When I first became a foster carer in 1990, I never considered caring for asylum-seeking children or refugees. It wasn't something I was even aware of, to be honest. My fostering career was conventional in the sense that I was housing and caring for challenging children from tumultuous backgrounds who often resented the fact they had to live with a stranger. Nothing I hadn't expected.
Then, around six years ago, I received a phone call asking whether I could urgently house a 15-year-old girl from north Vietnam. My knee-jerk response was "yes, of course", before I'd really had time to digest the request – or what accepting it would entail. The phone call proved to be a significant turning point in my life.
Thu arrived at my house looking frightened and bewildered. Through an interpreter, she explained that her father had owed someone money, and that one day men came to her home, assaulted her father and brother and raped her stepmother. The fact that she'd encountered such atrocities at such a young age, no – at all – horrified me. Thu's family had fled their village on foot, initially travelling to south Vietnam. From there they travelled on lorries with other refugees to Europe, but had become separated in Germany when Thu was ushered onto a separate lorry from the rest of her family. She couldn't speak any English and cried for the entire first week she lived with me. I knew it was imperative to provide a patient and secure environment for her; I wanted her to feel safe, but I was very much out of my comfort zone. I couldn't communicate with her to tell her it would all be OK with her and I couldn't replace the family she was clamouring for. You certainly need emotional resilience to foster, but Thu's situation was truly heartbreaking.
One of the problems social services face is a lack of people from ethnic backgrounds to act as foster carers for refugee children. Luckily for Thu, there was a Vietnamese community near my home, and an interpreter put us in touch with a lovely family. We visited them a few times and Thu visibly relaxed in their home. Eventually it was decided that she should move in with them; the family were overjoyed – the mother only had sons and was thrilled to have a young girl move into her household – and Thu settled into a family with whom she could communicate and feel culturally at home. It was a positive outcome, and a relief.
Fostering Thu was a baptism of fire, but it brought home the importance of fostering asylum-seeking children, as well as highlighting the difficulties that go with it. How to make a child feel safe and supported is a question all foster parents ask themselves. But how to achieve that in a country and culture that's completely alien to the child – it's a completely different ball game.
A few months after Thu left, I fostered a girl from Eritrea who had fled her home because of religious persecution. One evening, Helen had come home from school to be told by neighbours that her mother and father, who were both Pentecostal, had been taken away by the authorities; they'd been discovered holding religious worship in their house – a forbidden activity. Helen spent the night in her neighbour's house, hoping her parents would come home – they didn't. Her older sister helped Helen leave Eritrea, fearing she was in danger. Helen has no idea where her parents or sister are.
Making myself culturally aware of the backgrounds, religions and languages of the children I foster has been imperative in understanding how they feel and helping them to cope. On a personal level, it's also been incredibly enlightening in expanding my know- ledge of the world and the people in it. I've come to realise that Britons have a very sheltered view of the world; we take our rights, protection and the justice system for granted, which makes it hard for us to appreciate the fear and persecution suffered in other countries. We're very lucky.
I have also fostered three young men from Afghanistan, all of whom spent months travelling in the back of cramped lorries to get to England. All were fleeing the troubles of their country and were very frightened of being made to fight and kill people. When they arrived, they all spoke very little English but, after staying with me for between six to 18 months, they were confident enough to live independently.
At that time, none had received a decision on their right to remain in the UK. Unaccompanied children are usually given discretionary leave to remain in the UK until they are 18. Then, their application for asylum or refugee status is decided by the Home Office. If it's unsuccessful, they must return to their country of origin. It's a nerve-racking time for them, and I find it very difficult thinking about the fate of those who can't stay in the UK. I hope all the children I look after go on to have secure, happy lives – wherever they end up.
Abdul was 15 when he came into my care five years ago. Originally from Afghanistan, he'd moved to Iran with his family, but came to England because he said Afghans were treated as second-class citizens in Iran. Abdul is now 20 and has his own flat. He attends college part-time, loves football and is actively looking for employment. I still regularly talk to Abdul and am so proud of how he has settled into the country. He's currently awaiting the Home Office decision on his application and – like me – he's hoping his future lies here.
I've been surprised to encounter mixed feelings from the public about asylum-seeking children. It's difficult to digest the prejudice when all I see is vulnerable children, facing impossible situations and desperate for a steady existence. If the critic is a parent, I ask them to imagine allowing their own child to travel to another country for the chance of a better, safer life, knowing they may never see them again. I ask them go home and look at their teenage child and imagine that.
Luckily, most people see the positive side of fostering asylum-seeking children and are very supportive. Since meeting my partner, Barry, in 1996, he's registered as a foster carer and my daughter Del has also followed in my footsteps, which is wonderful. She's currently caring for a 16-year-old boy from Morocco who ran away from home after suffering years of abuse at the hands of his drug-addict father. He was living rough on the streets before he came to England, and is now supported and protected under Del's care. He's just started college and is very keen to learn English – what a transformation.
Fostering asylum-seeking children wasn't a route I chose to pursue – and it's not one that is widely known about – so I can only be grateful that it was drawn to my attention. I've had to draw on emotional and practical resources I didn't know I had. While each child's past is different, I've found that trust is gained through active listening, showing interest in the child's culture and experiences and endless patience. A good grasp of miming when you're lost in translation helps too. The children's adaptability and spirit never ceases to inspire me. One of the things they find amazing is that, in our country, they can say what they want without fear. It always reminds me what a privileged society we live in, so why shouldn't we share that with them?
*The names of the children mentioned in this feature have been changed.
Interview by Sophie Ellis
* According to the British Adoption and Fostering Association, 3,400 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) were looked after as of 31 March, 2010 – a decrease of 12 per cent from the previous year.
* 71 per cent of UASC are 16 or over; the majority are males.
* 42 per cent of UASC are Asian or Asian British – a percentage that has increased from 22 per cent in 2006. They mainly are placed in the Greater London area (70.5 per cent).
* Unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors have legal status under the Children Act 1989 and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 in England and Wales.
* In 2008, UASC came to the UK from 35 different countries. The largest number of applications came from Afghanistan at 1,740 followed by Iraq at 475 and Iran at 375.
* UASC are often seeking refuge from war and persecution. Many have been trafficked to the UK, leaving family and friends behind.
* There is no specific process to sign up to foster UASC; everyone applying to foster follows the same application and approval process. This usually involves contacting your local fostering service and submitting an application. The approval period can take from nine months to a year.
* Approved foster carers are given additional training to help them deal with the specific issues and sensitivities involved in looking after UASC.
Those interested in fostering or finding out about how to apply should visit couldyoufoster.org.uk or fostering.net or call the independent advice line Fosterline on 0800 040 7675 for more information.