A British Pakistani, Shareen (and her husband Asif, 47), began fostering three years ago after three failed rounds of IVF. She has looked after children from many nationalities including Afro-Caribbean, Syrian, Egyptian and Pakistani.
When she first used to read the background reports about the children she looked after, Shareen, 48, was shocked at what they’d been through. "I just could not believe that there could be children so deprived of love,” she says. "I was exposed to so much pain.”
One 12-year-old boy she fostered, who had been diagnosed with ADHD, couldn’t sleep each night. "He would break the lightbulbs and chuck them in the neighbours’ garden. Whatever he could find in the room he would open up and unscrew and he would not come home at curfew time,” she recalls. "I would have to call the police every evening.”
The key to coping, she says, was to try to understand the reasons behind the challenging behaviour. "You have to look at the person’s history,” she says. "No child is born to take drugs or join a gang. It has happened because nobody has cared for them.” The boy ended up staying with Shareen for eight months.
She has also fostered children of Pakistani heritage and says there are some advantages. "Two Pakistani children fitted right into the house because they understood our culture; we ate the same food and shared the same language, but when I had white children and I was out with them, people gave me funny looks.”
Shareen’s longest foster placement arrived three years ago: a boy from Syria. "He was 14 and had hidden inside a lorry all the way from Syria,” she says. The boy was deeply traumatised. They had to communicate via Google Translate; Shareen later learned Arabic and he picked up English within six months. She read up on Syria and the political situation there to get an insight into the conditions he had left.
"It took ages to gain his trust,” she says. "I got a picture dictionary that showed English and Arabic words and I remember one time when I pronounced an Arabic word wrong and he burst out laughing and told me I was saying it wrong – that was the breakthrough.”
The boy would run home from school and whenever they went shopping in town, he kept asking Shareen when they were going back home. She found out why: "He told me that one day he left his house in Syria and when he had come back, there was no house.” Now he’s 18, speaks English fluently and is applying for apprenticeships. He could move out of Shareen’s home, but has decided to stay. "He is a very different person to the boy who first came here,” she says, "and my relationship with him is that of a mother to her son.”
Fostering has, she says, helped her to be more resilient, patient and confident. "I used to worry about who was doing better than me or earning more money,” she says. "But after meeting these children, those things just don’t matter to me anymore.”