Why Osman dreads turning 18

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Refugee children in care must cope with an extra burden of stress as adulthood approaches, Nick Hilborne reports

For children who arrive in this country seeking asylum on their own, living in care is just one of their challenges.

Once social services find them somewhere to live and a school that will take them, they face growing up against a background of uncertainty over whether they can stay in the country.

For many, their 18th birthday is no cause for celebration: it is a deadline by which they must make a full asylum application, as an adult.

Osman, an Iraqi Kurd, and Manjola, who is Albanian, arrived in England both aged 15, with only a few words of English. They are among 35 asylum-seeker children, or unaccompanied minors as they are officially called, at Oxford community school, the largest group by far at any secondary school in the city.

Osman, now 17, has moved accommodation three times, having been in the country little more than a year. He is currently sharing a house with three other teenagers seeking asylum. He still struggles with his English, but said a Ugandan boy in the house had helped him a lot with his homework.

"It is difficult when I move," he said. "I have to take everything with me, like the TV."

Manjola also finds learning English difficult, particularly words that are not spelt the way they sound. She did not know when she would find out if she could stay in England.

"You have to think about the application first, and then about work," she said. If she does stay, Manjola wants to do a hairdressing course at Oxford and Cherwell Valley college.

Rather than going into Year 11 when they arrived, both Osman and Manjola went straight to Year 12, where they are taking a level 1 BTec course specifically designed for asylum-seekers.

The course, known as 'skills for working life", combines basic English with maths and practical subjects like money management.

Chloe Purcell is a project worker at Oasis, a voluntary organisation working with asylum-seekers in Oxford schools.

"The course was created because of experience of people arriving in the middle of Year 11 with no English," she said. "The level of support they needed was huge, and some of them dropped out of school."

Steve Lunt, who is headteacher of Oxford community school, said the traumatic experiences suffered by many unaccompanied asylum- seeker children before they arrived meant that the focus had to be on nurture.

"We have to make sure the curriculum is accessible and that they have basic English and other skills," he said. "Once things have stabilised in their lives, they can do quite well."

* nick.hilborne@tes.co.uk

The Time to Care campaign aims to highlight the problems of children in care inside and outside school.

By starting a debate about how we can improve attainment of looked-after pupils, The TES hopes to help create an increase in the proportion who leave school with good qualifications. Official figures show more than half leave school without a single GCSE and just 6 per cent get five Cs or better.

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