The First Friend: Mentoring an Unaccompanied Refugee Minor

By: Jaakko Tuominen

During 2015, almost 96,500 unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) arrived in Europe. More than 22,300 of them applied for asylum in Germany. From these, the state of Bremen received about 2,600 refugee minors. In comparison, approximately 3,030 unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors arrived in Finland during the same year. In Bremen, these children and youth were first placed in temporary living units, often container homes and festival tents, because the existing refugee centres were already full. Unaccompanied refugee children and youth often lack the support of family and community to integrate into their new host country. This is why they need a lot of support to create a stable and lasting relationship with adults that they can trust. To tackle the problem of insufficient time and presence of supportive adults, one solution could be to create a network of trusted adults, who help the unaccompanied refugee children in their daily lives.

A civil society organisation called Fluchtraum Bremen e.V. organises a mentoring programme for volunteers to support the social inclusion of unaccompanied refugee minors. According to this organisation, the mentor’s tasks are to support, listen and show understanding to the children. He or she introduces them to the new culture and familiarises them with their new home city. The mentor helps with the homework and learning of the language, as well as assists in finding education and accommodation. Fundamentally, the mentor is a trusted adult who supports the unaccompanied refugee minor and helps with his or her daily life. In Germany, every child has a legal guardian, which means that the mentor does not need to take part in the practicalities of the asylum process. He or she is acting outside the official decision-making procedure, which means that the mentor is a neutral person the child can trust and feel comfortable with.

While I was living in Bremen during 2014–2015, I met Felix Göbel, a 29-year-old legal guardian for unaccompanied refugee minors. He used to be a mentor near the end of his studies and later became a legal guardian for unaccompanied minors. Felix explains that the role of a mentor is all about being a trusted individual, whose role is to introduce, explain and reassure unaccompanied refugee minors. In addition, he reflects on his role as mentor: “It’s not always just about the bureaucratic stuff. The mentor can also be the first contact in the normal life in the new country. Getting to know the culture, learning the language and getting to know the place you live in are really important things.

While doing our fieldwork for the TRUST project in autumn 2016 and spring 2017 in Finland, we have noticed that unaccompanied asylum-seeking youth need to have a positive relation with an adult person. Furthermore, they need to have Finnish-speaking friends in order to facilitate their arrival and their inclusion in their new environment. Every single underage asylum seeker in Finland has a legal guardian. The problem is that the guardian´s statutory task is not to be an adult friend and support the daily lives of the refugee minors. Often integration, cultural adaptation and creating social belonging are left as duties to housing units or schools. These institutional settings do not have enough resources and time for individual meetings with the young. Luckily, some meaningful and important projects exist to overcome the deficiency of the state: for instance, the Tutoring programme of Plan International Finland and the Sport Mentor project of Save the Children Finland. However the unaccompanied refugee minors in Finland lack a sustainable and systematic network of trusted adults who could support them by spending time with them and by showing interest in their hopes, fears and dreams.

The creation of a mentoring or tutoring programme to support the social belonging of refugee children is a necessity if we want to assure their well-being in Finland. To act as a trusted adult does not mean that one should have any official degree in social work for example but that the mentor has the will to help and is sensitive to what the child has been through. In this sense, he or she is more like a first friend in a new and often really different culture. As Felix explains how he sees the role of a mentor: “It’s nice to have people who are not official employees and who bring various ideas of spending free time to the mostly boring life in a living unit. I think the nonconformity of ideas can be one of the strengths of mentoring.

Photo: Jaakko Tuominen
Photo: Jaakko Tuominen