Year on year, more children and young people are forced to leave without their families, to make a journey to safety. For many, the long journey to safety is extremely dangerous and they experience exploitation, violence and abuse along the way. On arriving to the UK, the process of claiming asylum is very complicated and confusing. The trauma the children and young people have suffered prior to arriving in the UK, on the journey here and again once arrived (in seeking protection as well as acclimatising to a new culture, language and way of life), all have a very large and significant impact on the young peoples well-being.
In Gloucestershire there are a significant number of such children who have come alone, unaccompanied from all over the world. With increasing numbers of young people arriving in Gloucester, GARAS extended their long running therapy service to establishing a specific therapy programme for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) of which I have the privilege to be part of. Our small but busy service supports young people psychologically through 1:1 therapy sessions and groups.
For refugee week, I thought you might like to hear about one of the last groups activities, where we ran a very simple but striking activity, using ‘The Tree of Life’ exercise as a way of reclaiming our identity through using the simple but beautiful use of the tree as a visual metaphor for our lives. Through this process developed by the Dulwich Centre Foundation, one can uncover aspects of yourself shaped by the past and then actively cultivate your tree to reflect the kind of person you want to be moving forward; It can reflect back to us the paths through our past–which in turn create new horizons in our future.
This particular group hosted ten young people aged between 14 and 22. They were from Albania, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq each of who had come to the UK alone. Step by Step, week by week we worked through different aspects of our activity. The young people were delighted to see pens, paints and crayons laid out to begin our drawing activity! The first step/week in the activity was to draw a tree. There were many beautiful trees drawn from the Afghan pine, to the Mediterranean of Cypress (national tree in Iran) alongside giant dreamed of palm trees and imagined trees hosting beautiful red flowers.
In turn, we acknowledged our roots, where we came from, our ancestors, land, language and heritage, our cultural make up, now many thousands of miles away from the young people. The young people talked about their heavy hearts, the longing of the food cooked by mothers and aunts around the fire, the stories and songs that were now only an echo in their memory. Some shared fear and concern for their remaining family and friends, challenges of acculturating to new lands and the struggle to learn English. We shared the need for roots, and the sadness we can feel when roots are denied us, ripped from under us and how to manage that deep and complicated grief.
Some of the young people reflected on the despair of being in Calais (the unofficial refugee camp) but how it was amazing to see how makeshift schools, churches, mosques, restaurants and arriving there. How people came together to eat, to pray, to play and gave each other hope and courage for the next phase of life journey.
The following week, we worked with the ground, the earth; where we are now, activities that they enjoy and where they find nourishment and support. Many of the young people talked about the support and stability given through attending school, their foster families, English lessons, attending GARAS or part-time work, their love of their friends and playing together in the park
The next session gave young people a chance to think about some of their skills and values. Young people talked about the skills they had grown on their journeys; ’I learnt to cook in Calais’ said one person, “I am really caring’ said another. We talked about how these skills had developed. The young people shared openly the skills that they thought their fellow group members had too, ‘you are good at cricket’, ‘you make me laugh a lot’, they told each other and subsequently added it to their ever growing list. Young people shared that their values and sense of self had changed since their experience of leaving home and making long journeys, alone, far from everything and everyone they knew and loved. ‘I used to just play, that was how it was. Now I am more serious. I have seen too much for even an old man and I am only young but that is making me who I am and means that I will help others and always try to be kind. It gives me a strong faith’.
The next week we concentrated on the branches, the ‘hopes and dreams, wishes for themselves and their lives’. I asked questions about the history of these hopes and how they may have come to be significant in in their lives. We thought about how some dreams had always been apparent and others emerged along the way. ‘I want to be an engineer’, ‘to be a good father and have children, like my father’, They called out. ’I want to help people like people here help me, to work for a charity perhaps’, ‘I want to get my asylum and travel, to tell people about my story so we can help more refugees’.
As the sessions grew, we came to the leaves. These represented significant people from now and/or the past, real or fictional. We shared about those special to us and for the young people, these were family and friends who had died or they no longer had contact with alongside new friends. foster families and carers and staff at GARAS. Some talked about how they continue to honour relationships with family despite not being able to be with them anymore.
In the final part of this activity, we shared together the fruits – gifts that each young person had been given. Some remembered physical presents (e.g. from family member for Eid) others remembered acts of kindness, love and care that had been shared. As we talked, the trunks appeared stronger, branches grew longer, the leaves larger and the fruits more full. There was laughter and hope.
We sat with the wonderful trees in front of us, we spoke about how together we make a forest…a beautiful forest that can learn to weather the storms together. The young people talked about impending court cases for their asylum claims, school or college Exams, the struggles of living in supported housing without a family to take care of them. Together they created ways to support themselves and each others as they learn. day by day, to re-root, to sustain relationships to others, to work and to a soil a culture that provides familiarity and stability. We saw how the the problem is the problem not the person and how problem saturated stories are often the dominant ones which can obscure hope, dreams and choice. We learnt that life is multi storied and identity is a project which can be created and recreated with others.
Mark Twain said ‘Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life’. Since joining GARAS I have never worked a day…We hope as part of the 20th Refugee Week, and for every week, you will join us on this journey of celebrating ‘different pasts, shared futures’ (Refugee Week, 2018) so that each young person can be fully supported and nourished to grow and shine their radiance in the world…just as all young people fully deserve.
Dr Lucy Arnsby-Wilson
UASC Clinical Psychologist GARAS