It would be comforting to be able to say of Ahsanullah Ahsas, a young man from who loves volleyball, clothes and the warmth of friendship, that he is now a regular teenager again, after fleeing his country’s horrors when his father was killed by the Taliban. But the world has been catastrophically cruel to him and recovery is not so simple – his struggles and worries continue even in this country, even in Leeds, to where the Home Office “dispersed” him from Dover when he arrived here at the end of his terrible journey.
As he relates some of his traumas, Ahsanullah is hunched, quiet, at times heartbreakingly raw. He had to run from home because, as the eldest of three sons, he had received death threats; his mother paid an “agent” in Kabul to transport him to England, where she believed he could be safe. On the suffocatingly hot car journey across Iran, he and three others were crammed underneath the back seats, and could barely breathe. He was arrested, imprisoned and beaten by police in Europe; he tramped miles through woods in the rain; finally he remembers cold terror in the back of a lorry from Calais, before he jumped out and found himself in Kent, alone, with no possessions.
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He believes it was Dover, and he turned himself in at a police station. Several times, he recounts with awed wonder how decent the English police officers were; that rather than beat him, one reached out and affectionately ruffled his hair. “I didn’t expect that from a police officer, to rub my head, like a friendly person,” Ahsanullah says. “In other countries I had been beaten, put in prison, punished, for no crime. But here, the police were very nice.”
There are moments when he does break into a smile, and looks like a young lad who knows what happiness is. He smiles when he remembers school, friends, the good teachers and playing volleyball back home in Afghanistan before the terror – and here in Leeds, when he talks of what has done for him to turn his life around.
One of the Guardian and Observer’s that provide help to child refugees, the Children’s Society gives concentrated, practical support to vulnerable, severely traumatised young people who arrive in Britain unaccompanied.
Din Nazim, the Children’s Society advocacy worker, himself a refugee from Afghanistan who marshals a remarkable range of professional skills and languages, is part of a small team in Leeds, which last year provided one-to-one help to 62 young people, and reached almost 700 more at drop-in centres and other services. Mostly they are, like Ahsanullah, boys alone, who have fled conflicts or civil turmoil in Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere.
Nazim first found Ahsanullah in Urban House in Wakefield, an “initial accommodation centre” to which asylum seekers are sent before being dispersed across Yorkshire. Ahsanullah says he was 16 when he fled his home last summer, but he has been officially assessed here as 18, and so an adult needing no young person’s support. He was allocated a house shared with other adults, and an asylum seeker’s £36 per week welfare, which paid for bare subsistence.
When Nazim went to see him at the house, he found Ahsanullah in a dreadful state. “He was just sitting with his head down; he wasn’t doing anything. He was just crying, all the time,” Nazim remembers. “He was very, very upset.”
Nazim went to work. He saw Ahsanullah every day to help address his trauma and start rebuilding his confidence. Nazim secured a referral from the Refugee Council for a solicitor to help with Ahsanullah’s asylum claim and age assessment challenge, and helped him enroll at college to learn English.
The teenager is now at Leeds city college three days a week, where he works at his English and has made friends with other young people. He attends a youth group, First Floor, an orientation and harm prevention programme which is fun too, run with the West Yorkshire Playhouse theatre, and – here Ahsanullah smiles brightly – he has made friends there as well.
An important part of the Children’s Society’s work is partnering refugees with young volunteers who act as mentors; Ahsanullah talks of his as if he was a guardian angel: Isidoros Lapsatis, from Greece, who was a student at Leeds Beckett university. “He was very nice,” Ahsanullah says. “He came to my house, took me round Leeds, he showed me where to buy cheap food and clothes, showed me the pound shops, took me to the museum, showed me the stadium – he showed me everything.”
Ahsanullah volunteered to talk about his experiences, and the help he has had, because Nazim’s and the Children’s Society’s support has transformed his existence here. But then, asked if he would like to add anything, he returns immediately to the lurking horror at the forefront of his mind. He cannot turn the lights out at night and sleep, he says, because he has flashbacks to seeing his father killed.
Nazim looks downcast. Funding of mental health services for refugees has been slashed, he says. The Children’s Society says £50,000 a year could fund a full-time counsellor. The charity appeal money will pay for more project workers like Nazim and a drop-in service staffed by volunteers. They hope to start a new service in Kent, with one-to-one support and a local volunteer service, to help young people’s orientation in their first days after arrival.
“I was so lucky to meet Din,” Ahsanullah says, “so lucky to be in the youth group. I am learning English and want to speak it very well. I am very, very worried about my asylum claim and where I could be sent if it fails, and Din has helped with that too. The Children’s Society has turned around my life. I want that to happen for all young people who come to this country.”
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