Child refugees coming to NI: Meet the couple offering orphaned teen a safe place to call home -

2022-04-24 07:40:45 By : Ms. Amy Qian

Sunday, 24 April 2022 | 7.8°C Belfast

A s Northern Ireland welcome Ukrainians into their homes, we look at a scheme helping child refugees who arrive on these shores from across the world

Rewarding: Ronnie and Carolyn Dawson from Armagh who are caring for refugee teenagers. Picture by Peter Morrison

Rewarding: Ronnie and Carolyn Dawson from Armagh who are caring for refugee teenagers. Picture by Peter Morrison

Almost every week an unaccompanied child arrives in Northern Ireland seeking asylum, often after a perilous journey to these shores which may have exposed the young person to exploitation and human trafficking.

S ince 2014 approximately 190 children, usually between the ages of 14 and 17, have arrived in Northern Ireland. However, according to the Health and Social Care (HSC) Trusts, there has been a marked increase during the past year with 66 children being received into care — the highest number on record.

This year marks the ninth consecutive year of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Northern Ireland with the Department of Health committed to providing care for them through the HSC Trusts.

A major recruitment campaign has now been launched by the Department of Health in partnership with the HSC Trusts, to find people who can provide homes for refugee children and young people. It’s the first campaign of its kind here with the DoH stating it is vital that young people arriving in Northern Ireland from different countries without their parents or carers and seeking refuge have a safe and stable place to live.

One such young person is Somalian teenager, Geesi (not his real name) who arrived in Belfast last winter after he fled his war-torn home country. He is now being cared for by an Co Armagh couple.

Like a lot of 17-year-old boys, Geesi comes alive when talking about football especially his beloved Arsenal. His smile lights up the room and his eyes twinkle as he reveals his dream to one day see the Gunners play a Premiership game.

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But the smile from this polite and engaging teenager belies the horror that this young man has endured in his short life before arriving in Northern Ireland all alone. Geesi arrived in Belfast in December 2021 seeking asylum. His journey to get here spanned two continents, extreme hardship and unimaginable pain and suffering.

As a young boy living in Somalia, Geesi’s mother passed away leaving just his father to take care of him. The pair left the country in search of a better life but on that fateful journey Geesi would find himself all alone in the world.

“My father and I left Somalia before crossing Ethiopia, Sudan and [the] Sahara and then eventually arriving in Libya,” he says.

It was in Libya the pair decided, like thousands of other refugees, to attempt to travel to Italy by sea. Geesi mimes the action of blowing up an inflatable dingy to describe the vessel which was to take them on their 290-mile voyage across the murky waters of the Mediterranean.

“During the journey in the sea to Italy my dad drowned,” said Geesi. Now totally alone, the teenage boy arrived in Italy before moving on again, this time to Germany where he lived on the streets, before travelling to Sweden.

After some time in the Nordic country, he returned to Italy and then managed to travel to Dublin before taking a bus to Belfast where he has applied for asylum.

Geesi has been living with foster carers, Ronnie and Carolyn Dawson, in a beautiful country home on the outskirts of Armagh.

He has settled in remarkably well which is testament to the love and care he has received from the Dawsons. The couple have returned to fostering after a 25-year break. In the intervening years the couple had set up a charity which has been helping thousands of children in over 20 countries around the world.

Two years ago they decided the time was right to start fostering again, in the capacity of stay hosts. When asked if he likes living with Ronnie and Carolyn, Geesi’s huge smile returns but instead of answering he embraces both of them warmly — sometimes actions speak louder than words.

“This young man has been a delight to have in our home. He is so happy to be here and despite everything he has been through, he just wants to get on in life,” says Ronnie. “He arrived last year and already his English is improving, and he is settling in very well. For more formal meetings such as with solicitors or health workers an interpreter can be booked via the Trust.

“We are not foster carers in maybe the traditional sense. Our title is Stay Hosts (supported temporary accommodation for young people) as we provide supported lodgings to these young people. My message to anyone out there thinking to get involved in fostering or providing supported lodging is to just go for it. You will be supported all the way and helping these young people is incredibly rewarding.”

Rewarding: Ronnie and Carolyn Dawson from Armagh who are caring for refugee teenagers. Picture by Peter Morrison

For the first time in his life Geesi can concentrate on looking to the future. As well as going to see that Arsenal match, he dreams of opening his own café and sharing food with his new-found friends.

Ronnie and Carolyn have a simple philosophy for life. They want to bring hope, help and healing to those who need it. It is the ethos which helped them create a charity which began with delivering aid in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and bringing children from the region to Northern Ireland for respite to helping thousands of people through humanitarian projects in over 20 countries.

