‘Wow – what’s that like?’ Working with Young Refugees and Unaccompanied Asylum Seekers

‘Wow – what’s that like?’ Working with Young Refugees and Unaccompanied Asylum Seekers

June 20, 2019

‘Wow – what’s that like?’

I can’t tell you how often I was asked this, or something similar, whenever it came up in conversation that I was working on a project to support unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee young people.  Really what people were asking was ‘what are they like?’ And by ‘they’ - they mean the young people.

While it is an odd question to be asked, I can understand why. The media often focuses on adult asylum seekers, particularly grown men. If a younger person is shown, it is often with the insinuation that this individual it not really a young person.  A young person’s perspective isn’t shown so its hard to empathise with.

The Council on Foreign Relations states there are 18 different ‘conflicts’ in Africa and the Middle East. 7 are listed are worsening, none are listed as improving. Many of us would struggle to correctly identify some of these countries on a map, let alone give detailed overviews of their history and the on-going conflicts.

But while the young people may have had different pasts that led them to eventually seeking a home in Britain, they have the same hopes for the future as any young person living in Britain does. Dreams of going to university, of becoming a professional athlete, of raising families and having a successful life. ‘To live is to dream’ in the words of Friedrich Schiller.

Suring the Surviving to Thriving, participants created films telling us of their experiences since arriving in the country: the impact the asylum process has on mental health, the prejudice they face, the challenges they have to overcome. I’ll admit, much of what the young people told me was hard to comprehend at first. While I didn’t grow up in the most comfortable of circumstances in England, I’ve never experienced war or mass persecution. I often find working with any young person that I reflect on my own childhood and past and these experience were beyond what I has experience of.

Social Services is a difficult machine for anybody to understand. I know it made little sense to me growing up. I can’t imagine how confusing and indifferent it must feel for somebody who does not speak the language or have never experienced something like it before.

If an unaccompanied young person is not placed with a foster family, or fortunate to be reunited with a family member, they are forced to become quasi-independent. Expected to take care of themselves but not given the agency to truly do so. Young people we worked with often stated how useless they felt not being able to work and get involved more in society. They often felt ignored, that the system and the support agencies were uninterested and unsympathetic to them.

I remember in my teens a social worker telling me there simply is not enough time in a day to support every young person, that some young people unfortunately receive more attention than others.  At the time I often wondered: who were the young people at the bottom of this pecking order?

Throughout the Surviving to Thriving programme I wondered if any of these young people were. If you asked them, almost all of them would say it feels like they are.

Almost two years to the day since I first began working on the project. I hope the Surviving to Thriving programme had as a profound effect on the young people who took part in the programme, as the young people have had on me.


Surviving to Thriving was in partnership with British Red Cross, Refugee Council, and People's Postcode Lottery