Bristol crèche offers haven for refugee children

The Early Years Project in Bristol gives the children of refugees and asylum seekers a place to learn and play. It also offers their parents a short respite

Colin Thomas, a volunteer, smiled to himself as he surveyed the scene of contentment unfolding around him.

On a recent, sunny morning in Bristol, children had already begun to make their way into the small playground at a local nursery. One boy was collecting coloured balls into a small wheelbarrow, while other children filled plastic buckets in the nearby sandpit. Laughter and positivity filled the air.

Having retired from a career as a filmmaker, 78-year-old Thomas now devotes much of his time to The Early Years Projecta crèche which for two hours, five mornings a week, opens its doors to the children of local refugee and asylum-seeking families.

Thomas told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, about the positive impact that the crèche had upon the children’s lives. “Within a matter of weeks, you can see their confidence growing, their sense of security returning. It is very moving.”

“Within a matter of weeks, you can see their confidence growing, their sense of security returning. It is very moving.”

Many refugees and asylum-seekers, once they make it to the UK, still face multiple barriers to integrating in British society, such as learning English, accessing social support, adequate housing, and employment. Furthermore, the spiralling cost of childcare in the UK can make the challenges of integration all the more difficult, especially considering that asylum-seekers must survive on £36.95 a week (with only £3 available to children aged 1 – 3 years).

Civic projects across the country, like Early Years, are giving refugees and asylum seekers a hand in achieving their dream of settling in more easily to their new country.

The Project welcomes 10 children per day, aged between 4 months and 5 years, ranging from crawling babies to energetic kids. The crèche is run by the manager Anna Burness, a few staff members, as well as a number of volunteers like Thomas.

It is clearly popular. Even before 10am – the official opening time – a group of parents pushing prams with excited children had gathered outside the doors, eagerly awaiting the opening.

“It’s a big deal for people,” said Burness, “They are here because they want their children to have a really bright future.”

The Early Years Project is one of a number of services provided by Bristol Refugee Rights Centre, a charity which was established 11 years ago in Bristol, the largest city in South West England. The Early Years Project forms an intrinsic part of Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR)  overall aim of supporting and welcoming refugees in the city. It provides a free and essential service, relieving mothers and fathers of their parental duties, if only for two hours a morning.

While their children are given a space to learn and play, parents are free to access the other services that Bristol Refugee Rights provides: from English language and computer classes, to legal advice, which can help them navigate the complex process of claiming asylum in the UK.

Mansura is one of the parents who regularly takes her little boy Ibrahim to the Early Years Project. She came to the UK as an asylum seeker from Ghana, joining Bristol Refugee Rights in June 2016. She is now a valued member of the BRR community.

Mansura recalled her first experience of coming to the centre.

“The first time I came, people talked to me and made me feel welcome,” she said, “The people of Bristol, they are kind, they are helpful.”

On the way to her English lesson at Bristol Refugee Rights – the classes are conveniently located just across the road – Mansura dropped Ibrahim off at the crèche. After his mother had gone, Ibrahim looked instantly at home running around in the sun with the other children.

The environment allows some of these children, and their families, to temporarily forget the difficult circumstances of their past or present lives. 

“The people of Bristol, they are kind, they are helpful.”

As a former teacher, Burness was all too aware of the impact that a disruptive family life could have on the well-being of a child at this vulnerable age.

Small children won’t remember specific experiences that happened to their family but they will remember feelings,” she said, “a feeling of fear, of anxiety, of tension at home will stay with them forever.”

As a grandfather, Thomas also empathised with the situation of the families and children who came to the crèche.

“I have five grandchildren, so I know what kids that age are usually like, and the degree of insecurity you sense in some of the newer children is very telling.”

Thomas pointed to Ibrahim, “Even this boy, he was just standing around and I just couldn’t interest him in things initially.”

“Then I discovered that Ibrahim just liked jumping up and down. It was a brilliant moment!”

After playing, singing, and snack time, the morning quickly passed and soon parents began to arrive to pick up their children. Having just finished her class, Mansura was a little late to pick up her son, who was still happily sifting sand outside.

When she came through the doors Ibrahim greeted his mother happily. As Mansura strapped Ibrahim into the pushchair, she offered a final thought.

“Ibrahim is always happy” she said. “He is always happy when he comes here.”