Giving young refugees another chance at a childhood - Refugee Council
August 16, 2018

Giving young refugees another chance at a childhood

Sasha Nemeckova is a Senior children’s psychotherapist working with unaccompanied children seeking asylum as part of Surviving to Thriving – a partnership project between the Refugee Council, British Red Cross, and UpRising that is going to enable 500 young refugees and people seeking asylum to become active and valued members of their communities, through a range of support services and social action.

The young people we support had to flee everything they know – their homes, their families, friends and school – the bright futures they had no reason but to expect to fulfil. Sasha describes the highs and lows of this vital work, and tells us about one of the young people who is going from strength to strength thanks to our support.

“For me, the greatest highs are witnessing the children I work with find their inner strength and resources – and flourish. I work with children who come to us suicidal, with a lost sense of self-worth, and then manage to find hope and become involved in their community and really actively and positively contribute to it, drawing on their experience, and thereby helping others. Seeing isolated children make first steps towards reaching out to others is incredible. So was having had a young boy tell me ‘my brain is not broken anymore’ after 12 sessions of therapy.

“I feel immensely privileged to meet a wide cross section of young people from around the world and to learn from them. I learn about their backgrounds, cultures, customs, politics, plus my vocabulary is always growing – from Pashtu to Somali to Vietnamese.

“Another real high would have to be the experience of watching someone who has been through such difficulties describe their hopes for the future as being able to help others – this is almost every young person I meet. I’ve met young people who want to be doctors, nurses, social workers, policemen and policewomen, teachers, lecturers, plumbers, barbers… it gives me real optimism about the future…if only people are given the chance.

As a creative arts therapist, the amount of art I get to witness being created is just fantastic!

 But of course this job comes with its lows…

One is the helplessness surrounding the immigration system – having to hold tremendous uncertainty about the future. I have only worked with one client who was granted status before we finished therapy. The children we work with have been through extremely traumatic situations in their countries of origin and on their journeys, and they arrive hopeful of finding safety. What they encounter instead can be years of waiting for a decision and fear of deportation, which to me is a form of psychological torture, often potentially more damaging than previous traumatic experiences.

Another challenge is the difficulties with navigating the complex asylum system, access to education and understanding rights and entitlements. I find a lot of the time children can fall through the cracks or receive no information on what is happening, which leads to further exacerbation of their anxiety and increase in difficulties. Trying to advocate on behalf of my clients can be difficult, but can work when agencies work together. I wrote my postgraduate thesis on supporting separated children and one of the main conclusions was that the support needs to come from more sides to create a safety network.

Some examples of working together working well are the great relationships we have with advisors at the Children’s Section – I know I can always refer my clients for advice, as well as receive support if I am unsure on how best to advocate on their behalf. Working as part of the Surviving to Thriving partnership has also been a great experience; we all work together towards a common goal, and it is always encouraging seeing the young people flourish across all three service.

For an insight into the lives of the people we are here to support, read T’s story. We have called her this as she wishes to remain anonymous. 

T is 17 and originally from a country in East Africa. She has been in the UK for nearly two years. T currently lives in a foster home and attends college full-time. 

T says that her difficulties started when her father was killed in a political war in her country. As a result, T was forced to flee her country leaving the rest of her family behind. T describes her journey to the UK as being physically and emotionally difficult. She was going through the grief from the loss of her father as well as her whole family as she did not know their whereabouts. T felt as though she had lost her family for good and still does not know if she will see them again.

T was referred to the Surviving to Thriving therapeutic service as she was experiencing anxiety and depression as a result of her unresolved asylum case. T worried about her claim being rejected and being removed to her country. T would like to be given the chance to stay in the UK as she now feels safe and has made many friends since she arrived. She also wants to be able to study and build her new life here.

T was offered twelve sessions in which she openly shared her experiences. Furthermore, she was able to increase her self-awareness and understanding about her difficulties. Over the period of the therapy, she was empowered with the skills to achieve her own personal potential.

By providing conditions such empathy, understanding and acceptance, T was able to share her issues in a safe environment. The therapist also helped T in her journey of growth and self-acceptance which brought resilience in her relationships with herself and others outside of therapy. As T has a history of feeling unloved and rejected, the therapist’s validation and care helped her understand that she was a human being who is worthy of love.

Towards the end of therapy, T shared that the sessions were helpful to her as she could talk openly without being judged.