One of the difficult things about interviewing Syrian teenagers about their journeys across Europe, their families being killed, the abuse they suffered, the hunger and anger and exhaustion, is that about 10 minutes in they go blank. “The jungle? Why would I want to revisit that?” says 13-year-old Islam, making eye contact for the first time.
They want to forget. That was the first thing I learned at the youth centre in Birmingham where the Children’s Society organises sessions for unaccompanied child migrants. Here they offer legal advice, help them with their English, help them access education and housing and, crucially, help them make friends. The next thing I learned was that even though these children arrive alive, their journeys don’t end here.
To the sound of a football match being played downstairs, I meet Islam and 17-year-old Maya from Syria, Arash and Samad, both 16, from Afghanistan, and 18-year-old Hamid from Iran, who is awaiting a court hearing about an age dispute. All live with foster carers or family members and – with the help of the Children’s Society, one of three beneficiaries of the Guardian and Observer’s Christmas charity appeal – all have places at school, but the question of age hangs heavy and storm-like over the conversation. Despite being a youth club, everybody here looks oddly ageless, in a way that quickly reminds you that children are not built for escaping from war alone, on dinghies and in crates. It’s not that these teenagers in their clean trainers and Adidas caps look old – it’s that they look exhausted.
The risks they face, even now, even here, are myriad and complicated, hidden in acronyms that I write down carefully, realising they allow support workers to talk about sexual exploitation, upcoming court cases, and the real danger of being killed, without blinking. These teenagers have crossed oceans: the next treacherous journey is through the British legal system.
Age disputes require a two-stage interview with the Home Office, each two hours long with a physical examination later. “They ask them to expose themselves, to pull up their trouser legs,” to determine whether the person is under 18, explains Louise, a representative from the Children’s Society, who greets every child by name, and who sat in on Home Office interviews with Samad. He left Afghanistan at 15 after finding his house destroyed and his family killed by a rocket attack. He was interviewed in the UK by an immigration officer who knew his story, and despite that, says Louise, “they repeatedly asked ‘Where are your parents? Where are your parents?’” She shakes her head. “Interrogations like this can seriously re-traumatise young people. And once somebody is determined to be an adult, they’ll be sent to live in a shared house with no support, no protection.” Or they’ll be sent back. “The process is not fit for purpose.”
Food is served on paper plates and everybody leaves their computers and footballs to gather at the table. The best thing about being in the UK, says Samad, is that here people respect animals. “In Afghanistan they don’t even respect humans – it’s nothing just to cut off a man’s head.” The second best thing about being in the UK, he adds, is pizza.
There was a period, says Maya, when she had arrived in Birmingham but couldn’t find a school to accept her. The way she tells it, it’s as if she explored the city through its fish and chip shops. “I tried to learn about England. I ate its junk food. I learned the word ‘gobbledegook’, which I love. I walked around the city. Then I found the youth club and finally, here, I made a friend.” Before that, for a long time, she says, “I was expecting neighbours to come by with baskets of chocolate, welcoming us in, but that never happened. However, with friends I felt less and less strange. One day, the Children’s Society took us to the highest point of the city. That was amazing. I felt like I could finally see and understand the United Kingdom.”
Maya, who is studying biomedical engineering, has gone on to volunteer as a speaker for the Children’s Society; in September she organised a public vigil to remember the refugees who died on their journey. Except she doesn’t use the word refugee. She stutteringly explains, her English clipped and precise. “I don’t like the idea that I’m someone strange. I don’t want to be seen as someone who took help. I don’t want to be thought of as someone who has been… saved.” She looks at me apologetically.
The only overt racism any of these young people experienced was in France, where a doctor refused to treat Arash’s friend because he couldn’t ask for help in French. “So far I haven’t been treated as something less,” explains Maya. “But I’m afraid of being looked at like that. Also, we are teenagers. At this age, across the world we all want to be like everyone else. So why would I use that as a word? Why would I want to be looked at as different?”
Hamid was running away from an abusive family in Iran. In Turkey, he was handed to a group of “gentlemen”. He sits hunched forward now, eyes fixed on his bright red trainers and, not for the first time, I’m aware of a hundred stories that they don’t have the words to tell. Where Arash talked with a resigned sort of blankness, and Islam fear, Hamid is angry, and when he cries he wipes his tears away with a fist. “We went in a boat, in a lorry, we walked. We got to Calais. We were arrested once, in Italy. In the lorry I travelled inside a box of pears, locked in with the fruit. Then they left me.”
When Hamid got to the UK, he didn’t understand the immigration official’s questions and his birthday was taken down incorrectly. He has been fighting to be recognised as a minor ever since. “I had no Iranian ID card – it was with my brother who I was escaping from. If he finds me, he will come and kill me. So no, I don’t feel safe. I can’t imagine feeling safe. I can’t plan for next week, I can’t plan for beyond another night. Nobody has ever taken care of me.” He looks up. “Apart from, maybe, here.”
The sun went down at three. It’s eight now, and the custard creams have been devoured, the football won, and foster carers begin to arrive in quiet cars to take the children home, to the next happy ending, the next night.