Keith, a former pub landlord from Cardiff, has been caring for children from war-torn countries since 2013. This is his story.
During a cold November 4 years ago, the NFA called about a 17-year-old from Syria. After braving a journey of over 2500 miles, he was in desperate need of a loving home. But my family and I hadn’t considered this kind of placement before. We were unsure.
It soon became clear that fostering this child was a no-brainer. My wife and son were keen and, being the son of an immigrant myself, I knew we could make a real difference. After all, I was raised in a community that didn’t see black or white, Hindu or Catholic – we were all just friends. People would even call us the Rainbow Community. And now I had the chance to celebrate that unity once again.
Understandably, adapting to the UK wasn’t easy for our new foster son. And it was just as tricky for us to adapt to caring for him. As he was almost 18, we only had 6 months before he had to move to an independent living situation, and there was a lot to prepare him for. Although my family and I have since created a template to make sure these kids are ready when they leave, it wasn’t as easy the first time.
Without sufficient education and with a relatively poor grasp of the English language, our foster son had a tough time. The hardest part, though, was budgeting. When living with us, his care allowance was around £47 a week for school dinners, a bus pass, phone credit and pocket money, plus £80 a month for clothes. His accommodation, personal items, food and family outings were covered by us.
When he moved out, he only received £57 a week for all the above plus gas, electricity and more. He couldn’t call his parents to borrow a tenner till payday, so there were times when he had to choose between dinner and heating. But he adapted. He’d been through worse.
We still see him once a week for a meal and a catch-up. Or when his washing machine is broken. And whenever we meet him out and about he introduces us to people as his parents in Wales. He’ll likely be a part of our family for the rest our lives.
We’d learnt a lot from our first USAC (unaccompanied seeking asylum child), and had our template ready to better prepare our next foster placement. Things like money management and finding a school that teaches ESOL (English speaking for overseas learners) are vital. So is supporting these kids through depression and self harm in the face of loneliness and poverty – things they think they’ve left behind when they reach the UK.
We set to work preparing Awita, our second placement, from day one. He’d come from Eritrea originally, which is between Ethiopia and Sudan, and was 16 years old. He’d actually been with another family for the previous 6 months but needed to change as local schools claimed they couldn’t accommodate him. Luckily, by his third day with us, he was enrolled at Cathays High School in Cardiff.
Awita blossomed in education. He was exceptionally bright and it only took him 3 weeks to progress enough in his ESOL course to join the mainstream classes. The following year he was sitting his GCSEs with all the other children. And considering how long he’d been in our education system, he did extremely well. Channel 4 even featured him in a documentary.
Worrying news from Awita’s family in Eritrea, however, was an unfortunate setback for him. The Eritrean government had learned that he had left the country and were pursuing his mother, who fled the family home and wound up in a Sudanese refugee camp. To do so, she had left her children behind with an uncle. To this day I still can’t imagine the desperation she suffered to have had to leave her children.
Awita’s father and older brother had been missing for a number of years, also believed to have been taken by the government. So the emotional turmoil wreaked havoc on Awita. He lost focus at school and had all sorts of problems, but with the support of his school and the NFA we managed to get him back on track.
Today, all his family except for his father are safely back together. Awita is no longer in foster care, but he’s still with us in assisted living. Sitting his A Levels, he hopes to study Engineering at Cardiff University before joining the Royal Air Force as an officer. He says he has a burning ambition to give back to the country that saved him.
Helping asylum-seeking children gives me the happiest life I could ever dream of. They give you their love and trust you to be there when they fall.
We’ve had young people from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Africa live with us, and this year we have a two new placements – one from Eritrea and one from Kurdish Iraq. Like in the Rainbow Community, they fit together seamlessly despite their differences as Muslims and Christians. They’re part of the family. And they look to Awita as an older brother who can lead by example (and play plenty of practical jokes with too).
Our biological son is 25 now and loves the boys as much as we do, even taking on the parent role when we need a break. But as rosy as it may sound, the progressive home we’ve created has only come from hard work, understanding and lots and lots of compassion. It’s not easy.
Safer Caring is something we take very seriously in the Gittens household, which means we always work with our Supervising Social Worker to build a robust Safer Caring Policy. We know nothing of the asylum-seeking children who stay with us before they arrive, so have no references for how they will behave.
Luckily there are no young girls in the house so it’s a bit easier. We do have nieces and nephews who unfortunately can’t visit until we get to know the foster children properly, and even then we never leave them unsupervised. But it’s not a cause for concern that’s exclusive to asylum-seekers, so I firmly recommend you try out caring for one.
Foster care has not only given me the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of children in need, it’s enriched my own family life too. There are so many more highs than lows and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So give it a go! You won’t regret it.