A new challenge…
After fostering with Foster Portsmouth for nearly 20 years, Rachel Elkington (47) decided she fancied a new challenge just over a year ago and started to foster three young unaccompanied minors who initially came to live with Rachel on an emergency basis when they arrived in Portsmouth seeking safety in the UK.
Rachel shares: “I always like to progress and, in the past, expanded into providing emergency care and trained to become a level three carer. Once again, I decided I wanted another new experience and to gain new skills, so for the past 15 months I have been caring for three unaccompanied minors which has been a new and exciting challenge.”
Due to instability in their home countries, the number of unaccompanied refugee children travelling to the UK and seeking safety in the Portsmouth area continues to rise. These children are often fleeing war, disaster and poverty, have travelled hundreds of miles, have been separated from family through no fault of their own, and often speak little or no English.
Rachel, a full-time sole carer, continues: “The boys are all 17-year-olds from Sudan. One arrived alone in the UK and the other two arrived together a couple of weeks later. They all knew each other from their journeys and were so pleased to see each other again. It was a fantastic reunion.”
“They’ve been through a lot of difficult times together. The journey was dangerous and their lives at risk at times, and they were very tired when they arrived. Their stories are truly heart-breaking. Although their futures were unclear, they were thankful to wake up and appreciative to have clean clothes and a roof over their heads. They really astound me with what they’ve gone through to get here and reach safety.”
One of the boys recently shared: “It was very hard to leave my family in Sudan. I miss them all the time. It took a long time to get here to England and be safe. I have found a home and a family here with my foster carer, Rachel. She has made me feel safe and loved.”
Caring for these children and young people arriving unaccompanied in the UK is highly rewarding; supporting their ambitions to learn English, engage in education and discover their carer’s own culture and way of life. They are often highly motivated to learn English, engage positively in education and to be respectful of their foster parents and foster household.
Rachel recognises: “There is a stigma around fostering unaccompanied minors which needs to change. Through foster care, these young people now have a chance to be kids. I hadn’t taken in unaccompanied minors before because I was worried about the language barrier. However, this never materialised and it hasn’t been nearly as daunting as I thought it would be.”
Learning new skills together
“It has been challenging at times, but we initially communicated through a charades like language which worked well. I have helped them with their English, teaching them new words daily and explaining grammar such as tenses. They will let me know if they don’t understand, but we’ve all now progressed so much that we no longer need to use Google translate.”
“They remain curious and eager to learn,” Rachel adds. “They are actually keen to go to school and are often up and ready to go each morning a long time before it is time to leave. In fact, they even found the summer holidays too long as they wanted to be back at school!”
“I’ve learnt to care for their individual needs; to understand their customs, support them with observing Ramadan and respect their prayer time. This has included the introduction of ideas such as a golden ribbon which they tie to their door so I’m aware they are praying and can give them their privacy.”
Rachel advises: “For people who are not sure, I’d say to just give it a go. You’ll know you’re making a difference on a daily basis. Sometimes, with emergency or short-term care, I’ve not always been able to see this as they are reunited with family or moved to a longer-term foster home. With unaccompanied minors, you see the difference and quickly.”
Becoming a family
“I’ve become so fond of them all and am so grateful for them. I’m so incredibly happy that I got to care for these kids and was on emergency duty when they arrived in the UK and needed care. They’ve made a huge difference to my life.”
Rachel proudly remarks: “Along with my sons and nephew, the boys – or my ‘six sons’ – head out regularly to the driving range or to play pool together. They have a lot of fun. It is really lovely to see them smile. They are amazing and their resilience is outstanding. They are really awesome kids.”
The boys, who are all practising Muslims, describe Rachel as their ‘English mother’, “They say it was ‘meant to be’ and want to stay with me. I also want to continue to help them through their education.”
Another of the boys said: “I have learnt a lot from Rachel. She is a very wonderful person and always takes care of us. She has a big heart and, even if I talked about her day and night, I couldn’t describe [her fully].
The third unaccompanied minor now living with Rachel added: “When I came here, I didn’t know much about the people of Britain but I found in them kindness and grace. I found many difficulties in my country and until I arrived here, but I’ve settled in and [found] stability. It is all thanks to [Foster Portsmouth]. Rachel is a good woman in the position of mother. We have a lot and she still offers [great] activities and other things.”
Rachel, who applied to become a foster carer with Portsmouth City Council aged just 25 when she worked as a maternity nurse, was inspired to foster after spending time with her best friend’s foster children. They were regular visitors in Rachel’s home and filled it with life and laughter. Rachel remembers, “I thought to myself ‘I could do this’. I’d always wanted a big, loud fuller family as I love kids. I had my two sons, now aged 23 and 25, but divorced before I could have the big family I dreamed of.”
Before fostering the three young unaccompanied minors, Rachel was providing emergency foster care, offering an immediate safe sanctuary for children when they’ve needed it. These children, including a sibling group aged six, nine and 11, have then gone on to find long-term foster homes that have matched their needs, possibly nearer their existing school or siblings so they can maintain vital contact with friends and family, securing continuity and their well-being.
In her first years as a foster carer, Rachel also provided some long-term, short-term and respite foster care for children and young people. The longest arrangement was for over five years with a girl who Rachel has remained close with. Rachel went on to become a level three carer for 14 years which, “qualified me to care for children who have experienced extreme trauma”. This level also qualifies carers for caring for children and young people with complex needs.
Rachel specialised in caring for teens, including those who have experienced trauma: “I was adopted myself and was a challenge at times as a teenager. This carries through to fostering for me and is why I have cared for teens who have experienced trauma.”
Rachel describes her change to caring for unaccompanied minors as, “The best thing I’ve ever done. It’s been fantastic.” She encouraged: “Do it! It will change your life as well as theirs. It did mine. 100%.”
One of the boys concluded, “Thank you very much for what you have given us Rachel, and for very good foster care. We are grateful to you.”
Another ended: “Thanks for everything. You [are] always in my heart.”
Could you make a difference?
Foster Portsmouth need more foster carers who can help us meet the needs of these vulnerable children and young people arriving from around the world. This can be in the form of emergency, short term placements, longer term arrangements or Supported Lodgings until they’re ready to live independently.
Anyone aged 21+ with a spare bedroom could foster with Foster Portsmouth regardless of their age, gender, faith, ethnicity, sexuality, marital or work status, or whether they rent or own their own home.
Rachel appeals: “We need new carers; younger ones too. I was only 25 when I went through the assessment process.”
We welcome all enquiries about fostering. This could be a short or long term placement for a child or siblings until they’re ready to live independently or be reunited with family, support for unaccompanied minors or children with a disability, Supported Lodgings to develop their independent living skills, parent and baby placements, or respite care.
You’ll receive excellent, local training and 24/7 support from our specialist social worker and expert fostering team – as well as through our mentoring scheme and the Mockingbird Programme – and competitive fees and allowances.
Rachel confirmed: “I get a lot of support from Foster Portsmouth and there is a good support network including level three and unaccompanied minors carer groups.”
To enquire about providing a home for unaccompanied minors or any other form of fostering, or to arrange a 1:1 with one of our experienced team or existing foster carers, please fill in our contact form below, call 023 9283 4071 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Some images contain models and names changed to protect identities.