I had met Liz Curry (our volunteer coordinator) sometime ago; we were both trying to improve our Spanish at weekly classes. I was interested in what Liz told me about the work Refugee Action – Colchester was doing locally, but it wasn’t until last summer that I felt motivated enough to follow it up.
There was a whole load of stuff on the news about immigration, and asylum seekers in particular. Obviously a lot of the ‘debate’ around Brexit centred on immigration and some of it, often on mainstream media, was undeniably racist. In addition, the scale of the Windrush scandal was becoming apparent.
At the same time, the plight of asylum seekers featured heavily in the news: millions fleeing war zones, hazardous journeys across Europe, deaths at sea, people traffickers, grim conditions in camps in Lesbos and Calais.
“I have learned a great deal in my first six months”
I didn’t sense that much of a safe haven was being offered in the UK. As far as I could tell, the Government was rushing to deport as many people as possible before the Brexit deal was signed. Young asylum seekers were being targeted if they could not prove their age. There was talk of using the navy to deter asylum seekers crossing the Channel. Those who did make it were housed in the notorious Napier Barracks and people who tried to make sure asylum seekers were treated humanely and in accordance with their legal rights were called ‘lefty activist lawyers’.
Sometimes I think the more you understand about the big political issues, the more impotent you feel, but I thought the least I could do was to meet Liz to find out what I could do to make refugees feel more welcome. After a searching interview (!) on her allotment during which Liz talked about the importance of making a difference to individuals, and a few forms, I was pleased to be able to start volunteering on some RA-C projects.
“I feel as if I am learning more from clients than they are learning from me”
So far, I have played table tennis, done some drumming, spent a couple of days at the Big Garden, planted several hundred trees, done some painting and decorating, helped a client to move house and met loads and loads of interesting clients and volunteers.
That has all been hugely enjoyable in its own right. The projects are always run in a well organised and encouraging fashion where nothing in particular is expected of clients but to relax and take from it what they will.
It has been estimated that it can take up to 10 years for asylum seekers to integrate into a western culture. Lack of language skills, lack of money, lack of paid employment and separation from family are significant barriers. If you add in the challenge of coming to terms with local bureaucracy, then anything, however informal, that helps clients learn English, make links with local people and local services, build understanding of the way things work, and make contacts with fellow asylum seekers is going to be important.
I have learned a great deal in my first six months. For example, that it is a mistake to treat asylum seekers as an amorphous bunch. People have arrived from a variety of different countries, different cultures and different backgrounds. They will have different back stories and aspirations.
It has been really interesting to hear about the different impressions clients have of the UK and of British culture. The impressions are as varied as the people and often quite surprising!
To be honest, I feel as if I am learning more from clients than they are learning from me. I had thought that I was fairly well informed about the refugee crisis, but meeting and talking to people adds a layer of understanding to the newspaper headlines and the enormous challenges people face. It has also put my own privilege into perspective.
Anyway, so far, so good. I am looking forward to the next six months!
If you feel inspired by Pete’s story and want to help please contact us to volunteer or support us through just giving.