Jemma Bere was in the middle of taking her A-levels when she received the shattering news: her mum had been hit by a car in Spain, and died. Jemma had stayed behind in Brecon, Mid Wales, when her mum, step-dad and their two small children went to start a new life in the small town of Albox, in Spain's Almeria region, in early 2001. Just a few months later, on 16 June 2001, she was told that her mum, Jayne, had been killed.
Even while grieving for her mum, Jemma felt the beginning of what was to be a constant source of doubt and worry over the next seven years: what would happen to her little half-siblings, three-year-old Alex and two-year-old Billie? How would they cope with being brought up in Spain by her unreliable step-dad?
Things hadn't been easy for a while: Jayne had been drinking for almost six years and had subsequently got involved with Richard – known as Shakey – who was also an alcoholic. They had two children together, Alex and Billie.
The decision to relocate to Spain came after a disastrous move to Ireland. "While there, my mum realised she had a problem with drinking and went into rehab; but Shakey was not up to admitting it." Jemma had gone back to Brecon to do her A-levels and her brother Calvin had gone to live with his father in Shrewsbury. But Alex and Billie, still toddlers, were taken into care by Irish social services after being neglected by their father during one of Jayne's stints in rehab. In an attempt to escape it all, the family moved to Spain.
But after Jayne's sudden death the situation got much more serious for Jemma's siblings. "Their dad had always been a drinker, but it got worse after mum died," said Jemma. "I was too young at the time to realise the implications. It was only after I went out there a few times that I realised he was getting worse."
Luckily, they found Marisa, an Argentinian nanny. Jemma is full of praise for this young woman, who was almost the same age as her: "She was fantastic. Shakey neglected the children and really they were brought up by Marisa."
Knowing Alex and Billie were in Marisa's safe hands, Jemma was able to get on with her life in the UK. An intelligent, driven young woman, Jemma did a degree in peace studies at Bradford University, and had grand ambitions: "I got really into my course; I wanted to be secretary general to the UN!" After graduating she got a good job with a national campaigning organisation in Bradford. Then another phone call changed everything – again. "In September 2006 I got a phone call from Marisa saying that her mum was ill and she had to go back to Argentina. Within a week of her leaving, the children were taken into care. Albox is a small town; everyone knew what the situation was."
Jemma went out to Spain, to liaise between the Spanish social services and Shakey. The conditions for his keeping the children were to get a house, a job and stop drinking. Jemma helped him get set up, "but it didn't exactly go to plan," she sighs. "He lost the house, the job, started drinking again. After that, I had very little do to with him."
By January 2007, social services decided that the children's father was never going to be able to look after them. Alex and Billie were set to go into foster care – in Spain. Jemma was suddenly faced with an enormous decision: to take on two young children, or to let them be fostered in a foreign country. There would be no guarantee of where they would be placed, if she could see them, or even whether they would be kept together. Jemma slept on it, and the following day said that she would take them on.
But it wasn't that simple. "The next two years were bureaucracy, basically," she explains wearily. "I contacted so many organisations, and everyone said it was too complicated. I just didn't tick boxes for anybody. It was a complete nightmare."
In the February, Jemma had signed papers for the Youth Social Centre, where the children were in care in Almeria city, to indicate her intention of looking after them. But she was kept in the dark until the end of April, when she was informed that Alex and Billie were in a smaller centre in the town of Vera, about 45 miles away from the provincial capital.
"I wasn't even told they'd been moved," she says. "They were living in a care home, which was basically an orphanage run by Catholic nuns. When I rang up the nuns they didn't have any idea who I was. It was a very strict atmosphere, they didn't have many toys, the clothes were all hand-me-downs, and there were lots of kids with behavioural difficulties." Alex, now aged 12, speaks tentatively about his experiences: "it wasn't very nice. It was a bit boring, and there were always lots of people around you."
Jemma moved back to Brecon in June 2007, to be nearer her other relatives. "I worked in a pub to bring in some money. There were other jobs that came up, but for two years I was in limbo," Jemma says. It was more than a year later, in summer 2008 and after wading through a lot of red tape, that another phone call changed Jemma's life – this time for the better. "I had a phone call out of the blue from my solicitor. The Spanish social services had said I could pick the children up. I went out there, and brought them back." in July 2008.
