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Helping to pick up the pieces

Young people arriving in the UK from abroad can be particularly vulnerable. Steve Hook reports on how the Connexions scheme can make a big difference

AS YUSUF Rwigamba sat in immigration at Heathrow he fully expected to find himself on the next flight out of the country.

The reason the young Rwandan had been given for being flown to London was simply beyond his comprehension. Yusuf had fled to Uganda after the civil war which had seen his father, an army officer, mother and two brothers disappear. All were presumed dead and Yusuf, a young teenager and head of a shattered family, was left to look after his two younger sisters. Then he was approached by the authorities and told his mother had been spotted in London by a family friend who bumped into her in the street.

It seemed too incredible to be true but, suspending his disbelief, he agreed to be flown to Heathrow with his sisters.

"I was 16," said Yusuf, now 18. "My sisters were younger than me and I couldn't really talk to them about it. We just sat there and then eventually they brought me to my mother at the airport. There were a lot of tears."

Yusuf found the amount of bureaucracy which gained him his flight to freedom was surprisingly small. He had no passport, so was asked some simple questions to confirm his identity, presented with a visa document and taken to the airport.

The hurdles he would face in Britain would prove harder to clear. He initially lived with his mother, but moved out because they weren't getting on. Despite having leave to remain in the UK, he found assimilating into his new alien surroundings alone was more than he could manage without help. French was his first language and Swahili his second.

The Westminster Kingsway College in Kings Cross, London, where Yusuf was studying, provided the support he needed through its student advice service, which included full-time Connexions personal assistant Peter Alder.

Mr Alder is one of a team of PAs employed by Camden council, in inner London, as part of the authority's contract to deliver Connexions.

He helped Yusuf apply for an Education Maintenance Allowance, attempted, sadly unsuccessfully, to help him patch things up with his mother by bringing in a mediation service, and arranged for income support to be paid.

It was Connexions which found Yusuf temporary accommodation in a hostel on the Caledonian Road, a few minutes from the college.

It was Connexions which then intervened to make sure hewas found somewhere more suitable to live.

Before this, he was seriously at risk. His first night after leaving his mother's place was spent sleeping at Gospel Oak station in North London.

"It was frightening. I couldn't have done anything about my situation if Pete wasn't there. There were times I thought about leaving college. But when you speak to him he makes you cool down."

It was an example of one of Connexions' most important functions - providing a quick response for young people who are in danger of being lost to education and welfare services.

Another student at the college, a Kurdish Turk whose father had been involved with the PKK Kurdish resistance group, has struggled to cope since she arrived in England.

She had spent a year on what she regarded as a wholly inadequate English course at a London school. At the end of it, she was unable to string a sentence together in English. After starting at college, stress was affecting her health. Still concerned for her safety, she asked not to be identified. It was only the quick-thinking of a security guard which stopped her sliding out of the system.

She was heading for the exit of the building, not intending to come back, when he approached her, having seen she was upset. He suggested she talk to Mr Alder. Now, she is still at the college, and her English is excellent.

She says the personal attention of a concerned professional had much to do with her recovery from the despair she was feeling. "I suppose I tend to look at the bad side." she said. "Pete helped me to see things differently."

Connexions and its network of PAs are available to all young people, not just those in straitened circumstances. But, in the battle against social exclusion, they are among the Government's front line troops. Every day, the efforts of Mr Alder and his colleagues are keeping some of the most vulnerable people in society inside the education system.

Of course, there are times when the sense of satisfaction the job brings is dented with a reminder that not everything is within his control. He knows more than most about the meaning of a "bad day at the office." On one occasion, he tried to help a client who had found himself homeless but, after a frantic attempt to find shelter, none of the agencies Mr Alder approached was able to help.

"I had to tell him he was going to be sleeping rough that night," he said. "That's a very difficult thing to have to say to someone."

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