My husband and I were lucky enough to retire with good physical and mental health, but wanted to still be socially useful. After more than 60 years’ teaching experience between us, we decided to apply to be foster carers.
Working with teenagers kept us young at heart, but the first question we asked the county council was: “Are we too old?” We were fast approaching 60, but there’s no age limit for fostering, just a medical to get through – which fortunately we did.
We took a “Skills to Foster” course and learned about different types of fostering, including looking after unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC). These young people are in particular need of a place of safety and a loving family, as many have no family or friends in the country when they arrive after what is usually a long, traumatic journey. Meeting UASC foster carers and hearing about their experiences made us even more interested.
Our training process ended with a panel interview. They seemed inordinately interested in the fact that we have a roast dinner every Sunday, and asked what we’d do if a child didn’t want to eat it. We must have given the right answer, as we passed.
A few weeks later our assessing social worker came around with information on some possible placements, including a 14-year-old UASC. This young man, Salim*, was the best match. Three years later, he is still with us.
Before meeting us, Salim was given a booklet we’d prepared about our home and family. He visited with his temporary foster carer and a friend from his country to translate, and he decided to be with us. We received a note from his foster carer, introducing herself and offering advice, as she’s been a UASC foster carer for many years. We’ve been in regular contact ever since, and she’s even provided respite care. Such friendship and camaraderie is a great support.
Salim arrived with all his belongings, which fitted into one suitcase and a bag. His English was better than we’d expected (he’d only been in England for about five months). We made ourselves understood with mime and Google Translate. That first evening over dinner he called us Mum and Dad. We told him he should call us by our first names, and he responded: “No, new Mum, new Dad.” I welled up.
He was very bemused when asked the usual parental questions about where he was going, who with, and when he’d be home. His reply – “Too many questions, Mum. You should be working at the Home Office!” – demonstrated his cheeky sense of humour. We had to admit, he managed to travel more than 5,000 miles to get to England, so should be able to get home after a day out with friends.
There’s still much we don’t know about Salim’s previous life. Details are given at unexpected moments, like watching the news and hearing him say “I was there” (Calais jungle) or “I did that” (refugees jumping on the back of a lorry). It’s astonishing he is coping so well after all he’s been through.
Fostering a UASC is different to fostering a British child. There are no access visits or phone calls home. In most cases families cannot be contacted, and may not even know their child has arrived at a place of safety. The British Red Cross is sometimes able to bring messages to families, but only if it’s safe.
One of the great joys has been the improvement in Salim’s English. Some people find it hard to believe he’s only been here three years. He comes up with some lovely phrases. In a birthday card he wrote: “You are the best mum because you have a unique gift, you manage to be encouraging and annoying at the same time.”
Salim has also learned about the world in general. He’s from a rural area with no electricity and didn’t attend school or watch TV. When he first arrived, he kept asking “Is that real?” when we watched nature programmes. He’d never heard of polar ice caps or volcanos.
Our education is continuing, too. As foster carers we are expected to keep our skills up to date. Our county council provides courses on coping with mental health issues, Aids, adolescence, radicalisation and preparation for adult life.
There are monthly support groups held by social workers, which are a great way to catch up with other carers, and sometimes include talks by relevant agencies. We have found the new UASC group and training specifically for UASC carers particularly useful. We’re members of the United Foster Carers’ Association, a charity providing advice and support, which also organises social events for children in care and their families.
We’re not on our own: social workers are available via phone or email. We have regular meetings, and I email both our social worker and Salim’s a weekly summary of significant events.
We also had an amazing solicitor who helped Salim through the process of gaining refugee status. He’ll have to go through this stressful experience again when his initial five years are up.
Salim is one of the family. He attended both our birth children’s weddings and was in the family group photos, and sat at the top table with us. We recently celebrated our three years together at a theme park. At Salim’s request our daughter came, too. She calls him little brother, even though he’s six foot tall, and he calls her little sister, despite her being 10 years older.
He adapted well to British life and food but we have to ensure it’s Halal. We even managed to source a Halal turkey for Christmas. Unfortunately, Salim didn’t eat it; he’d decided he didn’t like roast dinners.
Salim is nearly 18, but won’t be leaving us. He’s chosen the “staying put” option, which enables children in care to remain with their foster carers if all parties agree. After all, what parents turf their children out as soon as they reach legal adulthood?
We have a second spare bedroom. Could it be a good time to welcome another young person into our family?
* Not his real name