompanied asylum seeking child. In this blog Lucy talks us through her experiences of fostering.
Unaccompanied asylum seeking children are children who are separated from parents and relatives, outside of their country of origin, looking to claim asylum in this country.
Separated children who have entered this country to claim asylum have suffered great loss and trauma. The nature of their experiences, their life before separation and their journeys mean that these children are often serially traumatised. Before fleeing their home countries, children have likely witnessed and experienced for themselves war, persecution, slavery, or other human rights abuses. They have all too often lost loved ones to violent and traumatic deaths.
Shockingly, it is estimated that more than half the world’s refugees are children (nearly one in every 200 children) who have travelled a long and arduous journey during which they may have been sexually exploited, robbed and lied to.
Many children speak of the poor treatment they’ve received both at home and on their journeys, often at the hands of adults in authority such as the police or border officials. I remember when our boy arrived, I had never seen such naked fear and distrust in a child’s eyes. It was very hard to look at and I remember suddenly feeling infected by a piercing fear myself. His features seemed so harsh and hostile, for a second I had lost sight of the child. Then I remembered what I knew about the experiences he had most likely lived through and that he needed me to be kind, warm and reassuring.
The long haul
As with many children in care who have suffered trauma, separation and loss, progress may be slow and hard won. Add to that the obstacles relating to language, culture and religion, the bewilderment and deep insecurity the child feels about their future and you get an idea of the mountain they are expected to scale. And I haven’t even mentioned the asylum process yet.
It’s thought amongst many experts that the process of claiming asylum can further compound the child’s feelings of grief and loss and that the uncertainty and confusion it creates is yet another source of trauma for the child. It is critical that as a foster carer, you learn as much as possible about the asylum process and what happens at each stage so that you can communicate it to the child. I’ve learned that you cannot explain things enough. Does the child know what asylum even is? Do they know what a solicitor does? I often found that if I asked ‘Do you understand?’ or ’Do you know who the Home Office is?’ our lad would just say yes. When instead I asked him to explain to me his understanding of a solicitor, he was forced to concede that he could not. This allowed us to pitch our explanations at his level of comprehension. Always ask the solicitor to explain everything really clearly (with an interpreter present) to the child and don’t be afraid to ask the questions that the child might not.
There are some factors which research suggests really help a child to overcome some of the difficulties of establishing a new life. Education is one such factor. When education is open and supported and professionals work together to make it a positive experience, it is one of the most important factors in determining successful assimilation. Building a good relationship with the school, supporting the child in their learning and recognising the importance of education goes a long way to ensuring a positive experience for the child. Education is frequently cited by children as being one of the most important elements of their new life in the UK.
Another important factor in the mental well-being of asylum seeking children is access to cultural ties. It might be worth checking with the child’s social worker whether there are other carers caring for children from the same country locally.
Addressing trauma and symptoms of trauma in asylum seeking children can be tricky. It is not uncommon for children to experience flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, headaches, anxiety and depression. Children may take a long time to open up about these symptoms, insisting that everything is ok and may instead chose to withdraw or disengage from you. This can be incredibly hard to handle and easily comes across as rudeness, arrogance or coldness (and sometimes this can be the case, after all many of the children will be teens), but often their delivery belies the reality of what is going on in their head.
Someone once said to me that fostering can feel like pouring love into a void. I can well understand the sentiment behind this but I don’t believe that love and kindness is ever wasted. Building a safe life in a new country is not just about learning the language. It’s not just about doing well at school. It’s not solely about establishing good friendships. It is also about being shown how to heal from the life you’ve been dealt and to know that someone is there to help you with the new life you’ve been given. It has to be a foster carer’s hope that every act of understanding will have a positive impact on the life of a child regardless of whether you ever see the fruit first-hand. Fostering an asylum seeking child can be hard in ways that you can’t appreciate before doing it but it can be enormously rewarding too. Celebrate the successes, however small, and be real about the things you find difficult. At times it feels thankless and I’ve often wondered what on earth I’ve signed up for but I can’t regret opening my home and my heart to a child who has lost everything. And I can’t extinguish the hope for something better for him.
Our signpost - Supporting Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children – is available online and contains more information, advice and support on the subject.