Living in a modest semi in the Hellesdon area of Norwich, Elaine Tattersall is no less than a life-saver according to the two young refugees for whom she provides a home – and a whole lot more – as part of YMCA Norfolk vital Supported Lodgings scheme. Keith Morris reports.
Abdu was just 14 when he left his home in Africa, where his family faced persecution. In his pocket he had as much money as the family could scrape together to pay the people traffickers who promised to get him to the UK.
He spent the next two years of his young life on the hazardous journey, first travelling thousands of miles across North Africa, and then literally taking his life in his hands to board a totally inadequate boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
“I sold my soul to get on the boat,” said Abdu. “The crossing was really difficult. We had problems and finally a big Red Cross ship rescued us half-way across and took us to Italy.”
Travelling with a friend who wanted to get to the UK, Abdu ended up in the notorious Jungle camp at Calais for many months. “It was really, really difficult and I was afraid all the time,” recalled Abdu. “Every day I would try to get to the UK in a lorry and every day they would find you and take you back. Finally, one day, I managed to get across.”
He was discovered in the lorry at Dover and taken first to a children’s camp for a few weeks and then sent to Great Yarmouth where he did not know anybody and he found it really difficult to settle.
YMCA support worker Emmanuel Kouadria managed to find Abdu a place to stay in Norwich, which is when he first met Elaine and his situation started to look a whole lot brighter.
Elaine, a semi-retired Tai Chi teacher, has been providing a home for dozens of young people like Abdu over the past 11 years or so. After her eldest son left home and she had a spare bedroom, she saw an advert fort the Supported Lodgings scheme and has not looked back ever since.
Elaine currently provides her two young lodgers with their own rooms (which they have to look after themselves) and shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. Also the personal support, alongside their YMCA key worker, that is necessary for them to recover from the situation which found them there in the first place and then to begin to look forward.
“They are all troubled teenagers who, for one reason or another, have been made homeless,” she said. “They might have fallen out with their family, sometimes there is abuse and a couple of young girls got themselves pregnant and did not have the support of their family.”
Then there are young lads like Abdu and Hassan, refugees who have had to fight against the odd to even be there.
“It is about giving them their own space and allowing them to find their feet with education or a job or whatever,” said Elaine. “I am here as a support, but not to do everything for them. There are always up and downs but I do not try to mother them.
“They have to cook and clean up after themselves, do their own washing and shopping. I provide a basic breakfast and they have a fridge and freezer which they share.
“They can come into my lounge and love watching Netflix, but it is my personal space so if I want to use it, I ask them to respect my privacy as well,” she said
The vast majority have stayed with Elaine for at least 18 months, and two years is the usual limit of the agreement with the YMCA, but this can be extended until the young person is found a suitable placement within YMCA services or external providers.
“It is about them learning to live independently. I am there to offer support and to answer questions and prop them up if necessary or get help from Emmanuel. He will try to find them a placement somewhere in education or getting qualifications for employment,” said Elaine.
Elaine receives £98 per week for each lodger and she welcomes the extra cash.
“Sharing your own house with people who are total strangers when they first come to you, is not for everybody,” she said. “You have to be tolerant and don’t think you can fix people. They have got to come to things in their own time.
“When they move in they sign an agreement with the YMCA and myself and there are a list of rules, but we do tend to work it out as we go along. I don’t allow smoking or drinking in the house and they have to be in by 11pm or let me know what they are doing or if they are staying out with a friend.
“The best thing about the role is when you see people who are ready to move on, they have either healed relationships or they have grown in some way or are just in a better place,” said Elaine.
“As long as we have respect for each other and they learn to grow and start to make a better life for themselves that is my job done.”
Emmanuel helped Abdu find a place at City College studying English and Maths. He also goes to the gym, plays football at the UEA and goes to an acting group at the Theatre Royal. He is also involved with New Routes, an organisation which helps integrate refugees and asylum seekers into the Norfolk community.
“When I came here I had a lot of issues in my mind and I was seeing the doctor every week, but now I fine and am happy and my situation in my mind has gone away,” said Abdu.
“I am so happy to be here, anytime I need help Elaine is there. It feels like my real family and I call Elaine Mum, because she has taught me to cook and how to live a more healthy lifestyle.”
Abdu has some acting experience in his own country and dreams of becoming an actor here. “I want to improve my English and find a career – I am really working hard on it,” he said.
“I wish there was a lot more people like Elaine as without people like her and the YMCA my life would be nothing,” he admitted. “Family is not just about blood. Family is about who loves you and who you love back.”
Hassan is originally from Syria. He initially came to the UK aged 16 to study but then had to seek asylum due to the difficult situation back home.
He has been living with Elaine for two years and after passing A Levels in Biology, Chemistry and Maths at A level, he is now studying Bio-Medicine at UEA and is hoping to do a post-graduate health care course of some sort or get into research.
“Coming here to Elaine’s saved my life really because I had nowhere to go,” said Hassan. “When I came to Norwich I only had one friend but he couldn’t really have me for long. I have been here for two years and it has been great. Even if I did have any concerns I know that I can talk about them any time and be listened to.
“I cook for myself and clean my own room and so on. The best recipe Elaine taught me was a bean and minced Quorn chilli. She is like my mother now and Abdu is like my brother.
“The service the YMCA provides is really helpful for a lot of young people. A lot of people I know who are supported by the YMCA would have had completely different lives without their support.
“I don’t know where I would be within the support of Elaine and the YMCA – I don’t really want to think about it – but I am really grateful of that support.”
Some details have been changed to protect the young refugees.
Can you help?
If you have a spare room in your home and would be prepared to open it up to a homeless young person, you could receive up to £120 a week.
The YMCA is looking for people to join its Supported Lodgings team across Norfolk. Training and regular on-going support is always provided.
If you would like to find out more please contact the team:
Phone: 01603 662455