To mark Refugee Week Sarah Ward went along to the Learn 2 Live Youth club in Northampton and met the couple who are giving hope and a community to the many asylum seeking children who have made the town their home.
The atmosphere at Friday night youth club Learn 2 Live is one that buzzes with warmth and kindness. The door to the church in Northampton town centre constantly opens to smiling boys and men who are welcomed with a hug before they sit down to chat with old and new friends before cooking and eating a communal together. A recent bowling night is talked about by a few and plans are excitedly being made for a camping trip to Norfolk this summer.
But this is not your typical youth club. The young people who meet here – all of whom are boys aged between 14 and 25 – do not have problems common to their Northampton peers. They may have fled persecution or been trafficked out of their African or middle eastern home country, trekked through the Sahara for days on end without food or water. They have made their way through several countries by foot, lorry and by ramshackle boat across various seas, taking years to get across African countries such as Ethiopia, Libya, and Sudan before arriving in Europe trekking across Italy and then ending up at the Calais Jungle in northern France. During that time they will have suffered unspeakable hardships that most of us will find hard to, or not want to, imagine.
For many of these children, the first thing they ever knew of Northampton was when the back doors of the lorry they were stowed on opened and they were met by the curious face of the lorry’s driver and then typically put in the custody of the county’s police force.
And Northampton is now their adopted home. The place where they have been looked after by the county’s social services department, perhaps put into foster care with a local family or given accommodation in a supported housing unit.
And a regular part of their life is the Learn 2 Live Friday night youth club – a place founded by married couple Jamal Alwahabi and Danielle Stone, a well known local councillor. The club sprang out of an organisation Danielle had set up with others in response to the Syrian crisis.
She says: “I became aware of the City of Sanctuary movement and I set up with others the Northampton town of sanctuary – an umbrellla group for people who support refugees. So when we set it up – we didn’t really have an idea we would be running a youth club. That came afterwards because Northampton is not a destination for refugees – what it is, is a stopping off place for lorries. So lots and lots of children are being found on the back of lorries.
“We are the fourth biggest receiver of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. And so the need became very, very apparent.”
Jamal, who was born in Eritrea, says the youth club started because they became aware that the young people did not have anywhere to go.
Asked why he became involved he says: “I care for people. That is number one. These boys need some care and attention. They need to learn how to become valuable members of the community.”
The youth club is about having fun, doing activities, building friendships and confidence, but it also equips the young men – most are from Eritrea and Ethiopia – with the skills needed to help them move forward with their lives. They have English lessons, taught by Jamal who uses his six languages to speak to the young people in their native language and they also receive help with their form filling and applications to remain. As they get older the members stay on as youth workers and help those who join become settled and find a friendship group.
There are also a number of volunteers including a doctor, student psychologist and some local students.
Eritrean Joseph Amanuel, 26, is one of the helpers. He came to Northampton two years ago from Birmingham and regards the youth club members as his brothers.
After having gained an advanced diploma he is now an accountant.
He says: “When I first came to England I felt dead inside.
But what I say to my brothers here is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope. “If they don’t join the wrong crowd there is hope. The native people have been told lots of things about asylum seekers and refugees but we have got to talk to people so they can understand us better.”
Kidane Futsum was separated from his family in 2014 and is living in supported accommodation paid for by the council while studying for his maths, English and ICT.
He hopes to become a psychologist.
He said: “The group brings a little bit of happiness. You feel like you are with a parent – Jamal and Danielle are our family.
“It is really good to come here and speak with other people because at home you can just feel alone. In Eritrea, I knew all the people in my town. But now I don’t even know my neighbours. It is really, really different. I find it very sad.”
Being part of the youth club has also opened up cultural opportunities and new experiences. Some have appeared on the Derngate stage in a professional production, while others have featured in an Alan Moore film.
The club has been kept low key, quietly getting on with creating a place of family and community for these traumatised young people, but following the decision by the conservative run-county council last month (May) to stop supporting the young people once they reach 18 if they have not gained leave to remain by the home office, the young refugees have decided to speak out.
The decision will affect 23 young people, two of whom are youth club members. They will be given 12 weeks notice by the authority and then have to return to their home country. The council will pay the fare.
In total the authority says it is supporting 271 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, 184 of whom are over 18. The majority are from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam.
The council – which under the law has to look after each child seeking asylum who arrives – receives about forty per cent of what is needed to look after each young person from the government, a situation highlighted by former council leader Heather Smith and who called on the government to cover the costs in full.
But this did not happen and so the rest of the financial shortfall is made up from the council’s own budget, one which is now stretched beyond breaking point after the high profile fiscal collapse of council last spring. So great was the problem that emergency spending controls were imposed, the authority had to sell off its headquarters to pay the bills and its closure has been ordered by the government who thought the job of turning it around was near impossible.
The council’s own equality impact assessment says that the decision to not support the young people who don’t have legal status will have immense consequences.
It states: “This represents a significant policy change with life-changing implications for a small cohort of young people.
“It is nonetheless difficult to see how NCC could take a different course of action other than that proposed in the report.”
Danielle has called the council’s decision the cruellest policy she has seen agreed by the authority. It will save the council around £325,000 a year.
She says: “I’m furious about it because none of the decision-makers has taken the trouble to get to know the young people. I don’t think it is right. You don’t make decisions without being fully informed. I think it is important as well to talk about people with some authority and to know who they are.
“It made the boys realise they can’t take anything for granted. They have to help us all fight for what’s right.”
“They are already traumatised. If they get to 18 and do not have the right to remain, they become absolutely crucified with anxiety and panic attacks and fear of what is happening next.
“There is no mental health work through the social workers. I don’t think there is the expertise in the county to deal with that kind of trauma.
“The risk is that they will run away and disappear – and then what can they do? They will be working as slaves for somebody. They will be working in the sex industry maybe, they could be part of a criminal gang. They will not be able to live a regular life and be extraordinarily vulnerable and exploited. Or they will be deported and taken home and be in danger.”
Jamal and Danielle are applying to become foster parents to take on two asylum-seeking children and are helping the legal fight for the two young people at the club whose status is appeal rights exhausted.
This involves seeking legal help to get their case reopened.
Danielle, who takes on the mother – or as she says grandmother role for many – says: “I want Northampton to be a place that welcomes these children and helps them integrate and helps them develop a good life. That is what I want to see. These young people are aspirational young people. They aspire – that is why they are here. They want to study, they want to become good citizens, they want to learn a trade. They want to live a rich and fulfilling life and if we keep them here in Northampton it will be a blessing for the town.”