Julie and the boy took it in turns to roll out and thin the slab of pastry dough. The rolling pin, with it’s worn wooden handles, had been her mother’s. And here in this moment, she was connected to her mother, while the teenager conjured fond memories of his mother, remembering her rolling out pastry to make sausage rolls as he was now doing in this safe home far away from her.
“Sausage rolls. I’m not sure how he got that across the language barrier,” Mike says grinning, making us all smile.
“I thought wow, this is incredible that in our kitchen, we’re teaching a boy to make pastry, which is connecting him to his mother,” says Julie, speaking about one of a series of profound moments she and her husband, Mike, had shared with the five asylum seeking boys they had welcomed into their home over the last two years. “He was happy, really happy.”
A world away from all that they knew
The boys had come from Albania and Iran – places with cultures very different from their new space of Sanctuary in this residential part of Poole, a world away from all that they knew.
I ask if any of the boys had been able to contact their families back in their origin country.
“Some of them come from places where contact with their families is impossible – if the mother hasn’t got a mobile phone, hasn’t got internet access, lives in a place where you don’t have an address, so you don’t have a postal address, your house doesn’t have a number, your street doesn’t have a name – how do you contact somebody? Impossible.”
Mike then explains about the boy who had stayed with them more recently who had been able to get in touch with his family. “He could skype his mum and dad in Iraq – so he was in our dining room with his mum and we were waving at his mum, hello M’s mum – he was very much in touch with his family.”
“He could Skype his mum and dad in Iraq – so he was in our dining room with his mum and we were waving at his mum, hello M’s mum – he was very much in touch with his family.”
But the rest had not been able to contact their families back home and the teenager making sausage rolls with Julie in their kitchen, sharing that connected moment, hadn’t been able to see or contact his mum ever since he had left his country. “He often very much missed her and was very sad and confused about what he was doing and he was showing an interest in learning to cook – many of these lads, their mothers have done all the cooking all of their lives, they come from cultures where that’s been the norm – so they arrive not knowing how to do very much for themselves in that regard,” Julie explains. “And this boy said that he wanted to make sausage rolls. It was such a random thing he wanted to be able to make and I don’t think I’ve ever made sausage rolls, but we looked up a recipe…”
Giving something back
“He got very into cooking them, he was very good at it as well,” Mike adds. They tell me how the teen enjoyed making bread too.“He was so strong, so physically strong and he would just pummel the dough really really hard, make fantastic bread.” And he was happy to be able to give something back to Mike and Julie.
“They’ve got so little and they arrive with nothing, so they have to receive, receive, receive – receive from us, receive from social services, they can’t do anything for themselves because they’re not allowed to earn their own money and that’s really stripped them of their sense of self belief and self worth, so we have found ways of allowing them to give something back to us and they really value that and respond to it well.”
That’s something that Mike and Julie tried hard to facilitate, seeing how the restrictions on work and volunteering could lead to boredom and a loss of independence for these young people, who were often used to working back in their origin country from a younger age.
“We got some of the lads to paint the walls because they were bored and they were so chuffed to be able to do it, to be able to do a job for us.”
And besides teaching them to cook bread and sausage rolls, Mike and Julie have shared other fun experiences with the boys in their care.
“We took a couple of our lads camping to the Purbecks and they just loved that. They went swimming and leaping in off of Dancing Ledge.” Then in what to me sounds not unlike an expression of parental worry “frightening,” Mike adds.
So many uncertainties
I offer that they were doing what any braizen teenage boy would be doing, but Mike and Julie shake their heads “Not exactly all teenage boys, they were just fearless weren’t they?” Mike looks to Julie and she nods back confirmation. Julie continues however, brighter now, “There was a real sense that they were playing, they were enjoying being able to play and be carefree for a short time when they’d lived lives of such responsibility and anxiety.”
And she’s of course referring to anxieties that trouble them still – will their asylum claims be successful? Will they find a life here? If they have to return, what will they do next? So many uncertainties and a long time to wait for firm answers. “But for those moments,” she says “they just seem to forget all of those bigger worries and enjoy playing – it was really lovely to be a part of facilitating that.”
“they just seem to forget all of those bigger worries and enjoy playing – it was really lovely to be a part of facilitating that.”
There were some trickier times too – the boys were adept at misplacing and forgetting to take their house-keys out with them. Mike and Julie surmised that perhaps back in Albania and Iran, locking doors with house-keys was not commonplace.
“We give them a key, a backdoor key and we had a real problem in that they kept losing their keys or forgetting their keys, they just wouldn’t carry their key with them, the only thing they carried was their phone.”
Cutting keys became a regular past-time for Mike and Julie – as did finding keys hidden in their back garden, rusty with weather-wear. Julie is bemused recounting the discovery of oxidised keys under loose bricks and concealing shrubs but concedes “that may be a young person thing.”
“They’re sixteen to seventeen year olds so they do all that sixteen to seventeen year olds do, they’re forgetful, they get up late, they go to bed late, they drift off and come back…” Mike expresses genially. Mike and Julie aren’t strangers to teenage-kind, they have three children in early adulthood, two living independently away from home and the youngest currently studying away at university and returning during the holidays. Their experience of parenthood was a factor in their decision to foster the boys.
“They’re sixteen to seventeen year olds so they do all that sixteen to seventeen year olds do, they’re forgetful, they get up late, they go to bed late, they drift off and come back…”
“We fairly successfully launched our own kids into the world we felt, so we had a bit of emotional space, as well as house space to consider offering that to other people’s children.”
