Reflections on caring for an unaccompanied asylum seeker

A guest blog post by Maura Daly & Mark Smith

We are both experienced social workers, now social work academics. For almost thirty years, we have been respite carers for disabled children. Following from Alf Dubbs’ brokering the deal to bring unaccompanied asylum seeking children [UASC] to the UK from the Calais Camps in 2016, our local authority took five boys. They were initially housed together in a residential care unit before the local authority put out a call to respite carers asking if they might extend their remit to take one of the boys. Our personal circumstances at that point were such that we could do so, so we agreed and within a few weeks Bona*, a sixteen-year-old African boy, had moved in with us. Four and a half years later, he has just completed his second year at university in a different city but, like our own kids, is back and forward and is very much part of our family.

The literature on care differentiates between ‘caring about’ and ‘caring for’; the former involves a general benign motivation to ensure that those needing care are provided with it, whereas ‘caring for’ involves the hands-on ‘doing’ of care. The intimacy of everyday caring has provided us with unique insights, not just about Bona as an individual with his own needs, quirks and preferences, but through those to some of the wider issues thrown up by global movement. We only have space to touch upon two of these here, the centrality of religion and culture in caring, and our concerns about the psychologization of responses to UASC.

Religion and Culture

It seems almost embarrassing to admit, but Bona coming to live with us exposed our lack of knowledge of African geography but even more so of religion and culture. Neither of us had really considered how much of Africa is Muslim. Most UASC are also Muslim; all five of those who came to our area under the Dubs agreement were. So, we had to learn something about Islam, not just in terms of its religious requirements but as an all-encompassing way of life. While Islam’s teachings are perhaps most evident in prayer and fasting and, socially, in attitudes towards sex and alcohol, they permeate even the smallest facets of daily living. We recall a conversation around our kitchen table with one of Bona’s friends, a Muslim, although mostly brought up in the UK, who said something to the effect that ‘you just don’t understand how Islam influences just about everything we do, down to tiny things like how we enter a room’.

Because Islam’s reach is so all-embracing, it is inevitably bound up with identity. Our task, as carers has been to try and support Bona’s Muslim identity while keeping him open to aspects of Scottish and more generally Western culture. Our ability to do so has probably been helped by our own religious affiliation. We are both Catholics and that probably influenced our initial decision to foster Bona but, more than that, it helped us recognise some points of connection from our own upbringings to the expectations that Islam places upon its adherents. It also helped Bona with the realisation that you could have a religious connection while also taking a position facing the world.

Psychologising UASC

One of our broader concerns as social workers and social work academics is a general turn towards seeking psychological explanations and responses to issues that are more broadly social or political. In caring for Bona we have been very aware of the tendency of agencies to consider his needs in terms of dominant psychological paradigms such as attachment and, more concerningly, trauma. These are largely Western constructs. In terms of attachment, we had another ‘you just don’t understand’ moment when Bona explained to us that his mother’s grief on losing him would be very different than we might imagine, for a couple of reasons: firstly that losing a son was a common experience where Bona came from but, more importantly, Islam determined that whatever happened was Allah’s will and therefore had some sort of meaning.

The assumption of trauma is more pernicious. We were told by a doctor that even though Bona showed none of the obvious symptoms associated with being traumatised, he must be. His friends who had been through similar experiences, likewise, showed no signs of trauma. Sure, they had had some horrendous experiences, but they had come through them and, again largely to do with their religious beliefs, they had made sense of them. They do not recognise themselves as traumatised and it is not helpful or ethical to lay that label on them. The complicity of social work in this default turn to pathological explanations was apparent in us being invited to training on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). We had to point out that political violence and being rescued by coastguards when your boat went down in the Mediterranean were somewhat beyond the scope of the ACEs categories.

Our final point is to reflect on whether, systemically, we have it right in terms of how we might provide family support for UASC. Assuming that UASC are traumatised and likely to exhibit the behavioural symptoms that go along with this, identifies the caring task as one that calls for specialist skills and may put off others who would like to and could do it. Certainly, we both have experience and qualifications in social care and this has undoubtedly helped us process our growing understanding. But our day-to-day experience has been one of food, dirty washing, encouraging social contacts, fighting corners with bureaucracies and, most of all, driving Bona to football training and matches in far-flung parts of the city. What we have brought to the role is not so much knowing, as curiosity and cultural humility. We have been rewarded with incredibly rich personal and family experiences in return.

Maura Daly is a lecturer in social work at the University of Dundee

Mark Smith is Professor of social work at the University of Dundee

*Bona is an anonymised name, picked by ‘Bona’ himself

An autoethnographic account of fostering an unaccompanied asylum seeker published in the International Journal of Social Pedagogy and available open access at ‘We need to talk about Bona’: An autoethnographic account of fostering an unaccompanied asylum seeker – ScienceOpen

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