My family and I arrived in the UK 14 years ago, and very soon after our language training I became involved in work with Asylum Seekers and Refugees. I knew little then about their struggles. At first, I had to get myself familiarized with the refugee terminology and try to get my head around the ever-changing asylum policies. I want to highlight here that the lives and experiences of the little ones, the lives of those children whose parents are or have been claiming asylum in the UK, is what has touched me the most in all these years.
When my family arrived in Birmingham, the reality that we encountered was a very multicultural neighborhood. A young mother of two from Montenegro lived on the same block and others were a family of six (mum and dad with four children) from Bosnia, a few Somalians and many Afro-Caribbeans and Irish.
I always remember the plight and sorrow of these children and their families. One particular story that I remember is the experience of one of the boys, who was then only 10, but had already been a victim of horrific scenes at a massacre in Bosnia. He was only a child, unable to cope with the horrors he witnessed back home, and the uncertainties and stressful time his family faced during their asylum process. In addition, he was unable to speak the language, and ended up having a breakdown….he couldn’t continue in a normal school but instead ended up in hospital.
I have met many women and families from an array of countries: Burundi, Guinea, Eritrea, Somalia, DRC Congo, Cameroon, Kosovo, Albania, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and so on… I didn’t even know many of them existed! That shows my ignorance!
Another experience that I remember is the pain and worry of a Kosovan mother of a talented teenager who painfully had to tell her son he couldn’t go on an important school trip to France because they were ‘asylum seekers’. Asylum seekers cannot travel outside the country!
One young mother from India shared at a gathering how painful it was for her to hear her toddler asking for chips or ice cream on the streets and her not being able to respond to his requests because she did not have access to cash. The government gives her a little credit on a card to buy the basics from certain shops only.
On a recent visit to a family from Nigeria, the mother shared that her worried five-year-old daughter had asked her: ‘will I have to sign as well when I get older?’ …. There is a reporting system in this country that requires asylum seekers to frequently – how often varies from case to case – sign into an immigration reporting centre. People can wait there for hours before they are told they can go home. Many fear that at this time they are going to be detained and subsequently deported. Why should this little girl be worrying about signing? Shouldn’t she be enjoying her childhood? Shouldn’t she feel protected and secured?
I often get to hear stories like these ones. It pains me to learn that innocent lives are suffering because of unjust systems, poverty and marginalization, while I know that my own children go to bed needing not to worry about any of the above issues. I cannot help but to feel fortunate and blessed. Despite the sadness and feeling of helplessness, these stories of refugee children show me a glimpse of a kingdom of sanctuary ‘for the kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children’ (Lk18:16)
Originally published in Laycom, CLM Newsletter, October 2015, Issue 9, by Columban Lay Missionaries, United Kingdom