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3 ways foster carers help refugee foster children settle in

Thursday 25 August 2022

Children who have arrived in the UK alone – without the protection of a responsible family member – are refugees. They might have fled war, religious persecution or other dangerous situation.

  • They’re also known as unaccompanied minors or unaccompanied children, because they’ve arrived without an adult family member.
  • They arrive in the UK knowing no-one, except perhaps a sibling they’ve travelled with.
  • They often can’t speak English well – or at all.
  • It’s common for these children to be suffering from the effects of trauma because of what they’ve seen or experienced.
  • They’ve lost everything they knew and loved – their family, friends, possessions and their home.

There are some very simple things foster carers can do to help their foster child settle in and let the healing begin. These look like surprisingly normal things, yet they’re actions with a lot of thought and consideration behind them.

‘We feel privileged’

Jackie Miller is the Registered Manager at Ryancare Fostering, an independent fostering agency based in East London. They’ve been operating since 2002, and in 2019 became part of National Fostering Group.

The agency provides emergency, respite, short-term, long-term fostering placements, some of which are for unaccompanied children, as well as Parent and Child and Staying Put.

“Some of the foster children’s stories are heartbreaking,” she said. “To hear them say, for example, that they saw their dad and brother killed and their mum taken away… They knew they were next, so they ran.

“This is where our passion comes from. We see the reality of what these human beings – just children – have suffered. We feel privileged to be able to help them piece their lives back together and enjoy living again.”

“This is where our passion comes from. We see the reality of what these human beings – just children – have suffered.”

Putting the framework of recovery in place

There are many ways in which a foster parent can help a foster child settle in. For an unaccompanied child, 3 in particular provide a good start.

  1. Religion
  2. Friends
  3. Food

“I’ve been working with foster children since 1993,” said Jackie. “In the 90s, many unaccompanied minors were being placed in foster homes where their foster carers – good though they were – had limited understanding of the religion, ethnicity, dietary requirements and culture their foster child came from.

“This situation has evolved, it’s very different now.”

1. Religion

Many refugees come from Muslim countries and it’s important to them that they can continue to practice their religion.

“Nowadays, foster children are matched to foster carers with this in mind,” said Jackie, “We don’t match by faith or religion only but it’s definitely a consideration. The foster children need to have an appropriate setting for prayers and be in easy reach of a mosque.

“We’re a small agency but we’ve got great diversity of foster carers and within our team. One of our social workers is of Muslim faith and she helps us to understand. We’re a curious bunch and we find it really interesting!”

“We’re a small agency but we’ve got great diversity of foster carers and within our team. One of our social workers is of Muslim faith and she helps us to understand. We’re a curious bunch and we find it really interesting!”

Jackie gave an example of a foster carer who took his foster child out to prayers very soon after he had arrived. “He showed him where the mosque was and helped him work out when he could go. It helped the boy feel that he was with foster carers who understood what he needed.

“It also gave him access to other people, where he could make friends and enjoy his culture as well as practising his English.”

Jackie’s team recently visited an Islamic centre in Redbridge to give a presentation to a group of women (pictured below).

“I wanted to raise awareness, it’s something we do regularly. It was a lovely visit and I felt very welcome. We want our children to feel part of the community and these meetings help people understand what we’re doing and why.”

Ryancare visit to a local mosque

2. Friends

Not knowing English very well is an obvious barrier to a child making friends. Helping them to build friendship groups early on builds their confidence, improves their English, and allows them to settle in.

For a start, Ryancare (and other independent foster agencies under National Fostering Group) hold events that help them get to know other unaccompanied children. This might revolve around a traditional meal from their country.

The foster children are encouraged to meet up with others from their group for a coffee or find somewhere they can play cricket – which is an immensely popular game around the world, but especially in Muslim countries.

“This enables them to be with other young people,” Jackie said. “There’s nothing worse than being on your own. Friendship groups are very important.”

3. Food

For unaccompanied children, who left their home out of the necessity to survive, a taste of home is a comfort that can’t quite be put into words.

“For example,” Jackie said, “we got a group together and bought a selection of different dishes from a local Afghan restaurant. I’ll never forget their faces when we peeled back the foil lids! They lit up – they were delighted to have food they knew.

“It’s important for the foster carer to buy them the food of their country, but we need to do this in a thoughtful way. People make assumptions about food.”

“It’s important for the foster carer to buy them the food of their country, but we need to do this in a thoughtful way. People make assumptions about food. Spices from Bangladesh and India, for example, they’re different to spices in food from Afghanistan. These details matter.

“People think giving fancy food might be the right thing – they’re trying to give the child a treat! This comes from a place of care and compassion but it might not be the right food – perhaps the child is used to bland food, or they are worried about whether it’s halal.

“We had young people who wouldn’t eat and we didn’t know why. We found out that some children had been scared to eat at school because they were worried it wasn’t halal and didn’t want to break the rules of their religion.

“We teach them how to know if it is, and about the V sign on packaged food for ‘vegan’, which they can eat safely.

Our foster carers take their children to the supermarket and let them have choice around what they eat. They also take them to a specialist butcher and baker.”

Small agency with a family feel

Ryancare Fostering has 22 foster carers and a staff team of 6, who are looking after almost 30 foster children. It’s small, as foster agencies go, and yet ethnically diverse and, despite belonging to a national group of independent fostering agencies, retains a family feel.

“We know our foster carers and foster children inside out,” Jackie said, “so we can personalise and tailor care packages.

“And even though we’re small, we’re part of National Fostering Group. We’ve got access to all kinds of resources. Our foster parents can go on free training courses and get all kinds of perks like high street discounts. They’ve got 24/7 emergency support as well as a high level of attentiveness from the local Ryancare team.

“They’re a great set of foster carers. We’d like to sign up more like them, who are in it for the long haul.”

“All children spoken to scored their carer 10 out of 10. Children’s social workers describe foster carers as ‘amazing’ and ‘fantastic’. A parent also praised foster carers, saying, ‘Without them I would not know where I would be’.”

Ryancare’s recent Ofsted report (rated Good) noted that: “All children spoken to scored their carer 10 out of 10. Children’s social workers describe foster carers as ‘amazing’ and ‘fantastic’. A parent also praised foster carers, saying, ‘Without them I would not know where I would be.’

“Foster carers and leaders and managers proudly call fostered children ‘our children’. Children have a sense of belonging and they feel part of a family.”

Can you foster?

Ryancare and many of our other independent fostering agencies are recruiting new foster carers.

We welcome applications from people of all ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, physical abilities and the LGBT+ community. You can be single, married, a homeowner or a tenant. Your ability to care for and nurture a child is what really matters.

If you’d like to discover more about your suitability, try our quick Can I Foster? tool or, if you’d like a chat now, get in touch.

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