‘I met lots of friends who helped me see that life was not finished'
The Refugee Council’s support group for refugee mothers and their toddlers is transforming lives, By Alice Crawford
The Refugee Council’s Mother and Toddler Group provides a chance for mothers from refugee backgrounds and their children to socialise and seek support in a safe, stress-free space. This is very important for women whose lives are clouded by stress, complexity and fear. Many of the women have been clients of the Refugee Council for other reasons, whether it be for therapy or integration, housing or employment advice. Some have suffered homelessness and destitution. The group provides a fun ‘psychosocial’ setting for the positive development of the mother-child relationship, the socialisation of the children through play, and the social integration of the mothers. It’s a place where they make friends, helping them to rebuild their lives. All are welcome, and at the moment we have mothers from Pakistan, Angola, Eritrea, Nigeria and Albania that come regularly.
When Leonora first arrived in London she felt isolated and experienced deep sadness. At the Refugee Council’s Mother & Toddler Group she found community. ‘I met lots of friends and they helped me, they shared my experience and helped me see that life was not finished’, she said. ‘They gave me hope’. When Leonora received refugee status in 2014 the Refugee Council helped her to access the benefits she was entitled to as a young mother, and to find accommodation. Leonora has continued to come to the Mother & Toddler group ever since because it is ‘like family now’. ‘If I don’t come something is missing’… ‘I have made Albanian friends and we share our histories, kind words, reassurance. I love them like my family’. Leonora now has two children. Her son, now three and a half, has been coming to the group since he was a bump, while her new-born daughter is full of amazement at all the people and the commotion of the other children’s playtime.
For Leonora the group is also a much-needed rest. As a single-mother, firstly traversing the UK’s complex asylum system, and then having to balance arranging the practicalities of a new life with learning and improving her English, on top caring for her young children, the last few years have been far from easy. Leonora describes having her children being looked after and played with by the volunteers, even for just a couple of hours per week, as ‘wonderful’.
Leonora’s story is not unusual. A number of mothers bring their children to the group regularly from age 0 to the time when they have to go to school. It can be hard for both the women and children to then leave the group, and the volunteers and other mothers offer support at this time of transition and many stay in touch. Other women who have become part of the community formed by the group and are still seeking asylum are sometimes ‘dispersed’ (meaning that they are moved to accommodation provided by the Home Office in another location, sometimes far away). This can be an extremely isolating experience as the dispersed women won’t know anyone in their new locations and often feel that they have no one to reach out to locally. The Mother and Toddler group can then remain a key source of support for these women, with the other mothers calling them regularly and the group paying for their travel costs if they remain close enough to keep attending. They will often also still access the Refugee Council for advice about their situation.
The group is volunteer-run and relies on voluntary donations. Its founder, Maureen, is a retired clinical psychologist and says that the well-being of children was her primary motivation for establishing the group. Last year her colleagues at the Refugee Council nominated the Mother and Toddler group for a Marsh Christian Trust award, and the Trust awarded the project £500 which Maureen used to buy musical instruments and toys which help the children develop language skills. The group is now an even noisier, happier and warmer place to be for the children, mothers and volunteers who make it all possible. We hope that it will remain a strong community for years to come, regularly welcoming new mothers and their children.