Hossein Ahmadi was 15 when he arrived into the country in a freezer truck. Nearly a year after he had fled his homeland of Iran, he found himself in Leeds. For 15 hours, he had travelled in temperatures as low as -20 degrees, his only company a group of strangers who’d also clambered on board.
“I was really cold, I was praying to God thinking you know what I’m gone,” he says. “I hadn’t seen daylight, I couldn’t breathe, I was frozen, I couldn’t really move my hands. If we had been inside for another one or two minutes, we would have all been dead.”
The wellbeing of the family that he had left behind troubled his thoughts and Hossein, who is now 20, had no idea what to do next. He approached a man on the streets of Leeds, who directed him to the Home Office – and after that, he was placed into temporary foster care.
Today, there is a shortage of foster carers in the region for other young people like Hossein. According to the Refugee Council, last year there were 3,651 applications for asylum in the UK from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children wanting to live in the country as refugees.
“There is a real shortage of foster carers for young refugees in Yorkshire and Humber,” Dinah Beckett, who works in project management at Migration Yorkshire, says. “A foster carer can make a real difference to a young refugee’s wellbeing, helping the young person take the first steps towards a successful life in the UK.”
The organisation manages the Welcoming Young Refugees project, which aims to recruit new foster carers and help local authorities to provide support to the young asylum seekers and refugees in their care. It is running a campaign called Making A Difference, designed to celebrate foster carers and provide information and support for those considering becoming one.
Hossein has been with foster family Sally Kincaid and her partner Steve Johnston for nearly four years. They welcomed him into their home in Beeston after he’d spent time in other temporary foster care. “I spent many holidays volunteering for one of the refugee charities in Northern France during 2016,” Sally says.
“Steve and I used to talk a lot about the terrible plight of refugees and in particular young refugees and then we realised we could do something to help. We had a spare room, we understand teenagers – having both been teachers – and a volunteer I met in France asked if we could support a young person living in Leeds. It took a few months to become approved foster carers but the rest, as they say, is history.”
Hossein grew up in Iran without his birth father. He says he was only six months old when his father was killed by the Iranian authorities for political reasons. He left the country aged 14 after his older brother was captured during a raid on his family’s home in 2015. “It was about midnight and all of a sudden there was people breaking the doors, windows, everything. It was the government. They came in and they took my brother away. I was scared and my mum was scared.”
Hossein fled to France, where he spent nearly a year in harsh conditions at a refugee camp in Dunkirk. He tried time and again to get on a ferry to the UK, at times risking his life by hiding underneath trucks, before finally making it across inside the freezer lorry. “Every time, I got caught. Even the security from Calais control, they knew me. I would say, ‘please pretend you don’t see me’. They said, ‘no, we can’t do that’... But they were friendly.”
There were times he wanted to stay put. “But I couldn’t because the smugglers would hurt me,” he says. “They did attack me twice because I wanted to stay because I was really tired (to try). And I was scared at the same time.”
Budding actor Hossein has now been working on projects with Leeds Playhouse and has been doing an acting course at Leeds City College. He has not had contact with his mother or brother since he left Iran. “I’ve always wanted to do acting but obviously I lost my family and I don’t know what happened to them and so when I came here, I said right I’ll do acting 100 per cent because I thought that way I can find my family, if I’m on TV or somewhere that my mum can see me.”
For Sally, it is an understatement to say that Hossein has flourished. “When we met him, he was a scared young man. He was lost and alone. Now, we are pleased to say that he is proud of his background and his roots but he also calls Leeds his home, he has friends, he is an important part of our community and he is a wonderful young man.”
Her message for anyone considering being a foster carer for a young refugee is a simple one. “Do it... Someone who has had so much trauma in their life, suddenly gets to a place where they are safe... They’re a very special group of people. They appreciate things far more than I do, for example...(Fostering) is something that makes your world a much, much bigger place.”
For Rachel Poulton, who has been a foster carer in York with her husband for more than a decade, opening up their home has also benefited their own children. “I think it’s been very positive for our kids as part of their growing up experience, always having a young refugee at the table. If ever there isn’t one, it feels odd. They’ve definitely gained in their outlook on life and we’ve seen some lovely qualities in them which we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Since 2016, the family has welcomed around 13 young refugees, offering a temporary place to stay for those entering the fostering system as they adapt to their new life in the UK.
Currently, three young refugees are living with them. Rachel, who has previously worked overseas in refugee camps, is urging those considering fostering to take the first steps – speak to other foster carers and get more information on the process from local authorities. “Where people go wrong is that they think they have to be this perfect person to become a foster carer – and they don’t. It’s compassion that’s key,” she says.
“These young people have experienced so much sadness and so much ill-treatment that to be able to do something kind or help their lives get a bit better feels like a privilege,” she adds.
“All of them are quite traumatised by what they’ve been through. Many of them have experienced terrifying situations, they have been on desperately crowded, incredibly dangerous boats across rough seas, they’ve often been incarcerated and beaten and tortured. It isn’t going to suddenly get better and all go away for them but seeing them make steps towards that is lovely.”
Hossein knows first-hand the joys that fostering can bring. He feels “blessed and lucky” to have Sally and Steve’s support. “It is not easy to let someone you don’t know into your home. Sally and Steve opened their door for me, gave me freedom and trust,” he says. “Having a foster family, you just feel happier. You feel like you have people in your life who support you and who care about you.”
To find out more, visit welcomingyoungrefugees.org.uk
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