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Becoming a foster parent — and welcoming a child you barely know into your family — can be a major leap of faith. But some foster parents make an even greater leap, taking in children who are refugees: kids from war-torn regions, many suffering from trauma.
Across the United States, there are currently about 700 refugee foster kids. Many have come from camps for displaced people, scooped up by aid organizations, and placed in the U.S. foster system. They're living with families in cities from Phoenix, Ariz., to Fargo, N.D. In the District, Lutheran Social Services oversees a small program with seven refugee kids in the D.C. foster system.
Rachel Pierre, program manager for the unaccompanied refugee minors at Lutheran Social Services, says the children come from all over the world, many carrying the scars of past trauma.
"We've had children who've been trafficked, we've had children who are dealing with emotional trauma, past sexual abuse, past physical abuse, or separation, loss, grief, etc., and we've had children who've experienced all of the above," says Pierre.
That trauma can make it difficult for the kids to trust anyone, even someone who's trying to help.
"Often times unfortunately, we do have some placement disruptions because it becomes very difficult for the foster parent to continue to try to support and nurture a child who is really pushing them away, or who appears to be pushing them away."
A new relationship
Caroline, who asked to only use her first name, is originally from the Congo, but arrived in the United States about a year ago by way of a refugee camp in Morocco. Now she's 19, and getting used to life with her foster mom in Petworth, after an initial placement in Baltimore that didn't work out.
"At first I was afraid of meeting people I didn't know," she says, in her native French. "I kept thinking people were going to do things to me again, things that I experienced in the past, things that are still in my mind."
She left her home in the Congo at age 12 because of the ongoing war, one of the deadliest conflicts in the world in recent years. She spent two years traveling through Cameroon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and finally, arriving in Morocco, more than halfway across the continent of Africa. It's a time she doesn't like to talk about — just thinking about it takes her back. She clenches her hands, and presses on her forehead.
In Morocco, she lived in a refugee camp for three years.
"Morocco, for me, was a nightmare," she says. But when she found out she was coming to the United States, she was worried. The people in the refugee camp had become like family, and she didn't want to leave them.
But now, she's found family again.
Elaine Farley has been a foster parent since 1994. She has one daughter by birth, and she's had 12 foster children over the years. But when Lutheran Social Services called looking for a home for Caroline, Farley says at first she wasn't sure it would work to have someone from such a different background.
"The foster child doesn't know anything about the foster mom, and the mom doesn't know anything about the foster child, no more than what the social worker tells you or either what the child tells you. All I know is that she was from the Congo, coming out of Morocco and a refugee camp, and that's all I knew."
But when they met, Farley says Caroline's big smile won her over.
"I guess we kinda like gelled. We talked, and she liked me and I liked her, and I said, "Okay, this might work."
But that doesn't mean it's always easy. For one thing, there's the language barrier.
"There is a communication problem," says Farley. "But we're working it out. She tells me sometimes when she understands me, she says, you know. And then when I don't understand, I call the social worker, and she talks for me."
Meanwhile, Caroline is doing well. Her English is getting better, she's figured out the Metro system, and she's got dreams for the future.
"I would like to be a doctor," she says. "People have helped me so much, people have supported me so much. I'd like to help others, as a doctor, or a nurse."
[Music: "Around the World" by Geoff Love & His Orchestra from The Very Best of Geoff Love & Manuel & The Music Of The Mountains]