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Tooting resident tells her story of volunteering with refugee charity

Tooting resident tells her story of volunteering with refugee charity

| by Tooting Newsie | Posted in News, Charities & Community
Liz outside Caras

No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.

from Warsan Shire’s poem “Home”

Tooting resident Liz tells us her story of volunteering for CARAS, a community organisation based in Tooting who support people of refugee and asylum-seeking background living in south west London. 413 refugees and asylum seekers benefited from their services last year. 

Behind most of the “channel migrant” crisis news stories we read, there are individuals escaping traumatic circumstances who have nowhere else to go. Why else would you put your life at risk – and leave everything and everyone you ever knew? This was the case with Yonas* who I met last summer, when volunteering at CARAS in Tooting.

The CARAS “Visiting Project”, one of a range of excellent CARAS initiatives, was set up to support newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees who are most isolated, through a three to six month visiting relationship with a trained volunteer. Pairings meet regularly for a couple of hours and work towards agreed goals. During my training sessions in advance of meeting Yonas, I learnt how many of the young people CARAS work with are in the UK entirely on their own and have lost any semblance of family life. Common challenges are language, ability to trust, lack of self-esteem, poor mental health, uncertainty about the future, and of course fear of a failed asylum case and return to their country of origin. As volunteers, we were reassured that whilst we can’t solve all these challenges, the idea behind our role was to be a point of stability, a supporter and listening ear to help their wellbeing at this time.

Yonas was from Eritrea. When we first met, he had only just arrived in the UK and had just turned 16 years old. Yonas was tall, smiley, and spoke extremely limited English. He had shown up at the CARAS youth club one day, and the staff and volunteers had identified him as someone who could benefit from extra support. When Sophia, the thoughtful project lead, introduced Yonas and I, we all sat down to agree the broad goals of our sessions for the next three months. Yonas was cheerful enough but barely said a word. He kind of nodded along to our suggestions, but it was unclear whether he really understood the idea of the project at all. Yonas had no mobile phone yet, and no diary, so we decided it was best for me to meet him at the end of a free Monday morning English class that CARAS provide. Making arrangements often proved difficult over the coming weeks. Yonas was eventually given a phone but then frequently didn’t have enough money for any credit.

I won’t ever forget my first session with Yonas. I met him at CARAS and we walked to Tooting Library in the blistering heat of that Summer, Yonas wearing jeans and a thick jacket. CARAS had suggested I introduce Yonas to the library. Yonas had clearly never been in a library before and was fascinated by all the books. We spent a long time filling in the application form, as it had also been recommended that this would be good English practice. My heart then sank when the librarian requested ID from Yonas, when we handed the form in. Yonas had simply nothing yet to show who he was or where he lived. This was a stark reminder of how alone and anchorless asylum seekers are when they arrive here. I managed to persuade the librarian to sign him up on my own ID and was very grateful to her for offering him a reduced card that meant he could at least borrow three books. The highlight of the afternoon, for me, was when the children’s librarian pulled out a colourful picture dictionary as an idea. Yonas was genuinely delighted. I had never thought about how valuable that would be to him.

On the second session, Yonas and I went to a café where I introduced Yonas to chocolate milkshakes, which seemed to go down well. Inspired by the triumph of the picture dictionary, I had bought along picture flash cards and a world cup wall planner, which was a particular success. We commented on the country teams and joked about who would win and lose. It was a moment made bittersweet when I heard later that Yonas had no access to a TV at his new foster carer’s house to watch the games.

Halfway through this session, Yonas wanted to tell me a bit more about his journey. In broken English, he was keen to share how he had been trying for over a year to travel from Paris to England, as were many other people he met from around the world. He explained that many of them, sadly, had ‘no chance’. He told me that one day he was sprayed with tear gas by the police in Paris, and how they somehow managed to break his foot in the process. He had to use some form of crutches for a while and still has some pain – especially when it gets cold. Yonas would have only been 15 when this happened. Football was Yonas’s passion and I was really sad to hear that he was currently not always able to play easily.

I later heard more, from other sources, about how the asylum seeker areas in France are often patrolled by riot police who confiscate sleeping bags and tents, spray tear gas and are ordered to use violence to deter people from settling there. Yonas also told me about how he finally managed to hide in a lorry to travel to England. He told me he how hungry, thirsty and afraid he’d been. He was understandably still traumatised by the whole ordeal and had not been sleeping well.

Another time when we met, Yonas seemed tired, withdrawn and frustrated. He told me that he’d been sleeping really badly. He wasn’t happy in his foster care arrangement and he had finally been given a mobile phone but it wasn’t working properly. There ensued a period of several weeks when Yonas rarely visited CARAS and was not up to meeting with me. Our brief training about the mental health of asylum seekers ensured I was just determined to make sure he knew I would still be there when he felt better.

Fortunately, things picked up. The final time I saw Yonas, he seemed well. By then he was living with a new foster carer, found a church where he had made friends, and, importantly, had just been enrolled at college. This would not only help Yonas with his English and education but also give him a community and some structure and routine to his days.

Friends have asked me about Yonas’s background – why he fled Eritrea, how his family are etc. The truth is that I do not know. Our experienced trainer for the volunteer role made it clear that it was not our position to ask questions about the background of asylum seekers, unless they choose to proactively share that information with us. Their backgrounds can be extremely painful for them to discuss – some of the heartbreaking case studies we learnt about will remain with me. What I do know is that Eritrea has compulsory military service and is one of the worst dictatorships in the world. It has one of the lowest global ratings for both political rights and civil liberties.

Like many asylum seekers arriving in London, Yonas was put on a transfer scheme when he arrived. This means that he could be transferred at any point out of the city. I worry that if this happens now, it would be very difficult for Yonas as he has finally established connections in south London. Of course, Yonas has not had his tough and lengthy ‘Leave To Remain’ interview yet. The UK currently hosts 0.2% of the world’s refugees and, with 68% of initial asylum applications being refused, he may well be forced to appeal or deported back to Eritrea.

For more information about CARAS and how you can help the wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers in South West London, please visit their website. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

*Yonas’s real name has been changed.

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