It is hard to be an adult when you feel like you haven’t had the chance to be a child.
This simple statement has stayed with me over the last 12 months of working with young refugees and asylum seekers. Among them, a 17-year-old boy forced to sleep in a railway station for months; and another who witnessed the killing of his brother and father and escaped from his home country in fear of his life.
Nobody should be exposed to so much trauma, especially at such a young age. Adolescence is traditionally a time of uncertainty and opportunity, for first loves and lessons learned. For young refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, however, leaving behind their homes, their friends and their families has meant the common aspects of being a teenager are things they can rarely enjoy.
For them, sneaking out is a dangerous boat ride across the Mediterranean in the dead of night, while road trips are not fun excursions with friends, but tense journeys clinging to the undercarriages of lorries or in cars with strangers and promises of safety. Getting into trouble is being caught by border police and returned – and being glued to your phone is not a sign of a social media obsession, but of desperately trying to contact the loved ones you were forced to leave behind.
This is why a little over a year ago, three charities – the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council and UpRising – came together to provide tailored support for the more than 2,200 unaccompanied children who applied for asylum in the UK in 2017, and help shoulder some of the burdens that have forced them to grow up so quickly.
The Surviving to Thriving project combines the different specialisms of each charity, meaning we can address the full range of needs of those we help. In our first year, funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery enabled us to reach 214 vulnerable young people to help them understand their rights, develop important life skills, establish friendship groups and access the mental health support they need to rebuild their lives in the UK.
All the young people we support arrived alone after losing or being separated from family members and braving dangers – including exploitation, trafficking and hunger – to make it here. While a small number were reunited with family members after arriving in the UK, many more have had to build their own support network instead. In addition, distressing experiences along the migration route leave many children and teenagers plagued by nightmares, while the painfully long periods of uncertainty as they wait for their asylum claim to be decided can create and exacerbate mental health issues.
In response, the Refugee Council ensures that these young people have therapeutic support to cope with this destabilising period, while the British Red Cross helps them better understand the asylum process and their rights in the UK to make them feel more secure in their situation. Together with practical workshops, as well as artistic, musical and sporting activities, we can provide them with respite from what they’re going through – and help them adjust to their new lives for the long-term.
Hama* joined the project after Isis forced him from his home in Iraq. “Sometimes I can’t get to sleep or I will wake up in the night,” he explains. “So the Red Cross had a session about how to sleep better and I’m a lot better than I used to be. The sessions help me with my daily life.”
These young people have endured more hardship than most of us face in our lifetimes, but they don’t want pity; instead they ask for opportunities to demonstrate what they have to contribute to society. To facilitate this, UpRising offers social action schemesto empower them to share their experiences, through film, with their new communities.
It’s been incredible to witness the difference this project can make. We can’t take away what they’ve been through, but we can ensure they have something to look forward to. Something as simple as a friendly football match can mean a few hours of distraction from the reality of asylum claims or social isolation, and a return to the life they left behind.
Ayman*, an avid footballer and Arsenal fan, told me: “Football helps me if I’m feeling worried or stressed, it makes me relaxed. I’ve been watching Arsenal play since I was young, in Sudan. When we play football, we are just children again.”
These young people should be treated as children and teenagers first, refugees second, and we pledge to spend the next 12 months supporting them to grow in their own time and thrive.
*Names have been changed
- Kalyani McCarthy is national project manager for Surviving to Thriving at the British Red Cross