Frail refugee sparks campaign

Nic Barnard

A north London special school is championing the cause of a four-year-old asylum seeker. Nic Barnard reports

LAST night Melis was bad again. The poorly four-year-old slept only four hours. Last week she suffered the latest of her increasingly frequent epileptic fits. Her teachers rushed her to hospital.

Rocking the tiny girl on her knee, nursery teacher Dianne Sandler talks of Melis Berk's progress since she arrived at Rosemary special school two years ago; her decline since the fits started; and the fears for her future.

Melis's condition - brain-damaged from birth, with fits and digestive problems which mean she is fed through a tube in her stomach - is serious enough. But she also lives under another shadow.

Her parents, Omer and Sengul, are Kurdish refugees whose appeal for asylum has been turned down despite fears that Melis's life will be at risk if she returns to their homeland, Turkey.

The decision prompted the school in Islington, north London, to launch a campaign to keep her in the country. Staff have written to MPs, provided statements for lawyers and have now taken the case to the media.

"It's a human rights issue," Ms Sandler said. "The children are in our care and we have responsibility for them. If anything threatens them we should be there for them, whether it's getting them the right wheelchair or the right to stay in the country. It's the same thing, really.

Headteacher Dr David Dewhurst said: "We are sure that if she returns to Turkey, Melis will not get the education, health and social care her condition demands. Her life will be at risk."

The family came to Britain in 1998, enduring a five-day journey sealed into a lorry. Omer had been detained twice by Turkish police and says he was tortured as a sympathiser of the Kurdish political party, Hadep. But his main concern is not for himself but for his daughter.

Next month, Melis will undergo her fifth operation at Great Ormond Street since arriving in England. Doctors in Turkey failed to diagnose her condition and she underwent one expensive operation, later dismissed by English consultants as needless.

Rosemary specialises in children with profound and multiple learning difficulties and takes in many refugee children, but none has provoked such concern. A quadriplegic, Melis weighs only 16kg and needs daily drugs and physiotherapy to keep her body strong. She can't speak but, like other children in the class, can sometimes communicate by hitting a switch.

"When she's on good form, she's delightful," Ms Sandler said. "She's really responsive. She watches me all the time and just wants attention."

But until next month's operation, the good days are far apart. She comes now as much to give her exhausted mum a rest. Sengul must push her daughter two miles to reach one of the supermarkets where she can cash in her asylum-seeker vouchers.

But there is a glimmer of hope. The independent adjudicator who turned down their appeal urged the Home Office to give the Berks "exceptional leave to stay" on the compassionate grounds of needing help for Melis.

The Home Office has yet to respond. In the meantime, plans for a further appeal go on.

A Home Office spokesman said he was unable to comment on individual cases.

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Nic Barnard

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