Sarah Temple-Smith |
Desta left Eritrea at four and endured years of cruel treatment in her journey to the UK. The Refugee Council’s My View project has helped her turn her life around
One of the most important services provided for refugee children arriving in the UK by the Refugee Council, one of the six charities supported by the Guardian and Observer appeal, is therapy.
The charity’s My View project offers children who have been separated from their families 10 sessions of one-to-one counselling or group support. It brings young people together to interact and express themselves through therapeutic activities such as art classes and gardening. They often work with interpreters, and can be referred to other organisations for longer-term support afterwards.
For the appeal, one of these young people, Desta – not her real name – spoke about her journey to the UK and how the project has helped her.
“I was four when my uncle Kibrom came to our house in Eritrea and told me to get ready to leave the next morning. I didn’t know it then but my father had just been arrested by the government because we were Pentecostalists. I was scared and kept asking when my father was coming home. I was an only child and very close to him. He brought me up after my mother went away, I never knew where to.
“My uncle took me to Sudan and we stayed there a year. Then one morning he brought a stranger home, who he said was going to take me to another country that was better for me. When I asked if my father was waiting for me there, myuncle said he would come, but that I had to look after my life now.
“The next day the man took me to Greece. I was five, so scared and confused, and so lost. The man took me to a block of flats in Athens and introduced me to Adeye, a Sudanese woman and her little girl, Agapi. He told me I was going to stay there and to do whatever she told me. I cried for my father but he said I shouldn’t spend time thinking about it. It was like something cut inside my heart.
“For the next three years I looked after Agapi while her mother was at work. Every day I was losing my hope, crying and praying to God for something to happen just to take me out of all this. I loved Agapi and she loved me but Adeye was very harsh with me, hitting me and shouting at me. Then one day she told me my father wasn’t going to come because he didn’t want to. I lost all my hope.
“Once Agapi started school, Adeye would lock me inside in the mornings, and I would stay alone all day, doing all the housework and cooking. One day, when I was 13, I was really sick and Adeye shouted at me. She said: ‘The reason you are here is not to rest or to sleep but to do as I say.’ It was for me enough, and when she was leaving for work I ran out of the front door into the street. I was hit by a car and the next thing I remember was waking up in hospital with Adeye by my bed, and hearing her tell the doctors that she was my mother. I didn’t dare say anything – I never thought they would believe me.
“After this she was even crueller to me. She would tell me if I ran away again the police would arrest me and put me in prison. I didn’t know anything different, I just felt helpless. The only time I had any hope was when I played with the child.
“Then when I was 15, Adeye left the front door unlocked one morning for me to let in a guest she was expecting. I used this chance to run away again. I didn’t know where to go or who to ask for help and ended up sleeping in the street.
“On the second night a group of homeless men attacked me and an African woman saw and came to help me. She said her name was Maite and she came from Congo. She took me back to the room she shared with three other Congolese girls. It was very small and damp. They were quite hard to me, especially about money, so I started selling bags in the street like they did. We worked from early morning to late at night but it was difficult for us because we didn’t have papers and sometimes we had to run from the police.
“I was always terrified Adeye would find me again so I begged Maite to help me get away. She introduced me to a Sudanese man who brought me to the UK in the back of a lorry. He took me to the Home Office in Croydon and told me I needed to tell them my story and ask for help. When I was first here my social worker suggested I should go to the Refugee Council for counselling. I said no; I never wanted counselling. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I’d always had to be strong for myself.
“Then she told me about the My View gardening therapy group. I liked it because we were caring for the plants, and I got to meet other young people who had had similar experiences to me. The counsellor would talk to me sometimes and it was a very good experience. It gave me hope.
“Afterwards I kept in contact with the counsellor. I was so sure I didn’t want to go for counselling but I remembered everything we said at the group. The counsellor offered me sessions and each time I came I would say: ‘This will be my last day.’ But I kept coming.
“The counsellor never told me I must do this or that, which gave me confidence to try to say many things – things I can’t say to friends. Even if I’m not happy I can say what I want. I just want to say thanks to my counsellor and My View for helping me cope with my problems and feel better.
“Now I am at college and my plan is to go to university and then start my own childcare place, so I can look after children who don’t have parents or anyone to look after them. I’m living with a really nice woman and her daughter. She invited me to celebrate Christmas with her but I said no. I felt too sad and every celebration for me is hard. I miss my family and how we were together.
“But this has been a better Christmas for me than last year. I am free. It was my choice to accept my carer’s invitation or not. Instead I went to church, then to friend’s place. She’s a refugee here alone like me. We cooked together then shared our meal. But what was important was whatever I chose to do was up to me. I have a future. I feel blessed. Even if it was a sad Christmas it was a better Christmas.”
- Sarah Temple-Smith is a therapist involved in the Refugee Council’s My View project. The Refugee Council is one of six charities supported by the Guardian and Observer’s 2015 charity appeal