Ibrahim and his younger brothers live in a council flat, with a 10th-floor panorama of north London. All are studying; Ibrahim, just 19, is due to go to Hertfordshire University next term. Idris, 17, is at an FE college, and youngest brother, Mohamed, 13, has just taken his key stage 3 Sats. So far, so unremarkable - except that the three young men live on their own, in a country none knew at all until recently. As well as taking care of schoolwork, Ibrahim must shop, cook and clean for the family. He has to navigate the benefits, housing and immigration systems and help his younger brothers - who came to England after him - with their studies. It is perhaps not surprising that he says of himself: "I'm always a bit serious.
I don't see things in a funny way."
Ibrahim arrived alone in this country from Somalia in 2003 aged16, fleeing the violence and unpredictability of a country run largely by armed militias. In his first year, he learned English and passed seven GCSEs while moving around children's homes and bedsits, forced to share rooms, catch three buses to school and visit local libraries to get access to a computer. A high-flier in the sixth form at his school, where he spent three years, he won a business award in 2004 and recently took business studies, IT and Arabic A-levels.
It helped that he was studious at home in Somalia, but staff at Ravenscroft school in the London borough of Barnet, he says, have made a huge difference. Ibrahim chose the school on the recommendation of Somali boys he met when he first arrived in the UK. In special measures until 2002, it is a small school and largely avoided by the better-off families that live near it. For Ibrahim though, it has been a lifeline, with many teachers helping him. His business studies teacher has mentored him throughout his time in England and was the first to give him an A* for an assignment. "She believed in me and she was very supportive," says Ibrahim. "She was a guide to me as well as a teacher." When younger brother Mohamed arrived in England, Ibrahim immediately enrolled him there too so he could keep an eye on him. Middle brother Idris opted for Barnet college, because "college"
sounded more grown up than school.
Ibrahim prefers not to talk publicly about his family back home. He admits to occasional twinges of envy for his classmates. "I sometimes feel, you are lucky guys. When you go home, you've got food cooked for you and your clothes washed. They invite me to play football, but I can't do it because I have to come home and do the house stuff." Without his personal determination, he could not have achieved as he has. At one point, when living in Harlesden, he had to get up at five in the morning to reach school in time, and spend much of his weekly pound;45 subsistence allowance on fares. The module on budgeting, in his GCSE business studies course, was crucial to his survival, he says. "It was tough, and everything was strange. But I took it as a challenge."
Each year, around 3,000 unaccompanied asylum seekers aged under 18 arrive in this country, from as young as eight years old. Some come alone; others are brought by agents then abandoned - by the side of motorways, at railway stations, on busy high streets - once they are in the country. In 2004, the last year for which reliable figures are available according to the Refugee Council, there were 10,000 children in this position. Most arrive without papers and often have their age and sometimes even their nationality disputed by immigration officials. Social services departments - who make their own age assessments - have a duty under the Children Act to house the young people while they are under 18; younger children tend to go to foster homes, but from the age of 15 upwards many, like Ibrahim and his brothers, find themselves living as adults - in their case with constructive input from the London borough of Barnet's Leaving Care team.
Most unaccompanied minors come from Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia and Eritrea, says Jane Dykins, head of the children's section at the Refugee Council, while the flow of people from Kosovo and other Balkan states has decreased recently. Many of the children have left traumatic situations behind, with desperate parents doing anything they can to get their children out of harm's way.
But the trauma does not necessarily end on arrival in the UK. "Mariam"
agreed to talk to The TES only anonymously; she fears both for her foster son's mental well being and his physical safety. "Christian" arrived in this country from Eastern Europe aged 12, deeply traumatised after a long lorry journey in which he believed he was being taken away to be killed, as other members of his family and community had been. He spoke only a handful of English words. Now at a London comprehensive and living in a family with two children of roughly the same age, he has become used to life here, but is terrified of being sent back. "He is so bright. His language leapt up from day to day," says his foster mother. "He's been nominated science student of the month, sports personality of the term."
But Christian does not want his photo displayed on the honours board of his school. "Only dead people have their picture up on the walls," he told his foster mother. Despite trauma counselling, Christian still fears for his life. He avoids fellow pupils of the same national background and never talks about his past outside the foster family. Almost all unaccompanied asylum seekers are given leave to remain here up to the age of 18, but Mariam fears that her foster son may be sent away once he reaches 18; certainly, he is an easy target for immigration officials under pressure to show they are ejecting asylum seekers. "This particular child is going to be a credit to this country and I would fight as hard for him as for my own son or daughter," she says. "A child has got a right to life and a future of some sort."
As with other looked-after children, schools need to tread carefully if they are to effectively support young unaccompanied asylum seekers. Many arrive with no English, having had disrupted and difficult lives. Often, the children's new carers here - if they have any - know almost nothing about them. Some of the young people have been in combat, or witnessed atrocities. The structure and routine of the school day is vital for the sense of normality and security it can give, say researchers at the Refugee Council.
Dormers Wells school in Southall, situated near Heathrow airport, has a high proportion of refugee students. Headteacher Janet Leigh says that staff are sensitive to all children's needs for privacy. "We use the term 'family' very loosely," she says. "It could be a cousin, an uncle..." They try to help children process their feelings, providing a listening ear if they want to talk. The school has an ongoing induction class for new arrivals and in any one class there might be four teachers, says the head.
"One for EAL support, one for SEN support, one for behavioural support and the classroom teacher."
Education is particularly difficult for young people who have not been to school in their own country. Jeannine Bryans specialises in caring for young asylum seekers and currently has two boys aged 15 and 16, Muslims from a village in Afghanistan. Both arrived depressed and traumatised.
"They needed their health and their emotions built up," she says. Food is an issue in her household; the boys like the mild curries she cooks but loathe English roasts. They dislike the English practice of keeping dogs (she has three) as pets, have no notion of locking up when they leave the house, wouldn't know how to dial the Fire Brigade in an emergency. "I think they can learn a lot of basic stuff at home, from a family," she says.
In rural Cambridgeshire, the boys have experienced both racism and bullying, although their school has tried to tackle the issue, she says.
Not having been to school before, plus their lack of English, makes it almost impossible for them to access the education on offer. "They are both very bright. But classes go over their heads," says Jeannine Bryans. She worries that they are vulnerable socially; strictly observant, the two boys do not speak about sex or relationships with her and can misinterpret other teenagers' behaviour.
Ibrahim, who expects good grades in his exams, has clearly been well taught. But he makes the point that it was the human warmth of his teachers that was equally important to him. "All the teachers I've met were good, friendly, professional," he says. "If they didn't offer me that sort of kindness, I would have felt alienated. They were the only people, apart from Social Services, from whom I received help and advice. I can't express how sad I am to leave the school."
For more information on unaccompanied minors, visit: Refugee Council at www.refugeecouncil.org.uk\researchNational Refugee Integration Forum at www.nrif.org.uk