Drop Inn Ministries, which began in Richhill, Co Armagh, has helped orphaned and unaccompanied children in countries such as Burkina Faso, Rwanda and Zambia. It was this desire to help children which convinced the couple to open their home to unaccompanied children who have travelled to Northern Ireland seeking asylum.

These children, usually aged between 14 and 17, have often fled their home country to escape conflict, violence and suffering and extreme poverty.

Some have been orphaned while others have been victims of modern-day slavery.

The one common denominator is that all of these young people need a loving home where they can feel safe and secure and the Dawsons have never once regretted their decision to become Stay Hosts with the Health and Social Care Trusts (HSCNI).

“Carolyn and I were foster carers about 25 years ago and we got a great deal of satisfaction from helping young people. But my father became ill and later passed away and I suppose life circumstances changed for us,” says Ronnie.

“Through our work with Drop Inn we have worked with a lot of unaccompanied children in many different countries and no matter where you go these young people all want to feel safe and loved.

“About two years ago Carolyn decided to go through the assessment to become approved Stay Hosts and to open our home to young people, but preferably unaccompanied young children coming to Northern Ireland seeking asylum.”

Fostering and adoption is something which plays a central role in the Dawson family, and it was inevitable Ronnie and Carolyn would once again welcome children into their home. “My daughter-in-law works for a charity, Home For Good which has the goal of finding a home for every child who needs one,” he explains.

“My son has adopted and fostered while my daughter is also a foster carer. It was natural that Carolyn would get back into it as well.”

Ronnie and Carolyn are urging others to open their hearts and their homes by making an inquiry via HSCNI foster care young refugee appeal.

“We would always encourage others to become foster carers or supported lodgings hosts, it has been so rewarding for Ronnie and I. It’s been a privilege to be able to provide a safe, secure and loving home for these young people,” says Carolyn.

“As well as the rewards, there are also challenges and we would say people must go into fostering with their eyes open. You will get great backing from the social workers who do a wonderful job in not only in helping the young people but also in supporting the carers.

“People often think fostering is a really hard job, and they couldn’t do it. But it is often the things most of us take for granted that mean the most to these children — being able to provide a loving home with a family atmosphere can mean the world to these young people.

“If you think you would like to become a carer then our advice is to make the call, we did and we don’t regret it.”

Commissioning Lead for Looked After Children, Deirdre Coyle said: “These children will have often experienced extreme poverty and discrimination within their own country and made a perilous journey during which they may have been exposed to traumatic experiences including exploitation and human trafficking.

“It is right that we do all we can to protect refugee children by finding a safe home where they can feel cared for and supported to reach their full potential.”

Foster carers can look after children of all ages whereas supported lodgings is a type of semi-independent accommodation where a young person aged 16 or over lives in the home of a host family or individual.

“Young people living with foster carers or supported lodgings hosts have thrived, getting involved with family life, education, sports and the local community,” says Deirdre.

“Young refugees are usually very motivated to engage in education and training and helping them to access courses and learn to speak English is an important part of the caring role.

“They also need support to practice their faith or religious persuasion and to make other important links within the local community as well as support with day-to-day living. In order to provide a home for refugee children and young people from any of these countries you will first need to be approved as a foster carer or a supported lodgings host.”

All potential foster carers and supported lodgings hosts will be asked to participate in an assessment and vetting process.

“Foster carers and supported lodgings hosts will receive extensive training and support both during the assessment process and following approval as carers/ hosts.

“This will include supporting the young person’s emotional well-being and feelings of loss due to separation from their parents, siblings and extended family,” says Deirdre.

Social work manager for the Southern Trust Sharon Harrison explains that the care of these young people is very much a team effort.

“Settling into their home and community is a combined effort with the STAY host, Social Worker, Personal Advisor, Community Living support worker and if available team assistants.

“For example, a lot of the young men enjoy football so a local club or Trust football is sourced for them to enable them to enjoy the sport. They receive help with shopping, budgeting and independent living. Personal advisors help with education, training and applying for benefits. In addition, the NINES (Northern Ireland New Entrants Service) in South Tyrone hospital will complete their medicals and organise registration with a GP.

“A Barnardos Independent Guardian is allocated to all refugees to ensure their needs are being met and also a solicitor who deals with their asylum application and all legal matters. This is organised from the outset by the social worker. The PSNI are also informed of their entry into the country in case there are concerns around the young person being trafficked.

“English classes are also available both online and in person to help them integrate better into the community. From my experience, the young people coming from other countries are very focused on their education and attending to their medical needs plus achieving asylum in this country.

“Mental Health support is also available through the Scaffold Service within 14 Plus in the SHSCT area for all young people [aged] 14-24 including refugees.”

For more information and to register interest in becoming a foster carer or supported lodgings host, phone HSC Northern Ireland Foster Care on 0800 0720 137 or email:

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