“Every day I hear about extraordinary ways people survive”

Sheila Melzak b&w
The woman in this photo is Sheila Melzak, a psychotherapist. She runs the Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile, a charity that helps child refugees. Specifically, her organisation works with children who have fled violence abroad, dreamed of finding sanctuary here in Britain, and somehow made it into the country on their own.

These children are all officially classified as “unaccompanied”. That means they entered Britain illegally, often hidden in the back of a lorry, with no family or adults to help them or to protect them.

They include people like Mimi from Eritrea, who escaped to England aged 12 when her father disappeared and her sister was killed. And Fakirzai, smuggled out of Afghanistan when the Taliban murdered his father. Many of them have been raped and tortured. Some have been forced to kill, or watch the murder of their parents. Others have been trafficked into the sex industry.

Increasingly, they come from Syria. Since I met Sheila back in May, the Europe-wide refugee crisis has seen the number of unaccompanied children arriving in Britain and seeking asylum soar. Thankfully, sole children account for less than 10% of the refugees seeking asylum here. But the figure for last year was a record anyway, at 1,861. In only the three months to July the number of lone children making it to my home county of Kent had doubled to 605. Admittedly, Kent includes the port of Dover, which is a major point of entry. But even so.

The beuaucratic asylum process these vulnerable children encounter when they finally make it to Britain is a huge shock to them, says Sheila. One of its most damaging aspects is that they find their stories are not believed. “It makes them feel crazy, completely crazy,” she says.

“It would be hard enough if you were an adult. But they are children. They don’t leap off a boat or jump out the back of a van and say yippee, I’m in England. They are exhausted, often ill and unprepared for the suspicion they experience.”

As they navigate the system, their credibility is challenged time and again. And the threat of deportation is always there. Last year, only about half the children under 17 who asked for refugee status received it. The rest were given some form of temporary leave to remain or had their application rejected, leaving them facing a forced return to their country of origin.

“You may feel safe to stay once you get asylum, but these young people are expected to live with a level of uncertainty that at their age they can’t manage. It’s very hard for them,” Sheila says.

Not only do they children feel isolated and helpless; they are often consumed by guilt and shame about why they left home in the first place and what’s happened to them on their journey. The effects include depression and other forms of mental illness. To help, Baobab offers psychotherapy and therapeutic activities like music making, arts-based workshops, social outings and philosophy discussions – “is it ever right to kill someone?” is a question they are especially keen to debate.

Sheila thinks of Baobab and its base just off a busy road in Holloway as a community, not a clinic. “That’s very important for people who have been forced to leave their own communities,” she says. “One of our aims is for them to find ways of living in a community again.”

When we met, Baobab was helping about 120 people, of whom 60 or so were regularly involved in weekly activities. Most of them were teenagers. The youngest was just six years old.

Working with these brave children is completely absorbing, Sheila says. “You learn so much about survival and resilience. Every day I hear about extraordinary ways that people survive.”

Today, these children are on the margins of British society, trying to get by on £36.95 a week, hoping they won’t get kicked out and sent “home”. But Sheila has high hopes for their future. “Our aim is that they will find a place in the wider community and contribute to this country,” she says. “And I believe that given the right support, they will.”

And it’s worth noting, Baobab gets not a penny of government funding.