Fostering children is not just about providing food and shelter. It’s also about providing emotional, physical and cultural care.
There are more than 8000 Victorian children and young people in out-of-home-care and not enough foster carers to take them in. There are even fewer foster carers from multicultural communities, yet there are children from every ethnic background in care.
Fostering children is not just about providing food and shelter. It’s also about providing emotional, physical and cultural care. Just as it’s important to have a foster child who fits your life and your circumstances, it’s equally important for a foster child to have a family that fits theirs.
Mohamed Elmasri is no stranger to living between cultures. Born in Australia, he moved to Egypt when he was two, returning to Australia seven years later with his parents and grandparents. They didn’t speak English. His father could no longer work as an engineer, forced instead to drive buses for a living. And his family didn’t understand the cultural shift in parenting styles. Mohamed found himself caught between a school life of one culture, and a home life of a very different kind. And it was being caught between these worlds that cemented his passion for giving back to his community.
Now Mohamed runs Care With Me, a foster care support agency for the Victoria’s culturally and linguistically diverse community. It is his aim to see children from multicultural backgrounds culturally matched to foster carers of the same backgrounds, because he has watched the often irreparable damage done to family relationships when children are placed with foster carers who don’t understand their cultural needs. Mohamed has seen children’s “chances at being reunited with their birth parents destroyed,” by the lack of understanding that cultural values have in their lives.
Care With Me is focused on changing community perceptions, advocating for culturally continuous and sensitive care, and targeting multicultural communities where the need is greatest.
Living between houses is hard enough but imagine living between houses and cultures. With more and more children from diverse backgrounds entering the out-of-home care system, the need for culturally targeted foster care is huge.
New foster carers, Hisham and Yasmin, grew up with diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, making them very attuned to the importance of culturally sensitive care. It is through Mohamed and his work with Care With Me, that Hisham and Yasmin became foster carers over a year ago. “If we didn’t know Mohamed personally, then we might have put it to the back of our minds,” says Hisham because it’s hard to understand just what the commitment of fostering means. Obviously the decision to become a foster carer can seem monumental, but actually once you break it down, and start on the journey, it’s “just about having time, space and the drive to do it,” says Hisham. “We’re aware through our upbringing and our religion of the need to care for others, particularly kids in need. We have a moral driver to do that,” says Yasmin.
As a young couple they’re busy juggling work, social lives, and other volunteering roles in their community. But they still manage to find a weekend a month to provide respite care. Rather than view their busy lives as an impediment to fostering a child, Hisham and Yasmin take the children they foster with them, opening their eyes to trying new and exciting things like sailing, rock climbing and hiking. “There was some initial learning around how you have a child in the house, how you develop rules and what kind of rules they are. It’s sort of like becoming a parent overnight,” says Hisham. But the agency provides support for those transitions, and as foster parents you get to nominate what age children you feel comfortable fostering.
Now they provide some emergency care, and regular respite care for one child, a weekend a month. The child has been with them on this basis for over a year, and they’ve watched him grow and develop. “He’s still got a lot of trauma and he doesn’t talk about stuff, but I hope we’ve been able to provide him with confidence boosting and resilience. I want to help soften any falls that he has,” says Hisham.
One of the biggest issues that Mohamed has come up with in his advocacy work through Care With Me is that fostering is somewhat of an alien concept to many people in multicultural communities. “It’s a foreign idea. If something happened to parents in our community then there’s an unspoken agreement for a family member to step in. But to have your child go and live with a stranger is very foreign,” explains Hisham.
Mohamed realised that in order to shift thinking around foster care, he had to do it using stories that people understood.
For Hisham and Yasmin, they see themselves being foster carers for the long haul. They’ve both made a commitment to providing regular respite care to the foster child they’ve developed a relationship with. “He’s part of our life now, and if we stopped fostering him, then it would be another broken link,” says Hisham.
Then Yasmin smiles, adding, “It would be fantastic if one day we could be invited to his wedding.”