We’ve all seen it on the news. We’ve watched the exodus of men, women and children with a mounting sense of horror and helplessness. We know that there are thousands upon thousands of children displaced from their homes and everything they’ve ever known. We know many of these children are on their own, traumatised, bewildered and afraid.
We live in the age of information, where, from the comfort of our armchairs we can witness the plight of others. Never have we been so armed with the images, the soundtrack of suffering which could allow us to put ourselves relatively effortlessly into the shoes of others.
And yet I am struggling to conjure the words to explain how it feels to come face to face with the reality of what is happening to these children. What do I feel? Angry? Yes. Humbled? Yes. Heartbroken? Yes. Filled with admiration and respect? Conscious and ashamed of the shallowness of our society? Yes. Yes. Yes. Overwhelmed? Often.
Please forgive me for focussing on how I feel in all this; it’s simply that I can’t speak for the boy who has turned up on our doorstep with just the shirt on his back and no words in English to express the enormity of what is happening to him. I can only speak for me.
A moon landing
Let’s step away from the situation these children have fled. Let’s ignore for now the journey they have made and the terror they’ve experienced. Let’s meet them where they are. In England. In 2016. With no understanding of the language. And even less understanding of the culture. Where water comes out of the tap and not the well. Where a room is lit up by the flick of a switch. Where images are everywhere. Where people make decisions for you but struggle to communicate them to you.
During his first week with us, our young lad came to watch my birth children’s sports day. He did this as he does everything- with staggering good grace. I have been to every one of my boys’ sports day but this year I saw it through his lens. I felt like I had landed on the moon. I watched as parents turned up in bright dresses, tshirts and shorts. I watched them slapping on the sunscreen and laughing carelessly amongst themselves. I watched them cheer and clap their children. And our young lad watched too. I watched as the children lined up for the final race, the object of which is to run the length of the field with a cup of water and empty the cup into a bucket at the other end. I wondered what he made of such frivolous use of such a precious resource. I felt strangely detached from the whole thing. Perhaps I am feeling a little of what he is. In the same way that a vaccination introduces a little of the disease, I’m acutely aware of his discomfort, his confusion, his awkwardness and I feel a measure of it myself.
Questions, questions and more questions
One of the few things I knew about our lad before he arrived was that by the time he got to us, he would have been subjected to questioning. His mobile phone and any contact numbers would have been taken from him. He would have been asked again and again for his name, his age, his reason for being here, details of the journey he’d made, and where he was trying to get to. It is little wonder that he turned up looking hunted, exhausted and in a state of utter shock. I was determined that in us he would find a question-free-zone. That’s not to say we don’t have plenty of questions but we have to be patient and let the answers come out in the wash.
Once the social workers had left, he must have felt bereft, alone, afraid and confused. He must have wondered what was happening and what his future held. He must have been anxious for the parents whom he could no longer contact. Did he cry? Did he get agitated? Did he rage against his predicament? No, he calmly allowed me to lead him upstairs to his bedroom. He showered and he let me take his dirty clothes to wash. All he owned in the world he was handing over to me. I felt the weight of that. I knew they had to be clean and dry and waiting for him in the morning. We’re all he’s got right now, in this strange place. He’s going to have to trust us. I want to be worthy of that trust.
With the aid of an interpreter, we explained that we are his carers, that we are here to care for him, to clothe him, feed him, to worry about him, to help him settle in. He is completely without power in this new world he has landed in. And this powerlessness too, we have an understanding of. There are many decisions we will never be able to make on his behalf, but I focus on the ones we can make. So we decide to provide a place for him to heal and to recuperate. We decide we will try to do all we can to help him rebuild his life, whether that be with us or not. But before all of that we decide to just let him be. One day at a time.
I can’t help thinking of the mother he has left behind. She is in my sleeping and my waking and I pray that she will soon know he is safe. I wonder what on earth she must be going through. How much she must have loved him to let him go. And here he is, in our care. I feel the weight of this too. And it is wonderful and terrifying in equal measure.
But I know whatever I am feeling, he is feeling it more. I watch his bravery and I’m humbled by it and I don’t say that glibly. He’s brave, he’s strong, he’s calm and my gut tells me he’s honest. I believe he can make it, and we’re ready and willing to help him.
When I look at him, I look the world in the face, warts and all. I can’t change the world but we just might be able to make a difference to his life. This is not heroism on our part; the hard work is his. It is, after all, he who now has to piece together a new life from the detritus of the one he has left behind.
The Fostering Network has launched a new guide for foster carers on supporting unaccompanied asylum seeking children. The guide, which is relevant UK-wide and is suitable for foster carers who are new to caring for unaccompanied asylum seeking children or who have been doing so for some time, is available to download as an eBook for £2 each or £20 for 20.