J's story - Desperate to feel safe

A big part of what we do is to listen. To listen to the stories of those we work with, those we meet. Telling their stories when they want them told. J is a 16 year old young person we met in a CAOMIE in Northern France. As part of our work with him, he wanted his story told in the hope people may understand his difficult journey.

J left Ethiopia following the murder of his father in the protests and political unrest that has rocked the country. His father had resisted the government. He hadn’t seen his mother for many years before that. Following the death of his father, friends of the family organised his escape from Ethiopia, so he could be reunited with his uncle in the UK.  

The journey from Ethiopia took months and was fraught with danger. He recalls seeing the friends he made die, on the journey and in the sea. Their bodies left there. People dying because the ‘agents’ did not provide enough food or water for them to live on. He recalls being constantly exposed to violence at the hands of traffickers and was witness to lots of violence against women who were making the journey with them. Finally, when he tried to  seek safety from the authorities, he instead felt frightened and scared of them. He recalls many a time of having to run from Police, being hit by them. After months of travelling, he finally arrived in the Calais Jungle.

The first person he met in the jungle was also resident in the same CAOMIE. J remembers how kind he was when they first met. He arrived at the jungle alone and the other young person gave him his sleeping bag and helped him settle. He helped him get his own, get food and water and showed him around the camp. J remembers this fondly and describes it as one of the first connections he was able to make following his escape from his home country. He described also the dangers and perils of the jungle. On his second night there, his tent was set on fire. He was left once again with nothing, with anything he had gathered the day before turned to ash. Despite the dangers of The Jungle, J described a community, a belonging. He particularly liked going to the church.

J remembers vividly the dangers of his attempts on the border. How at night he, alongside hundreds of others would scale the embankment and try to cross the border into the UK. J is desperate to see his uncle, he speaks to him every day. On several occasions he came close to smuggling himself in, only to be discovered and beaten by the French police. He felt that the morning was the most dangerous time in the camp, when hundreds of exhausted, desperate people returned following unsuccessful attempts on the border. It was then that tension was at its highest, with hope once again depleted. J recalls how the police would hit him and shout at him if they caught him. They would never arrest them, but they would hurt him.

Just two weeks after he arrived, the camp was demolished. J found himself in a CAOMIE in Northern France, where we first met him and we first heard his story. He described being completely unable to settle or find permanence. He said that in the camp at least he had new friends and a place to sleep. He had been uprooted again and placed in a centre with homeless, alcoholic french adults. The situation was scary and confusing for him and the other young people in the centre. Many turned to drugs and alcohol in order to try and cope with the trauma of their experiences. The night before we arrived at the centre there had been a serious stabbing. We were greeting by many heavily armed police officers.

J described his experience in the centre. The food was bad and there wasn’t enough of it for all of them. There was no church nearby that enabled him to practice his religion and rarely if ever would he get to go. There was lots of drugs and alcohol being used. He described the stabbing, a fight broke out after lots of people had lots to drink. J doesn’t drink, he is scared of the aggression that he sees when people do. They keep promising him education at the centre, but they don’t give it to him. They spend all day doing nothing, so they keep their rooms immaculately clean, almost as a form of entertainment. When we first met J he described not feeling safe, with no information about what was happening with his application or where he would be in a month’s time. He described being held in limbo. J’s first language is Amharic and he speaks a good amount of English. The staff at the centre in France only speak French. He says that they would ask for things like underwear and toiletries, but they would never appear. J describes sharing the room with four other boys, none of the sleeping, but laying in the silence of the room, broken by the crying of one of the boys. It was clear that the whole group at the centre were suffering from immense trauma.

At this point, we completed an assessment of best interests with J and worked with contacts to put these in front of the home office. J describes the waiting as the hardest part. As the days turned into weeks, the sham of the system set up in the wake of the demolition meant that applications were not being seen, there was chaos. The French simply rounding up groups and telling them “no uk”. The language barrier is huge for J and the others, they do not understand what is going on. During this time we keep in touch regularly with J and others in the centre that we were working with. We provided a safe person to talk to, to build a relationship with. It gave J and the others a space to talk. We also visited his family in the United Kingdom, completed an assessment of his accommodation and resources and also sent this to the authorities.

