I’m not sure that staff at Lunar House, HQ of UK Visas and Immigration in Croydon, knew how to deal with the eight year old refugee who spent half the day on the second floor. He had started his day in the Calais ‘Jungle’ but in his pocket was his brother’s address in England. By the end of the day, he would be in the same county with papers that gave him the right to live in the UK. Before getting to that stage, however, he had to deal with Lunar House in Croydon. More to the point, Lunar House had to deal with him…

The children – all boys – would arrive, be given a number, have their fingerprints and photographs taken, have an initial interview and then wait to be called for a second interview before being given their papers and finally handed over to social workers or other carers. We would be with them in their interviews, entertain and amuse them while they waited for their number to be called and have no physical contact with them. The area where we would spend the afternoon was already filled with piles of cakes, snacks, board games and pillows brought by previous volunteers. The Oyster Card holders, significance unknown, arrived later…

We selected the games we thought our young, non-English speaking guests might be able to understand and enjoy without any need for explanation, picked out an array of sugar-laden goodies for them and waited for their arrival. We knew they were all aged from 14-18 except for one eight-year-old.

Suddenly they were there. Looking bewildered, they were addressed by a Home Office official whose words were then translated into Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya and Pashtun. Each boy already had a piece of paper with his name and a number on it to identify him during his time in Lunar House. It was easy to spot the eight year old. He was obviously smaller than the rest of the boys. He also seemed to have some difficulty sitting still. And, in a theme that would repeat itself during the afternoon, the piece of paper he had been told not to lose lay on the floor in front of the seat he occasionally occupied.

I picked it up, made a note of the number, wrote it on a sticky label and attached it to his sweatshirt. Then, remembering that we’d been instructed to refer to the boys by their names, I stuck another one on with his name on it. We exchanged a high five. One minute later, the two stickers were attached to me as he placed them – with no little force – on the front of my shirt. He returned to his seat and gave me the first glimpse of the ‘little monster’ cheeky grin that was his trademark. My afternoon had begun.

First he and three of his fellow countrymen were taken into a room to have their fingerprints and photographs taken. I was allowed to go into the room with him. He seemed momentarily overawed by the officials wearing white coats and face masks and obediently offered his hands and face to them. I didn’t get to see the photograph, but I hope it had his smile on it.

Some twenty minutes later his number (still attached to my chest and imprinted in my memory) was called for his initial interview. I went with him into a little room. There was a desk across which sat a young Home Office official wearing a regulation white shirt. Next to him was a kindly looking elderly gentleman, the interpreter. A few questions were asked to confirm his identity. We were then told to listen out for his number to be called again for a second interview. That happened four hours later, at around 6.30pm. We had a lot of time to spend together…

The boundless levels of energy were supplemented by sweets and cakes from what must have been to him a dazzling array of strange, brightly coloured wrappings. We played catch and football with a little soft pink ball, messed around with skipping ropes, did colouring, lined Jenga bricks up like dominoes and knocked them down. He watched them tumble one after another and I watched his face as he laughed and clapped as they collapsed. This all occupied about half an hour.
Occasionally he would sit still to consume his latest choice of snack. Mostly he would just run up and down, climbing over tables and seats and the people sitting on them. Every now and then one of his older compatriots would berate him and he might pause momentarily before disrupting their game of cards and running off somewhere else. I think the phrase I uttered more than any other that afternoon was ‘Has anyone seen …?’ as I marched up and down the waiting area which was large enough to contain 30 young refugees, a dozen volunteers and as many as 20 Home Office officials – but not him.

Eventually he was called for his second interview, where he was given a wad of papers, the contents of which were explained to him in his native language. He was told that he would be taken to a house with a family, and that a solicitor would contact him in a few days. He was then given an identity card and told it was most important that he keep it – if he lost it, no one would know who he was. I asked the officer if he could make a copy of it to include in his papers, which he did. I then placed the card into the Oyster card holder I’d been given and handed it to him with a serious look on my face. He nodded and put it into the wallet containing all his papers. Everyone shook hands and we went back into the corridor. Off he went in search of another adventure. Before I followed him again, I bent down to pick up his identity card, which was lying on the floor at my feet.

Thirty minutes later, he was gone from Lunar House, on his way to his foster family in the Home Counties. I was told that on his journey to his new home he fell asleep in the car. The staff at Lunar House and those volunteers who remained began picking up the sweet wrappers and tidying the games ready for the next day’s arrivals.

Feeling suddenly emotional, I said my farewells to those who had been our companions that tiring afternoon. I hugged the volunteers; I even hugged the Home Office staff. We hear about the delays, we hear about the paperwork and the red tape. But these people had done what was needed to enable 30 young boys to find a home here and I felt moved to thank them for the work they do. ‘No one has ever said that to me before,’ said one lady in astonishment.

The bureaucracy of the Home Office may sometimes seem like an unwieldy monster. But the real monsters are the ones who drove an eight year old from his home, forcing him – and so many other young people – to make unimaginable journeys across Europe. And the little monster with whom I’d shared my day would wake the next morning with a roof over his head, a family to look after him and pick up whatever important documents he drops and, thanks to the kindness that still dwells even in post-Brexit UK, a future and a hope.

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