The caring face of a service that helps the asylum-seekers

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The Independent Online

Without warning, without parents and without the faintest grasp of English, four teenagers slipped into Newcastle upon Tyne last week and seemed to be heading for a life on the streets.

Without warning, without parents and without the faintest grasp of English, four teenagers slipped into Newcastle upon Tyne last week and seemed to be heading for a life on the streets.

But they were saved by an organisation which has been quietly fielding the North-east's less welcome visitors for six years.

The North of England Refugee Service, which started with eight full-time staff and now has 51, offered neither an extravagant reception nor hope of a permanent stay when the four – one South American and three Iraqis – wandered up to its first-floor, city-centre premises.

They sat in a gloomy waiting area and stared at red-painted walls plastered with posters offering benefit advice, before a place became available at one of five interview booths. Eventually, they ended up with the Immigration Service.

"They just turned up in the back of a lorry and somebody sent them to us," the organisation's chief executive,Daoud Zaaroura, said. "They are unaccompanied children. Something has to be done with them."

The Home Office contracts the service to provide the advice refugees are due under the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Bill. Assisting with benefit and housing advice takes up much of the resource. But the organisation also provides translation for refugees, drawing on a pool of 160 translators in 40 languages who earn up to £30 an hour.

It has also helped to put 34 qualified immigrant doctors through six months' training to make them capable of working in British hospitals.

But it is in race relations it appears to be achieving most. Ethnic integration has been difficult in the North-east. The National Front has been prominent in Sunderland, where 30-year-old asylum-seeker Peyman Bahmani was murdered. Amid rising tensions, the Refugee Service helped cool frayed tempers in meetings at a police station the day after.

Mr Zaaroura, a Palestinian who arrived in the UK in 1992, said the Community Fund's £201,000 covered a small part of its remit. "By assisting in integration, we and other charitable organisations, like the Community Fund, are empowering refugees to contribute more towards British society," he said.

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