Feven was ill when she arrived here, and didn’t check how officials spelled her name on her arrival documents. They made a mistake and it delayed her resident’s permit by months, meaning that, when Danait had eventually learned enough English to start applying for UK colleges, Feven had to wait, even though she wanted to be learning.
The girls’ story is not uncommon. According to the Refugee Council, 3253 unaccompanied children claimed asylum in the UK in 2015. The majority come from Eritrea (736), closely followed by Afghanistan (694) and Albania (481), with the number of child refugees coming from Syria (169) much lower than the media might have you think.
When people first arrive in the UK, either as refugees or as migrants, they usually face a number of big challenges: a bureaucratic battle over paperwork; sometimes homelessness; a struggle to acclimatise to their new surroundings and a feeling of invisibility, often compounded by an inability to speak English.
This would be tough enough for an adult, but it can be even more difficult for children – especially unaccompanied minors who have left behind their friends and family because the prospect of starting over seemed less risky than staying where they were.
Across the UK, committed individuals help these kids through the settling-in process; explaining how to fill out forms, showing them how to buy a travel card, and teaching them English so they can apply for UK schools. Some are paid, some do it on a voluntary basis.
One of the many organisations that help is Into School, which runs out of The Baytree Centre in Brixton. Into School teaches English to a dozen or more girls at any one time – Feven and Danait both attended – as well as filling up their days with activities like art or cooking, in order to prepare them for the UK school system.
“We tend to have small groups of about 10-15 girls at any one time,” says Rosanna, who is the Volunteer and Youth Development Manager at Baytree. “Syrian refugees, girls from Latin America, Eritrea, Somalia, Angola. We get referrals through other community organisations, or social services if they’re unaccompanied minors in foster care, and then a lot of girls through word of mouth within their local communities.”
Girls can lack confidence and feel quite vulnerable. Some have been exposed to awful situations so it’s nice not to bother with interactions with boys or to get distracted. It’s a safe space
A couple of girls had migrated with their families from Bolivia. Another girl had come to London from Aleppo in Syria. Other than messing about with the girls, making some of those viral mannequin videos around the museum, Caley and I taught them English phrases and how to get the tube, and chatted to them about how they’re dealing with the culture shock.
“Part of it is about teaching them English but it’s also about keeping them occupied,” says Rosanna, explaining why Into School do what they do. “We taught a girl last term who had been in the country about eight months, stuck in her room, without interacting with anyone else bar her family because she didn’t speak the language.”
The girl Rosanna is talking about was 14, from Somalia, and had come over here to live with an older sister she’d never met before. Rosanna remembers how “in the first weeks [of Into School] she was so quiet and shy but after a few weeks she had a beaming smile on her face.”
While Into School offer girls sessions to get help on their schooling application forms, sometimes problems still arise. The Somalian girl Rosanna told me about faced similar problems to Feven from Eritrea, in that she couldn’t apply for school until she had proof of address, and so spent months out of formal education while she waited for her sister to become her legal guardian.
Rosanna points out that, once girls have applied to school, things don’t necessarily get easier. Depending on the age of the girl and the school, usually they will have to do tests and interview for admission and, in Rosanna’s experience, some schools don't want migrants or refugees because they think it can be bad for the school’s GCSE exam results.
That’s despite research from think tank OECD that showed quite the opposite.
Once in school, kids for whom English is not a first language are usually enrolled on a Special Educational Needs course called an ESOL, which stands for English for Speakers of Other Languages. But in state schools, there’s only so much support they can get, due to resources, which is why many girls continue to attend programmes like Into School for extra support.
“The girls can come along even if they’ve started school,” says Rosanna. “On Tuesday afternoons we have quite a few girls coming back for extra English classes. If they do the college intensive ESOL it’s usually only three or four days a week so can still come to our after-school activities, homework club or mentoring.”
Beyond the practical stuff of learning English and getting help registering for school, there's the increased confidence, hope for the future and solidarity with other girls
“Statistically, girls stay NEET for longer than boys,” explains Rosanna, “Because they become pregnant, or they are made to stay at home and look after their family, or because in the country they came from an education wasn’t as good as their male counterparts', or because their parents do not culturally prioritise girls’ education.”
When I ask Rosanna what she thinks the newly arrived girls get out of the programme socially, beyond the practicalities of learning English and getting help registering for school, she describes a mixture of increased confidence, hope for the future and solidarity with other girls. "Sometimes they don't get on with their foster family, for example, so we act like a temporary family."
The girls I took to the V&A confirmed this, telling me it was nice to meet other people their age, who are in a similar position. And from my experience on the day, it seems there’s an international language that unites teenage girls from anywhere in the world: the ubiquitous selfie.
I learned more from the girls in one afternoon volunteering than I thought I would; I learned that, if more people like Caley and Rosanna dedicated a bit of their spare time to helping young migrants and refugees acclimatise to the UK, it could help to make the process a lot more seamless.
I also learned that, while you probably think you don’t have anything to contribute, things you take for granted – like knowing how to navigate your city or speak its language – could be valuable skills to share with someone else. Someone who's a very long way from home.
You can volunteer via:
The Baytree Centre
The Children's Society