All the time, Nick, his caseworker from Migrant Family Action would call him regularly and they would spend time on the phone together. There is only so much casework to talk about when there is little progress in the system, so phone calls were often spent with Nick reading books to J, helping him to build his English. This relationship enabled us to find out what was going on in the centre and to work on the relationship we started with them when we visited to advocate for the boys who were still there.

As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into nearly 3 months the young people in the centre are getting restless. At this point, at least half of the boys had already ran away. J is phoning me everyday, saying that he will have no choice but to run away, there is no hope he says. We chase the authorities, but nothing. Eventually after two more weeks of chasing and after receiving court papers from the French authorities, J ran away from the centre, desperate and feeling very alone, we lose touch for two days while he is travelling. The next we hear he is in La Chapelle in Paris, it is January, it is raining and very cold. He cannot bear it. He says this is the worst thing he has experienced yet. He is crying on the phone, begging us to help him escape it. We then lose touch again for several days. During this time, we make referrals and enquiries with organisations we work with to try and locate him.

The next time we hear from him, about 4 days later, he had skipped a train and is in Calais. J says that they have to hide from the police. J has had extensive contact with the police before and experienced considerable aggression and violence from them. He says he is scared of the French police and what they will do. His time in Calais coincided with the start of the particularly punitive turn towards refugees there. There were coming in and burning the tents and sleeping bags, stealing the food. J travelled with two other boys from Ethiopia, they stayed together to try and stay as safe as possible.  

We then got a surprise phone call. It’s J and he is in the UK. He arrived in a lorry. We arrange for him to see a caseworker, to get him presented to the authorities. He describes feeling relief and achievement, he had done it. J, however, soon realised that this was not the end. We upped the casework he receives and he started meeting and talking with Nick more. He says that he would rather be at home “in his culture”, be able to be with his dad, to be in the country he loves. He doesn’t want to be in the UK but feels there is no choice, but he is glad to see his uncle. He desperately wants to be in education, but the social worker from the council has told him “next year”. They have placed him in a hostel, with limited support. We make a plan to advocate for J with the council social worker and sort him education and english lessons sooner. He came here because he wanted to be safe and achieve his aspirations, he feels like this may not happen now.

He is clearly very traumatised from his experience. He cannot sleep, he has nightmares when he does, his mood is low. He desperately wants to go to school. We have worked with J and have helped him access resources and services and given him a space to begin to talk about what happened to him, enabling him to address some of the trauma he has experienced. Sometimes we lose touch, a pattern of disengagement often seen with trauma. J needs love and care, trust and respect. He needs opportunities to reach his goals and realise his dreams. He needs people who will not give up on him and will always be there when he feels ready to talk again. It is clear that we have not yet heard the end of the experiences of J and that what we know so far is only just touching the surface. He has been trafficked, unaccompanied, living in destitution. The effects of these factors on his mental health has been huge - He worries that he hears voices sometimes. When he went for a looked after medical, the doctor did not offer a therapeutic response, but only medicated him. J is desperate to talk about his experiences, but does not want to keep repeating them over and over to different professionals.

J wants to become an architect. He loves buildings, the next time we meet we go into London, I show him the sights and the buildings. We go to Westfield for a bite to eat and use it as an opportunity to get used to using London’s public transport. Building those skills will be so important for him moving forwards. Through our networks, we link him in with a local refugee organisation and a church. He wants to be active, we help him look at his education options and look at activities such as music and sports that he enjoys. J has now had the opportunity to spend time with his uncle, rekindling relationships and developing his network in the UK. J would like to meet the other boy who help him settle into the Jungle, he also happens to be in the UK and working with us too, so we plan to reunite them in London soon.

J feels that given the choice, many would not make the journey. He feels that most would rather be “at home”. He wants it known that he had to leave because it wasn’t safe, he feels that he would have likely been killed because of his father’s opposition. He left because he had no choice. He said he feels scared after being treated like an animal, worried about whether he would be set on fire in the middle of the night in a camp. He wanted people to know that this is the reality for 1000’s of young people all over Europe and beyond, who have no future or are scared of violence and persecution. He wanted to tell you all what it was like.