Many of us have been shocked and upset by recent images and stories of the plight of people seeking refuge across Europe, and are struggling to know how to respond to the current refugee crisis. Our founder Krish Kandiah reflects on this with our wonderful champions, Graham and Sarah, who have been fostering for more than a decade and have opened their home to many unaccompanied minors.
I can’t get the images out of my mind. Small children locked in a refrigerated lorry suffocating to death. I try not to imagine the sounds of despair as 71 people die together by the side of an Austrian motorway. There’s another picture that’s hard to delete from my memory: a Syrian refugee clutching his young sons to his chest as he arrives in Kos with a haunted look of desperation in his eyes.
That one family has come to represent a third of a million people that the International Organization for Migration estimate have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year. Sadly, at least 2,636 have so far perished in the attempt.
Commentator Vaughan Jones states, “We are witnessing the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, and the biggest challenge to humanitarian protection since the Vietnam boat people began arriving on foreign shores. It must be given serious attention.”1
The final image of a three year old child face down in the water on a Turkish beach seems to have been the tipping point for public reaction to change. Children are dying to escape from war, poverty and persecution and they need somewhere safe to live. Closing our borders and our hearts is not an appropriate reaction, so what can we actually do?
I spoke with a Christian family that have taken a radical approach to the refugee crisis. Over the past 11 years Graham and Sarah have fostered some 40 children, most of them unaccompanied minors. Having served as missionaries overseas for many years, Graham and Sarah were challenged by a sermon when they returned home to the UK. It was the words ‘you can't go ministering round the world if you're not living it at home,’ that really challenged them.
Graham explains: “How could we engage with our local community? We had raised five sons, only the youngest was at home. My wife asked me about what God saying to me and I said we need to think about becoming foster carers. We have a big house and have raised our own children, maybe we can help some other children.”
Forty children later, Graham and Sarah are still offering hospitality to vulnerable young people and keen to encourage others to do the same. Sarah said to me: “For many of the young people we have cared for, their big question is ‘who do I trust?’ They have often been given instructions about what to do and say by their traffickers. Do they trust them or us? We have to keep them safe while we win their confidence.”
Graham comments: “Another issue is coping with trauma. On arrival there may be the initial happiness of having arrived safely, though even their experience at the airport is sometimes harrowing, however there is often then a feeling of huge loss. One young person had not seen or heard from their family for several years and doesn't know when or whether they will ever hear from them again. Another is an orphan, alone and very vulnerable in a very different world. Trauma tends to make young people close up, but suddenly they are surrounded by a myriad of professionals who all want to know their story and ‘help’. They can feel exposed and very afraid.”
Graham and Sarah do their best to pour love into these children’s lives, recognising the huge changes these young people have experienced. “The child may have left their country, their family, their home, their culture, their food, their school, their language, their friends – everything. The culture shock is enormous. Some arrive with little or no English. We have to work on how to communicate and official meetings, of which there are many, may have to be done by translation.”
The recent labeling of refugees and asylum seekers to the UK as ‘migrants’ does not sit well with Graham and Sarah: “Each child is an individual. Knowing the child and their story increases our compassion and understanding for their plight. Sometimes they cry and cry for everything they have lost. Some have experienced so much loss already that they shut down emotionally, feeling they cannot risk being hurt anymore. Understanding the circumstances and the fear that drove them to flee in the first place makes us want to keep them safe so they can have a fulfilled and happy life.”
Kent social services is facing unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied minors, who have arrived in the UK from the refugee settlement in Calais. If you would like to help refugee and asylum children arriving in the UK, register your interest here.