Language barriers, complex processes and cultural differences are just some of the difficulties facing young people when they arrive in the UK. Those on Coram's Young Citizens programme, an ambassador programme for young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, know this more than most. Many have come from war-torn countries and made dangerous journeys to the UK. Many didn’t speak any English when they arrived and struggled to gain refugee or immigration status. The Young Citizens project enables them to use these experiences to make a difference to the lives of others from similar backgrounds.
Joudy came from Syria to the UK with her family to escape conflict. She felt isolated when she arrived and received no help from anyone for months. She said: 'It made me feel really lost and like there was no-one I could speak to or get help from to learn the rules of this country and how to live. I don’t want other people to feel the same way.'
Through the programme she made a film about getting into college, saying: 'I would like to help young people to apply to college because otherwise it can take a long time. I hope the vlog helps young people who’ve been underestimated and shows how they can do much better than people expect of them because only they know themselves and what they’re capable of.'
There are amazing people doing great work to support those new to the UK – organisations giving practical support which is vital to people who find themselves here with little understanding of the systems and processes they have to go through. However, the people who know this best are those who’ve been through it. The Young Citizens project is putting them in the driving seat as the people best placed to inspire and motivate young people facing the challenges they’ve overcome.
With funding from John Lyon’s Charity and the Mayor’s Young Londoner’s Fund they will be delivering workshops to over 800 16-25 year olds from migrant and refugee backgrounds over the next three years. Workshops will be open to colleges and local authorities Harrow, Barnet, Brent, Southwark, Lambeth and Lewisham.
Workshops have been co-designed and will be co-delivered by the Young Citizens members alongside specialists in immigration law, mental health and the care system from across the Coram group. They aim to enhance participants’ resilience and help them make positive lives for themselves in this country.
The workshops are free to host and are an important resource for local authorities to help young people new to the UK to resettle and nurture a sense of belonging. The more positive and connected young migrants feel, the easier it is to offset potential difficulties later down the line.
Giving young people an equal role in the design and delivery of these workshops has multiple benefits. It helps participants feel less alone by hearing from others who’ve been through similar things. It can break down trust issues they may have due to delays in asylum claims and accessing services or corruption in home countries. Young Citizen member Djamila says: 'If there’s people who have been in the same situation it’s easier for them to understand and believe it. It’s someone who won’t judge you.'
When young people arrive here they can feel overwhelmed and bombarded with information. Conversations tend to be dominated by the processes they have to go through and the barriers they have to overcome. Hearing positive stories from those who have settled here and finding out what helped them can make them feel more hopeful about their futures.
Long asylum and immigration cases can leave many migrant young people feeling in limbo causing anxiety and leading to loss of motivation to pursue educational goals or social activities. Those on the Young Citizens programme act as role models, demonstrating what can be achieved by showing how far they’ve come. One member, Othman, said: 'It was a big challenge for me to leave my country and there are a lot of things I was scared of doing but I did it. When I left my country I went to London and I see a lot of things and it changed my mind in a good way. I learnt the rules of the country and the language. If you have a passion to do it you will do it.'
For the Young Citizens members it can be a way of giving back. As Moussa says 'I feel it’s like payback because so many people helped me when I first arrived here.' It can help members open up about experiences they previously felt ashamed of or felt marked them out as different and can turn negative experiences into positives by using them to make a difference for others.
Through their involvement in the programme they have gained new skills and confidence that will help them on their chosen paths. Rakiba came to London two years ago and struggled with getting into education. Since joining the programme she has grown in confidence and is a committed member of the group. She said: 'I used to be really, really shy but now I can speak. Every time I see a shy girl I tell her I used to be shy like you but I encourage them to socialise and speak to new people.'
Joudy has now started studying at London South Bank University and is excited about what her future has in store. She said: 'I have learnt how to be confident about my purpose and what I really want. I’ve learnt that when there’s an opportunity you should catch it and not let it go - everything can help you, little by little. Sometimes you don't feel you're ready yet but you push yourself and go out of your comfort zone and realise you can do it.' She says she used to feel like she was the one always asking for help, but now she’s the one who helps.
Amy Spiller is Coram's Youth Citizens programme manager.
Find out more at coram.org.uk/youngcitizens
If you're interested in hosting a workshop at your local authority, college or youth group and are based in the target boroughs please get in touch with the programme manager on firstname.lastname@example.org