Mohammed is turning 18 next month but the last three years of his life have been very different to most teenagers. Just 18 months ago he arrived in the UK on a lorry from France after fleeing his home country, Iraq.
He comes from Tuz, a well-known flashpoint area in Iraq owing to its multi-ethnic population. Mohammed’s elder brother got caught up in ongoing problems between the Kurdish militia and the Iraqi government and was killed, forcing Mohammed and his family to flee to the Iranian border.
Iran’s political situation is no less complicated and, in trying to get over the border, the family were suspected of supporting those trying to overthrow the Iranian government. While Mohammed was away for the day working for a butcher, the rest of his family were killed.
“When I heard they were all dead I felt very strange. I kept trying to stand up but I couldn’t. He [the butcher] told me I should get out of the area. I decided to make my way to Europe.
“It was a strange experience. I travelled with all types of people and I struggled with my mental health. But I just kept telling myself that I had to keep going, I had to stay strong and live my life for my family.
My mother always used to say hope is not the way you can see, it’s the way you have to find.”
He says he wanted to get to the UK because his English is better than the other European languages he speaks.
“And also because they treat you like a human here. In all the other countries they try to intimidate you and I never really knew why – I’ve been through a tough time and I’m just trying to survive. But here, when we got picked up by the police the first thing the policeman said to me was ‘are you hungry?!’ I just felt they cared about me and I didn’t feel that in any other country.”
Specialised social work
According to Siobhan Walsh, assistant director for South West Surrey children’s services, Mohammed is very typical of the rising numbers of asylum-seeking children they are seeing in the county.
“Because of the M25, and some of the bigger service stations on it, we have many young people arriving by lorry. The vast majority are young, male teenagers because their families see them as better able to take care of themselves on the journey.”
It is specialised work for social workers, she adds.
“They are different from many of our looked-after teenagers. Many of them have had very good experiences of parenting in their childhood. The trauma they have experienced is a different type – usually war, persecution, national disasters or sometimes being trafficked. They don’t know anyone here and have effectively lost everything, including their home and family.
“They are very isolated and homesick. We also have to deal with their expectations of what life here will be like compared to the reality and alongside that is anxiety, both for any family left behind and for their own future, as they could be returned home if their asylum claim is not successful.”
This requires deep reserves of empathy and compassion, Siobhan says, as well as a willingness to act as advocates for the children through the many and various Home Office and immigration processes they must go through. Skilful, multi-agency working and conducting age assessments are also key.
“For some of our young people there is a level of complexity to their asylum claims and so our social workers need to keep abreast of developments in legislation, case law and statutory guidance in order to best support young people.” she says.
But the upside is that the work can be incredibly rewarding, she adds.
“These children are usually very respectful, grateful and they want to achieve.”
Mohammed says he has received huge amounts of support from his key workers and social workers, who got him into college while he went through the various Home Office procedures.
I’m really proud I’m staying in this country. Everyone tries to motivate and support you.”
“I’m studying sports and I love football. I play football for my college team and do some volunteer coaching with students. Plan A is obviously to become a professional footballer,” he grins.
“But if that doesn’t work out then Plan B is to be an interpreter I think. I’m pretty good at languages and I can help other people that way. So, I really need to concentrate on my education.”
Aleem* says he has similarly been helped and supported by his foster carer and social workers after arriving in the UK from Afghanistan a year ago.
Now 14 years old, Aleem arrived without being able to speak any English.
“My family had problems with the Taliban in Afghanistan. I didn’t want to leave but my uncle said I had to – so I could be safe. He had a friend who took me – I didn’t know where we were going.”
What followed is a bit of a blur for Aleem until he was picked up by the police in the UK one night and brought to the house of Louise, a Surrey foster carer.
I just remember I was so tired. I slept a lot.”
Aleem is now in school and says Louise and his social worker, Trevor, have helped him adjust.
“Louise really helped me with my English. She would take me to the supermarket and point to things and ask if I knew what they were and tell me the words. And Trevor is a really nice guy – we chat about everything. He likes cricket as well and he always tells me if I have any problems to call him or text him. Straight after the lockdown eased he came and we met in the garden to have a chat.”
Thanks to a good network in Surrey, Aleem has been able to attend the mosque in Woking and even go on a trip to Brighton for a cricket match where he was lucky enough to meet one of his cricketing heroes, the former captain of the Afghanistan team, who was playing there. He has also met some other teenagers from Afghanistan and has made friends.
Support from Surrey’s children’s services
“I like Surrey,” Aleem says. “It’s a bit quieter than other places. I’ve been to London and I like it to visit but it’s very busy and noisy.”
Mohammed says he’s also very happy in Surrey. Now that he’s a care leaver, efforts have been made for him to find other communities from his area of Iraq, and he says he recently travelled to places including Hull and Nottingham for Eid.
“It was really nice and I met some really nice people but if I’m honest I just went for the food,” he laughs sheepishly.
“I was really missing traditional food – I hadn’t had it since I left. But I’m very happy in Surrey. The people have been really supportive. My key worker has been like a friend and my social worker has been so helpful – they’ve always been there supporting me; showing me what to do and how to do things. They’re so lovely. So much so that actually I’ve never felt that I’m on my own or that I don’t have a family.”
Specialist teams to build expertise
Previously Surrey has dealt with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) within individual looked-after children teams, but Siobhan says a decision has been made to set up specialist teams to build real expertise in supporting them.
“We want to improve practice and improve multi-agency working in this area and think through how we can truly hear the voice of the children in all the processes they have to go through,” she says.
*Names have been changed