I’ve often thought that, for our foster son, coming to live with us must have been like being plucked from his bed and finding himself firmly ensconced on the moon. This is not because we are particularly strange per se but because of all the foreignness we came wrapped in.
Think about it. One day you are with your family and the next you are on a journey through who-knows-where to who-knows-what. Up to this point you’ve only ever known home, you’ve only ever known a life manacled by war and violence; you’ve had to live your life in hiding. You’ve lost family members, friends, freedom. But you’ve also had the comfort of a loving family, the familiarities of home: the language, the traditions, the food, the festivals, the way things are done.
And then one day it is all lost.
Everything familiar, good and bad, wiped out. Leaving a smudged and confusing tableau like ink wiped hastily from a whiteboard. A new narrative begins to write itself full of unfamiliar words, unimaginable scenes, loneliness, loss, suspicion, a new violence in an alien setting. I wonder if you’d long for the familiar fear rather than this new one. But it’s too late. What’s done is done and you have no choice but to accept it and move on. It is beyond the remit of your control.
I was mindful of all of this when our lad arrived. How out of place he was. How difficult it would be to trust us. Did our foreign tongue sound harsh to his ears? Did our safety and comfort overwhelm or offend him? Judging by the look in his eyes, what he felt was a paralysing terror.
What preoccupied me in those early days, in addition to attending to his immediate practical needs, was how we were going to help him rebuild his life from the ruins in which he found himself. It struck me that a new, healthy life had to be built on two foundations: a reconnection to the familiar, the loss of which left him floundering, rudderless. And a mapping out of the new so that it would not be so foreign and frightening for him. But how?
As a woman of faith one of the first affinities I felt for him was an understanding of how faith anchors you. I bought him a prayer mat and a Qur’an. I knew that he could not read or understand Arabic (the language that the Qur’an is written in) so I sourced a version that had both the Arabic and a translation in his own language. He later told me how much comfort he had drawn from this book during his long, dark, sleepless nights. It was obvious that he clung gratefully to the rituals of his religion, something he had been unable to do meaningfully on his journey. It was something familiar at last. We asked our Muslim friends to recommend a good mosque and we began taking him there on Fridays. He was still a fish out of water but he could dip his toe into a pool that held glimmers of the known.
Having worked with children who had had the same experiences as our foster son, I had existing relationships with some other lads from his home country. We introduced him to them and slowly our lad began to talk to them and form a bond with them. These friends have all lost brothers, cousins, parents and when our lad tells me that his friends are brothers to him, I understand that this is no simile. The bond they have is familial and tribal. It is vital to him.
But what is also vital is that as his foster carer, I need to be the safety net for him. I built my own relationships with his friends’ carers. We were able to keep an eye on them from a distance, keep track of where they were going and with whom, share concerns, put one another’s’ minds at rest. We were able to invite the boys into our houses and get to know them better. And when friendships developed outside of this group, I made sure I had addresses, phone numbers, Facebook profiles. Our lad’s social worker was able to go out and meet his friends and ensure he was safe. It was always clear that his longing for home, for the familiar, for the shared history, left our foster son vulnerable in ways he couldn’t really grasp.
These points of reference provided something of great value to him in the early days and continue to be his “go to” when things are tough. But it is no good giving someone a map of planet earth and asking them to use it to navigate the moon. We needed to work on familiarising him with the new.