Looked-after children from south Asian backgrounds face specific pressures. Molly Garboden reports on a home catering for all cultural backgrounds that is well placed to meet the needs of children of south Asian extraction
Providing positive role models is the key to helping young people of south and east Asian descent, according to Ali Sarwar, regional director for Advanced Childcare, which runs the Alexandra Road children’s home in Oldham.
Many of the boys in the home grew up in the UK but their parents are from India or Bangladesh, a cultural situation that can lead to tensions, Sarwar says.
“Second and third generation Asians want a bit of both cultures – they want the home life but they want the western lifestyle as well and many are ostracised as a result,” he says. “A lot of the issues then evolve around how to adapt. At home they’re expected to behave in one way but really they’re something else. So where are their role models? They feel the need to rebel against their parents.
“A lot of what we provide is appropriate role models – people who have been through the same cultural experience themselves. Our chief executive has been through that, I’ve been through that, a lot of our staff have been through that. It’s about how to take the best out of both worlds, adapt and get help to move along.”
Sarwar says issues such as how to mix with friends if you’re not allowed to drink alcohol, or how to balance non-Christian religious beliefs with the prevailing culture in the UK, can provoke crises for these children. At the children’s home, staff members provide young people with advice for negotiating these cultural hurdles.
The idea for the home known as “Alex Road” came to its chief executive Riz Khan when he qualified as a social worker in 1995.
“At that time, in the authorities where I worked, I was the only south Asian social worker,” says Khan. “All the south Asian cases landed on my desk. I was relatively new to social work and thought it was interesting, thinking how I could relate to these young people and their backgrounds. But I kept thinking, what was happening prior to my joining the team? Who was managing those cases?”
From there, Khan developed the idea for targeting the needs of cross-cultural children. According to Khan, cultural sensitivity is crucial when handling these young people’s cases. “That sensitivity is only enhanced when the practitioners involved have experienced the same issue themselves.”
The formula appears to have worked, as Alex Road has received “outstanding” grades in its past three Ofsted inspections.
Howard Millerman, director of commissioning and referrals, says one of the most important things Alex Road offers is the variety of languages spoken by staff. He says this helps the home re-establish relations between the children and their parents.
“I’ve been in reviews and I’ve seen parents express themselves for what appears to be the first time in their first language. It’s a weird sensation when you’re running a review in Urdu. I felt so powerless, but then I thought, how long have the parents been feeling like that? For the first time, they can express themselves fully. It’s a tremendous relief for them.”
The ability to speak so many languages helps in assessing a family situation as well. There have been cases in which staff have overheard parents threatening children in their first language and been able to intervene as a result.
Although it has a great deal of expertise supporting children from Asian backgrounds, Alex Road was never intended as an exclusively Asian home. Staff report that its focus on the needs of children of south Asian descent means it can be beneficial for young people from other, mixed cultural backgrounds.
“We’ve had kids with really ingrained racist views who come away saying ‘actually, that’s a really interesting place to live’,” Millerman says.
‘I’m not kidding; they’ve changed my life here’
Amar* was a troubled young person, always getting into fights and at one point was arrested for assault. He was moved through two children’s homes, but nothing seemed to help. It wasn’t until he moved to Alexandra Road, Advanced Childcare’s home with a focus on young people of south Asian backgrounds, that Amar got a grip.
After eight months at the home, Amar now appears a happy, well-adjusted 14-year-old. He attributes this transformation to positive role models at the home.
“I’m not kidding; they’ve changed my life here,” he says. “They’ve put me on track. The other homes I went to just treated me like any young person, but here I feel like I’ve got another family. The guys who work here are like older brothers – they’re my idols.
“I don’t want to act up anymore because I look up to all the staff. They all have money behind them and they’ve all got education and they’ve showed me that that’s what you need. So that’s what I want and what I’ve started working for.”
* Not his real name
Tips for working with children from south Asian backgrounds:
● Always be culturally sensitive to children’s home backgrounds as well as how they relate to their peers.
● Try to find a successful south or east Asian person who is willing to act as a role model or mentor.
● When dealing with families using an interpreter can help elicit better information and resolve situations.
This article is published in the 25 March 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Inspiring children of Asian descent”
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