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First fostering placements: two lads from Yemen

Posted by Neil and Grace Bedford on 1st, September, 2015
Relevant tags: #firstplacement #fostercarerstories #sanctuaryseeking #western

We have been foster carers for around 13 years and our previous long-term placement had just left us under ‘challenging’ circumstances and we were looking forward to having a break for a couple of weeks. As is so often the case with fostering, things did not go exactly to plan and within 48 hours we had been asked to take two lads from Yemen, who were seeking asylum in the UK. We had always liked the idea of helping asylum seekers and before we had a chance to worry about every last potential difficulty, we had provisionally agreed.

We were told that the boys had been travelling for six months to reach the UK and knew very little English. We were told too, that they were brothers, practising Muslims and were 15 and 16 years old. Our 20 year old birth daughter lives with us and she was not at all sure when we explained that we wanted to take these two boys. There are many young people in the UK for whom the word ‘Muslim’ has sadly become closely linked to the word ‘Terrorist’ and my daughter (and her boyfriend) were very unsettled. Whilst we have no faith ourselves, we have always been interested in world religions and knew enough about Islam to regard it as a faith which was based upon caring, mutual respect, love and sharing. We explained this to our daughter and also reminded her of the very mixed history of the Christian Church through the ages. With some reluctance our daughter gave us her blessing and an initial meeting was arranged. I am delighted to say that our daughter now thinks the boys are lovely and her view of Islam is very rapidly changing – it has done her a great deal of good in fact.

We wanted to do this ‘properly’ and when we knew the boys were coming, we found out how to use a free translation tool on our laptop and gave ourselves a crash course in the Islamic religion and culture. Ours has always been a home of mixed cultures, music and cuisine and we did not expect too many problems in this respect. We assumed that the boys would need to visit a mosque at least once a week and we set out to find one. Some years back we had done a little work with the Malcolm X Community Centre in Bristol and held it in the highest regard. This excellent facility helps visitors from other countries who are seeking asylum in the UK by offering advice, basic education, legal support, free refreshments and so on. With the help of staff at this centre we found a mosque which should suit the needs of two young Yemeni, Arabic speaking, Muslims. We expected that the boys would need a halal diet but this was less of a problem. Whilst we are not Muslims, we often cook with halal meat anyway as the quality and flavour are so good and we bought enough to make a large pot of stew for the first day and to have some in reserve in the freezer.

The boys had arrived in Kent from Calais where they had been given an initial screening prior to being allocated to our local authority for housing. The boys came to our home with their social worker and an interpreter and a very helpful Muslim lady from FCA. Via the interpreter we told the boys that we were very happy to meet them and that they would be safe and well cared for in our home. We ran through the usual ‘Placement Start-up’ essentials, such as house rules and pocket money and health questions. The boys were both in generally good health but understandably traumatised and somewhat underweight. Oddly perhaps, our biggest worry was around our two little dogs. Whilst we might regard them as two more of our children, Islam traditionally sees them as dirty creatures to be avoided, with strict Muslims choosing not to touch them at all.

In typical fashion, our two dogs came to say hello and to our delight the boys thought they were great, fussing and stroking them straight away – what a relief. The next problem was going to be with language. We were alarmed at how little English the boys had, with the younger brother literally knowing only a few words of English and with us knowing no Arabic whatsoever. Next some questions were asked about the boys’ background and their ages. We had heard stories of adult asylum seekers pretending to be teenagers in order to find an easier route into the UK but if anything, our boys looked younger than they claimed to be. Whilst we had been told by the FCA Placements Team that they were 15 and 16, the boys told us that they were in fact 16 and 17. We were told that an ‘Age Assessment’ might be conducted in due course, along with a good deal of other interviewing which needed to take place. For now though, we were happy to go with the flow and just get the boys settled in as best we could.

So, we were left with the boys, who we showed around our home. They liked their rooms and put away their few belongings. What would we do now – this could be awkward? The younger brother looked towards our television and said “National Geographic” in very broken English. We eagerly found the right channel and the boys sat down to watch a programme which they were familiar with. At first we tended to use the laptop a great deal and the boys showed us a free application online which allowed them to use our ‘QWERTY’ keyboard to type Arabic, so that we could now communicate in both directions. This was great but not without pitfalls, as the translation does not always quite work as planned. English is a language full of ambiguity and it is essential to select your words carefully, to give the greatest chance of them having the same meaning when translated into Arabic.

In the first week we managed to enrol the boys in basic educational and sporting activities which should see them through until the local authority produce a plan for more formal education. We have found Arabic television and sports channels online and we will all now watch the Arabic version of Sky News on TV (although we must be careful as this can be upsetting). Sport is something which we can watch and enjoy together as the commentary is not essential and similarly music crosses many boundaries. We have met several people from the Bristol Muslim community, studied the part of Yemen where the boys are from and we already have a far better understanding of their culture and of the horrors which they have escaped from.  The boys are fitting into our family very well indeed but sadly they have fairly frequent nightmares and plenty of quiet times but they also laugh and join in well with family meals and so on.

After the first two weeks, we were not using the laptop at all most days. The eldest brother has slightly better English than we first thought but they are both very bright indeed and are learning at a terrific speed – and we have learned just a few words of Arabic too, which helps and (we hope) shows a little solidarity. Couple this with a few ‘charades’ and we all manage to communicate surprisingly well.

We have not pressed the boys for information but we make a note of things they say – even small things which may not mean much in isolation but which later start to link together like the pieces of a jigsaw. In this way we now understand something of their horrendous experiences, the murder of their parents, the loss of their siblings and an extraordinary and very dangerous journey through nine countries. From a personal point of view, we have never really found foster caring to be a very rewarding lifestyle in any way but we now feel that we are really contributing something worthwhile for these two young lads who so desperately want our care.

You should be aware though, that it is not all a bed of roses. Fostering is never straightforward and it seems that caring for young asylum seekers might bring a new set of experiences for us. For example, the UK media takes a very biased view of migrants at the moment and this has certainly been passed on to many UK citizens, with people who we have known for many years not universally supportive of our decision to take the boys.

We have spoken with a lawyer who is experienced in cases of asylum seekers and as a result we are expecting quite a lot of work to come our way, with many unfamiliar legal obstacles in front of us. There will need to be at least one very long day in London soon, when the boys must go through a more thorough screening procedure and our eyes are open to the option that these two loving brothers, who have come through so much together and who have nothing else in the whole world, might ultimately be separated.

After the third week things are starting to fall into place more. The boys are learning English at a good speed and we have added a few more words to our very limited knowledge of Arabic. We have been asked to write this description of our first few weeks with young people seeking asylum and we hope that you have found it interesting and that it has shown you that whilst tricky, such placements are entirely possible for experienced carers. It helps enormously if you are genuinely interested in the cultural needs of your placement and have a desire to learn from them as we are doing. We are looking forward to Hajj in September when we hope to have camel on the menu and to Christmas, which has never made much sense even to us, so we wonder what the boys will think if we bring a tree into the house. We are hoping that things will go well and that we will be in a position to write something again, perhaps early next year, to update you on how well our two Yemeni lads are getting on in their new home.

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