This month’s World Refugee Day (20 June) highlights the plight of millions of people across the globe who are forced to flee the place they call home to escape war, conflict and human rights abuses. Many find their way to the UK to seek safety; a shocking number are unaccompanied minors, children under the age of 18 who have become separated from their parents and family members and are not being cared for by an adult. In the year ending March 2020, the UK received 3,463 applications for asylum from unaccompanied children, the majority aged between 14 and 17. Local authorities have a statutory duty to protect and support these highly vulnerable children.
Since 2017, Hightown has worked with Hertfordshire County Council and the Refugee Council to house and support unaccompanied minors in three specialist projects – two in Hemel Hempstead and one near St Albans. Staff at these projects provide 24/7 care for 28 16-17 year olds – seven girls and 21 boys – from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Over the past three years, 45 young people have been supported by the service.
According to operations manager Philippa Gardner, the staff at Hightown are often among the first people the young people meet when they arrive in the UK.
“Many come off lorries travelling from the Continent, some clinging to the underside of the vehicle to make the treacherous journey to safety. Others may have been trafficked to the UK for modern slavery and exploitation. Some have been travelling across continents since they were 13 or 14; their only contact with adults has been largely negative – often harrowing – and they can be fearful and untrusting as a result. We are often their first experience of a culture that is alien to them,” says Philippa.
Having provided a safe place to stay, it falls on Hightown’s team to begin catering to the young people’s basic needs – setting up and accompanying them to healthcare appointments, helping them buy clothes and registering them at college so that they can start to learn English. Once they are settled in, the team works hard to prepare them for adult life in the UK.
“It’s easy to forget the basic life skills that most children naturally acquire over time, like looking both ways when you cross the road, locking the door behind you when you go out, reading a bus timetable or using a cooker safely. Our team helps our young people learn those practical things that we take for granted. Everything is a milestone for them and it’s wonderful to see how proud they are of themselves with every new landmark they reach, such as going to college for the first time.”
The more challenging work comes later; from first impressions, the young people are resilient and grateful, relieved to finally be in a place they feel safe, however they can be hiding deep-seated trauma.
“The traumatic events they have endured in the past mean that our young people can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Gaining their trust – and encouraging them to tell their story – plays a vital role in their recovery.
“In addition, their background and life experiences makes them so much more vulnerable than other teenagers. In order to help them develop their understanding of the many threats and challenges they may encounter as they become adults, we run a programme of workshops covering all manner of subjects, from relationships to social media. These have proved very successful; for example, as a result of our sexual health workshop, all the girls have taken positive steps to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Another workshop has dealt with exploitation, covering the pitfalls of cash in hand roles and what it entails to work legally. We also bring in other agencies such as the police; given their previous experiences, trusting forms of authority like this can be a real challenge for many of our young people and involving them directly helps to break down those barriers.”
Hightown’s staff also use goal setting to encourage the young people to think about their future aspirations and agree actions; engineers, doctors, lawyers and mechanics are just some of the roles they are setting their sights on.
“The team knows it has truly made a difference when our young people turn into ‘typical’ teens, doing things that typical 16 and 17 year olds enjoy, such as buying clothes or make-up. We’re proud they leave us as independent individuals ready to start adult life.”
Seventeen year-old Mazin fled civil unrest in his native Sudan. Since joining Hightown’s scheme in October 2019, he has embraced every opportunity to learn and integrate, despite speaking no English when he first arrived. Coming back from his first day at college, he amazed staff by greeting them with a cheery ‘Good afternoon, how are you?’ and over recent months has taken part in all of the various activities on offer at the scheme, from games and movie nights to homework sessions, cooking lessons, and workshops in subjects such as sexual health and internet safety.
Mazin has continued attending college and is studying Math and IT alongside ESOL (English as a second language). In fact, he loves learning English so much that he devotes his spare time to listening to the English websites recommended by his college tutors, alongside typical teenage pursuits such as cycling and the gym. He particularly enjoys cooking and – before lockdown restrictions - eating with the other young people who live in the scheme.
Like his peers, Mazin has high aspirations for the future and would like to turn his love of fixing things into a career as an electrician or mechanic.
He has nothing but praise for the support he has received from Hightown staff:
“The staff are so helpful…they have helped me so much I can’t even describe it.”
“We’re so proud of Mazin; from day one he has shown such a positive attitude towards assimilating to his new life and has become a confident young man who can look forward to a positive future.”