A personal duty
That gets us on to why they wanted to foster asylum seeking children and what motivated them, having never fostered before.
“We wanted to respond in some way to the Syrian refugee crisis, which was all over our TV set at the time.” They’d gone along to an information event hosted by Poole Churches Together to find out more about fostering.
It’s clear speaking to them that Mike and Julie feel a personal duty to the children seeking asylum who came to the UK.
“We wanted to respond in some way to the Syrian refugee crisis, which was all over our TV set at the time.”
“There was a recognition that we are connected to the rest of the world and this was a way of us working out our sense of responsibility, without pretending to know all the different political agendas,” Mike says matter of fact. “At the end of the day, this country is signed up to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which says we are responsible to look after young people, so we do that.”
For Mike and Julie, their answer was also very intimately tied with their religious faith.
“There’s a strong connection with the generosity of our faith which we seek to express and that’s standing in what our Christian faith is, and recognising that offering and receiving are very similar and we’ve enjoyed a reciprocal relationship with the lads we’ve had and gained a lot from them.”
Mike recalls when one of their boys reached for the last baklava on the living room coffee table. Baklava is a sweet, sticky dessert-staple of Middle-Eastern cuisine, with chopped nuts marinated in tiered pouches of honey or syrup, between delicate layers of filo pastry. He tore the layers apart into two squidgy pieces and handed one to Mike – a warm gesture that Mike regards as a poignant moment of trust. “He had such a lovely smile.”
Barriers to fostering
Amongst the heart-warming moments, there were some harder ones – Mike and Julie wanted to speak honestly of their experience.
“You’re quite well supported by by social services, but on the other hand, or at the same time you also find yourself having to make decisions when social services are not there – after five o’clock, overnight, at weekends – they do have on call service, but they’re so busy and sometimes you would ring it and you would just get an answer phone and you wouldn’t get a call back,” Julie explains.
“Sometimes you do have to make decisions in the middle of the night without support. We’ve had to call the police when boys have gone missing – they had just stayed out longer and not really thought about it…”
But they are also keen to emphasise the support they were given by Social Services and highlight that finances need not be a barrier to fostering.
“You’re giving your home and you’re giving a bit of your time but you don’t have to be paying for anything. You don’t have to be wealthy to be able to do this.”
“The boys get a bus pass and a small amount of pocket money each week. So you’re really not out of pocket and the reason why it would be important to say that, is that if people didn’t feel like they were very well off and didn’t have a bit of surplus money, they shouldn’t have to be paying anything. You’re giving your home and you’re giving a bit of your time but you don’t have to be paying for anything. You don’t have to be wealthy to be able to do this.”
The boys also attended classes at Poole and Bournemouth College where they take ESOL classes that provide basic English, maths and an introduction to British life. The college also run trips – that term their foster teenager had visited Winchester Christmas Market. Mike also detailed how under the auspices of education, the boys were able to volunteer, “They take them on volunteering projects – conservation and food banks – one of our lads did some cooking at a local church.”
The language barrier
Were there other challenges, I ask and Mike tells me of a fun challenge – how they overcame the language barrier.
“Of course their English gets better over time. Some of the lads had a bit of English or another language, one of them had Italian, they’ve travelled across Europe, so they’ve coped communicating, but there’s an awful lot of hieroglyphics and acting – I quite enjoyed that, how do you get a message across.”
“You’re a good drawer as well so you’d obviously draw,” Julie adds, complimenting her husband’s successful pictionary-style communication strategy.
“So you’d draw the pictures and you’d act things out, there’s a lot of pointing and it’s good fun, it’s a good way of making communication, because it’s funny. We’d try their language a bit and they’d laugh at us.”
Mike continues; “So you’d draw the pictures and you’d act things out, there’s a lot of pointing and it’s good fun, it’s a good way of making communication, because it’s funny. We’d try their language a bit and they’d laugh at us.”
While in the day to day dialogues the family relied on an amalgamation of Google translate (“quite useful, but not terribly accurate,” Julie tells me) and doodles or acting, for the important conversations, the couple were provided professional interpreters.
“We found that the translators we’ve worked with, it’s very clear, the really good one was more than just a translator, she was from Albania and she spoke and she was very gifted in making relationships and it was such a very powerful thing for the lads to have her present in the meetings, it was more than just translating.”
A culture of welcome
One unanticipated revelation that Mike and Julie experienced, was that in looking after these asylum-seeking children, it gave them an insight into the UK’s culture of welcome.
“All the people we’ve had dealings with have been very supportive and friendly towards them.”
“Doing this has made us realise just how brilliant this country is, free NHS, education, Social Services look after people – all the people we’ve had dealings with have been very supportive and friendly towards them.”
Julie then tells me of a particular moment when an NHS TB nurse expressed his wishes of welcome to one of boys. She remembers his words distinctly; “you are welcome here and we’re pleased that you are here.”
“When you’ve taken these young people to appointments, at the hospital, GPs, dentists, everybody, without exception, has been respectful to them and welcoming.”
They were full of moments, of a family rolling pin pressing pastry and rolling connections past and present, near and far into crusts, of sharing baklava, breaking the sticky sheets of flaking filo between hands and passing them into another, sinews of syrup staining these precious memories into their minds. Connected.
“It just feels like we are part of a world that needs to realise it is connected, not just in political terms, climate change, everything is connected.It does develop a different appreciation of what it is to live in a world where the borders are very porous – how are we going to shape this future where we’re going to have to be moving over borders?”
I felt that maybe Mike and Julie had taken that first step.