As Helen Johnson, Head of the Refugee Council’s Children’s Services is honoured with an OBE for services to refugees, we ask her about her role overseeing the UK’s only national asylum and welfare support service for separated children and young people seeking asylum.
How long have you worked at the Refugee Council?
I joined the Refugee Council in 1997, so that’s more than 20 years ago now. Prior to that I was a teacher and a social worker. My first role with the charity was as a project worker at a lovely accommodation and support project we managed on behalf of Hillingdon social services. We looked after unaccompanied 16 and 17 year old children, helping them to integrate into the community, ensuring they were getting proper advice about their applications for protection, supporting them in school and college, encouraging them to learn all the skills they needed to settle safely in an unfamiliar country, and sometimes eating the delicious food they would cook for the house when it was their turn. The young people learned that I had a background in teaching and I did a lot of homework support, often requested the evening before it was due to be handed in – despite the awful experiences endured and the uncertain future, in some ways these young people were like many other teenagers.
Can you tell me more about your role and how it has changed?
As Head of Children’s Services at the Refugee Council I have the great privilege of overseeing all our projects which offer support to separated children across the country.
Over the last 20 years some things have changed for the worse. The journeys which children are undertaking to get to safety are more dangerous for most of them now than they were 20 years ago. The current climate of hostility and austerity leaves many children lacking the support they need and worried about their safety and their futures.
But some things have changed for the better. Alongside the current difficult climate there is also a number of very dedicated individuals and groups who have a greater understanding of the needs of these children and who are very active in supporting them. Alongside our own staff, volunteers and students are social workers, foster carers, legal representatives, medical professionals and others who make a real difference to the lives of the children they help.
And some things stay the same. The teenagers we work with are just that – teenagers – and over 20 years have always brought with them the delights and challenges which teenagers bring. In my experience the vast majority of young people have always brought an incredible will to survive and to make the best of the situation they find themselves in, despite the numerous challenges they continue to face, and a desire to settle and give back to those who support them.
What made you want to work with refugee children?
I have always worked with children and young people. My interest in working with refugee children first began when I was backpacking in Africa in 1994 and saw at first hand the desperate plight of those forced to flee their homes, some with their families and some on their own. When I saw my first role with the Refugee Council advertised I knew that it was something I would love to do.
What has been your career highlight?
There have been so many; some obvious ones and others which are just moments which stick with me, moments which may not seem important to the outside observer but which I know are hugely important to the child involved.
An obvious highlight is when a young person we had worked with received the ‘Generation Ali Beyond Sport Award’ in 2012 for service, leadership and action in the community, presented to him by Muhammad Ali and David Beckham. Of course this was very special for the young man involved but it was also very special for all his friends who saw his hard work and dedication rewarded, for my colleagues who had supported him, and for others who were able to see for the first time the humanity behind all the headlines about refugees arriving in the UK.
Another obvious highlight for me is seeing on occasion two siblings or good friends who have been separated in their home country or on their journey meet up again by chance at one of our projects; the emotion is almost overwhelming.
But just as important to me, perhaps more important, are the ‘small’ victories for individual children, whether that is seeing them struggle then find the courage to talk to someone for the first time about their terrifying experiences, or watching them develop the confidence to speak English for the first time in one of our classes, or coming back after some time away from our services just to tell us that they have managed to keep their tenancy and their place at college and have made some good friends. Each of the thousands of children we have supported have their own histories and their own futures, and each one of them needs acknowledging and celebrating.
What do you find the rewarding aspect of your role?
See above! Colleagues in the organisation work hard every day across the country to ensure the young people feel safe, get sound advice, and get the opportunity to become the best person they can be. Barely a day goes by when I don’t see or hear the impact which we have had on a child – or that a child has had on us.
And what’s the most challenging?
The most challenging aspect of my role is trying to fathom or at least to bear the inhumanity of some people and the resultant harm done to children. Other challenging aspects include the huge frustrations faced by ourselves and by other professionals who know what is likely to help a child but know that it will not be provided in the current climate of austerity.
Finally, if you were made Prime Minister for a day, what changes would you make for refugee children?
There are many things I would want to change but I suppose some of the most important would be introducing legal guardians for all children; ending delays in asylum decision making for children so that they can feel safe and start to plan for their future; and real investment in appropriate mental health support for children so that they have the best chance of recovering from their experiences and settling into and contributing to their new communities.
Another big change would be about refugee family reunion. Currently child refugees have no rights to family reunion at all which sets the UK apart from almost all other European countries. This means that when children are granted permission to stay in the UK as a refugee, they are forbidden from being reunited here by any of their family members who remain oversees. This condemns them to a future without the parents and siblings they may well be still very much dependent upon emotionally. I would change that immediately to enable them to be with their families again. You can read more about this here.