Alex and Billie both say how pleased they were when they found out they would be looked after by Jemma. "I felt really happy," says Alex. Billie agrees, adding as many "really-really-really"s as she can fit in one breath.
"I was very nervous, not for myself so much, but for them. I was very aware of how integrated they had become into the Spanish culture and way of life," says Jemma. "The first couple of days were a blur; it was a very emotional time. But the summer holidays were coming to an end, and I had to launch into English lessons so that they would be ready for school in September."
The children also had to get used to a British timetable. In Spain, they went to bed at midnight, and ate six meals a day. Suddenly the challenges of bringing up two children became apparent, although Jemma never had any problems with naughty behaviour. "When they first arrived, the discipline they had experienced in the care home in Spain meant that they were on their best behaviour. I think they were terrified that they would be sent back if they misbehaved. My sister felt that the reason they were in the care home was because of something she had done." With two children parachuted into a new culture, and a young woman suddenly a single mum of two, you might expect a bumpy ride.
But Jemma insists looking after them was like second nature: "I did wonder how I'd cope, but I have never, ever thought I'd made a mistake. I have encountered very few problems caring for them. They are happy and well behaved – for the most part! – and I enjoy them being around." Once Alex and Billie were in the UK, Jemma began court proceedings to become their legal guardian. She describes it as a nerve-wracking time.
"It was very unlikely that they were in danger of being taken off me, but I was aware I had no legal rights. And their dad, being an alcoholic, is very unreliable. I was constantly worried he'd find out where we lived and turn up at the house." Shakey had left Spain a few months after the children went into care, and the last Jemma heard from him, he was still struggling with alcoholism and living in a homeless hostel in Swansea.
In May 2009, Jemma was finally awarded special guardianship of Alex and Billie. She describes it as a "huge relief" – for the children as well as for her. "I always had at the back of my head, 'are they ok?' Now that I know they're safe, I don't have to worry any more."
Since then, everything has fallen into place. Jemma, now 26, has started working as a sustainable communities officer, as maternity cover: "I really enjoy it, although it's been a hard transition for both me and the children. I don't get to see them as much and I miss them. I think they miss me too! It's very hard being a working mum, but it was hard being a mum on benefits too."
Alex, 12, and Billie, 11, are happy and doing well at school, despite not speaking English when they moved. "At the time I wasn't all that good at English, but I've got the hang of it now," says Alex. "They're doing better than I ever hoped," elaborates Jemma.
"Billie's confidence has grown massively, and they both have a large group of friends." Jemma has just been to Alex's parents' evening at the same high school she herself attended not so long ago: "It was funny, because a lot of the teachers are still the same ones!"
"We suffer the same rigmarole as everyone else in the mornings, and the same arguments over homework in the afternoons," says Jemma. But Alex and Billie pitch in with the cooking and chores around the house. "They're really good like that. Although I'm not sure how much longer it's going to last as, they're both approaching teenage-hood!" If settling into life in a quiet town in the Welsh countryside wasn't quite what Jemma had planned, she acknowledges that becoming a "mum" did make her grow up fast.
"When I explained to my relatives that I wanted to take the children on, I think they thought I was throwing my life away. Some friends can't relate to the big step I've taken." But Jemma says she doesn't miss the socialising you might expect of a twenty-something: "I got a lot of that out of my system a long time ago." Instead she filled her time by working on volunteer projects: Women's Aid, the Citizens Advice Bureau, a counselling course, and setting up a Brecon Support Group.
And she feels Brecon is great place to bring up children: "It's such a beautiful space, and I hope the children will grow up to appreciate it. We go out for walks with our dog on the weekends."
She has no regrets about how things have turned out: "I knew it was the right decision when they came here. Considering what they've been though, they're really well-rounded, happy kids. I've learnt more in the past year than I have done in my whole life." Alex and Billie are certainly pleased to be living with Jemma too. Alex summed it up by calling her "the best sister anybody could ever have, ever".
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