The day, when it arrives is cold and wet, unremarkable in many ways for January. But this day is remarkable because it’s the day that’s been looming over us for six months. It’s the day of our foster son’s substantive interview at the Home Office. The basis for asylum being granted or denied.
We’ve taken great pains to explain what is going to happen on the day. We have explained that this is the interview during which the Home Office will study his statement and ask him lots of painful questions about his home country, his reasons for leaving and the journey that brought him to us and his claim for asylum. Yet in the run up to the interview it is striking just how little our boy really understands, how you can’t take his comprehension for granted. Just the night before he asks me again whether he will get a ‘yes or no’ tomorrow and I explain once more that he’ll be coming home with us where we’ll have to revert to the only strategy open to us: to wait. I’m sure I spot a look of relief on his face and I wonder if he has pictured scenes of being taken from us, snatched away as soon as the questions have ceased.
But on the morning he is up early and seems relatively at ease.
We drive for over three hours to get to the Home Office; three hours during which the only words he speaks are to offer us biscuits from the little stash in the back of the car.
We arrive early and just as we are parking we get a call from the interpreter whom the solicitor has sent in her place. He is also early and suggests lunch. We are all delighted to see that this is an interpreter we’ve met before, a familiar face against everything else that is alien to us. He chats away and happily points out all the halal eateries he knows. I smile at our lad and he smiles back as he orders his chicken.
We arrive at the Home Office building but as soon as we step foot over the threshold we are met by a uniformed man asking who we are. We each explain who we are and are ushered inside. I don’t know what I was expecting and I suppose it was naïve really, but I wasn’t expecting an airport style security check. We are given a number and we sit down in the large waiting room. It’s a depressing place dotted with young men, women and children who look like they’ve lived through more than their years would belie. Maybe it’s the lighting (I suspect not) but everyone looks slightly haggard with dark circles under their eyes. Many people are asleep or staring into space. The interpreter is wonderfully oblivious and continues to chat to us – whether deliberately or not he is putting us all at ease and I am truly grateful to him for bringing some normality to this.
Q and A
After a short wait of about half an hour, we are called by the official who will be conducting the interview. He’s accompanied by the Home Office interpreter. I’m heartened by their readiness to shake hands and by the smiles that are forthcoming with the introductions.
‘You’ve had long journey,’ says the Official. ‘It would have been easier for you to have gone to London.’
I raise an eyebrow and say, ‘Let’s not go there.’
I’m rewarded with a rueful laugh.
We are led to a small, cold interview room. The chairs we’re directed towards are chained together and bolted to the floor. There is a list of rules of conduct tacked to the wall: No hot drinks, no glass bottles, no cans. Endless contraband. I get out a plastic bottle of water for our lad.
The official explains what’s going to happen and addresses each of us in turn. He instructs our foster son to answer fully and honestly. He tells the home office interpreter to interpret directly, verbatim and to let him know if there are any problems with comprehension. He tells me and our interpreter that we are not to speak but that there will be opportunity later for us to do so. Our lad and the Home Office interpreter check that they can understand one another. I turn to our interpreter and he gives me a covert thumbs up to indicate that the interpreter is sound.
Return from obsoletion
The official explains that the interview will be recorded and he gets out two cassette tapes, raises his eyebrows at me and jokes that many of his interviewees have never seen cassettes before they get inside this room. I’m struck by the notion of something obsolete not being so obsolete after all but don’t have time to explore this thought further. Raised eyebrow still in place, he explains that he will have to hand write all of the questions and answers as we go along. It’s going to be a long day. He presses the record button and the machine gives a high pitched scream of protest which makes me jump.
The official looks at me and tells me that he is going to start by asking questions about our lad’s home country, I suppose to establish the authenticity of his back story. He’s asked all manner of very specific questions: what does the national flag look like, name the dates of national celebrations, name some key cities, name the languages that are spoken. It goes on for quite some time. Our boy answers all the questions, though there are some that he is unsure of. I wonder how the knowledge of British teens on the subject of their own country would hold up to such scrutiny.
The interview moves on and the questions centre around his religion, politics, family set up. Our lad is asked about his home country, what he fears and why. He is asked about his journey to the UK. The questions do not seem to follow a train of thought and leap from one subject area to the next and I realise that this is quite deliberate. It must be hard for our child to keep up and it’s clearly taking a lot of concentration. But the official is gentle with him and on the surface our child seems calm, despite the hand wringing that is going on beneath the desk, nerves that only I can see. I have an urge to reach out and grip his hands in mine. But I don’t.
After over an hour of questioning, referring back to the statement and clarifying the responses the official suggests a break and we troop back to the waiting room until we are called back. Our interpreter tells us we are lucky to have a nice man conducting the interview, ‘They are not all like this,’ he says.
The interview resumes and explores the experiences our child lived through back home, the experiences that led to him leaving his life behind. He answers the questions with great honesty and integrity. To me, his answers reveal his character and not the desperation he must surely feel as he resists the urge to give overblown or badly-thought-through responses. My heart goes out to him and as I sit and watch him, listen to his simple, detailed responses, notice the dignity with which he holds himself, the softness of his voice, I realise just how deeply I’ve come to love him. I wonder how this handwritten interview transcript could ever, truly depict the boy.
After a further hour and a half the interview is concluded. I am given the tape cassettes of the interview and told that if we wait 20 minutes we’ll get a copy of the transcript too. I’ll take all of these to the solicitor the following day. I shake hands with the official and thank him for being gentle with our boy. I know it won’t make a difference to any outcome but his manner has made the experience less of an ordeal for our foster son and for that I am grateful. Our lad follows my lead and shakes his hand and thanks him. The Home Office interpreter stands and also shakes us by the hand.
‘That’s a good boy you have there, I think,’ he says.
‘You’re right,’ I say. ‘He is.’
I squeeze him by the shoulders and tell him he has done well. He tells me he’s tired.
He sleeps for a chunk of the journey home but when we stop for food he is hungry.
‘This nice,’ he says, shovelling in the Chinese food we’ve bought. He smiles and for a moment he looks like a boy who has not a care in the world.
I put a hand on his shoulder, ‘shall we go home?’
He nods but as we cross the car park he grabs me by the sleeve.
‘This way,’ he laughs, pointing towards our car that is in the opposite direction to where I’m headed.
He shoves his hands in his pocket, shakes his head and leads the way.