Volunteers’ Week 1-7 June

To mark annual Volunteers’ Week we asked volunteers with a range of roles within Refugee Action – Colchester to share a little bit of information about themselves, their roles and their experiences of volunteering with RA-C.

Izzy Lockwood

I have volunteered with RA-C for a few years, beginning in my time at college as part of the Friends not Foes group and afterwards, helping out with office work and some social activities roughly once or twice a week.

I started volunteering with RA-C because I wanted to contribute to making my hometown a welcoming place for those who came here seeking refuge. I was struck by the global refugee crisis happening across the world and I wanted to help out however I could locally.

I enjoy every part of volunteering here, it is always such an educational experience and I have learned so much about the UK asylum process, as well as meeting people from all over the world.

Although at times it is challenging and upsetting work, my life has been so enriched because of the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met. I feel so inspired when I’m around everyone in the community and I love going to our monthly community meetings and trips to Highwoods to do Forest School.

Floran

I started doing some volunteering back in September 2018, upon my arrival at the Colchester Sixth Form College. I had been wanting to do something to help refugees for a very long time, but did not know quite how, until I decided to join the student led refugee group, Friends Not Foes at college. I still remember the first community meeting that I attended. It was my first interaction with Refugee Action-Colchester and remains to this day one of my most cherished memories. Although I did not know anyone at the time, it felt like a big family gathering.

It was this meeting that convinced me that joining Friends Not Foes would be an eye-opening adventure. These past two years, I have had many extraordinary experiences working with Friends Not Foes. Some of my favourites include helping children with their schoolwork at our weekly homework club, taking these same children bowling as a reward for their effort and organising a sleeping bag collection for the charity Care4Calais.

I have also had the chance to work closely with Refugee-Action Colchester, as we took part in Forest School Days, or Pop Up Cafés. More recently, I helped Elizabeth Curry and Juliet Farnes set up weekly cello lessons for children and it was truly gratifying to see them progress so rapidly. This year, I took part in the Fund-Raising Group to plan some activities. Sadly, this had to be paused due to the Covid Crisis, but I am sure that it will start again very soon!

I will always continue to be impressed by the people from Refugee Action Colchester who are incredibly hardworking and dedicated to their cause. Working with them was definitely the highlight of my college years and has encouraged me to study law at university to protect the rights of vulnerable people forced to flee their home.

Diego Robirosa

If I think about how volunteering came about I probably have to go back to my days as a school teacher. Schools are about people, communities, solidarity, helping the less able to become more able, supporting and nurturing. When I retired from teaching I wanted to engage more with these values and a series of circumstances led me to volunteer for Dance4Parkinson’s at Dance East in Ipswich which I still do and love every minute of. 

At the same time the massive refugee crisis was forever evolving and I found it difficult to read about it, watch haunting images and not to do something more other than donating. So I went to Calais shortly after the ‘Jungle’ had been dismantled and did some volunteering there. It proved to be a sobering but enriching experience. Upon my return I organised several collections to send badly needed clothes and food to Calais. I went back last year with a car load and stayed volunteering for a few days.

This last trip made me realised that I couldn’t go back and forth to Calais and what I really ought to do is find a way to volunteer in the UK on a more regular basis. I did some research and decided to contact RA-C, I attended one of their social open evening events and was really taken by the warmth, support and commitment the whole place emanated. It was the obvious thing to do to start volunteering with RA-C. 

I joined  RA-C a few months before lockdown was imposed. I have enjoyed mentoring and supporting refugees and I look forward, once lockdown relaxes, to organise fundraising events and get involved in the huge variety of activities which RA-C offers. The people I have come across at RA-C are not only friendly and supportive but also professional and creative, they work and extend links within the community which helps to raise the awareness of the refugee crisis which many people think its over. 

Emma Chesters

I’m a Colchester based vegan baker and caterer so the volunteering I have done for Refugee Action Colchester has been based on food.

I was asked to help teach Food Hygiene to clients so they could pass Food Hygiene Level 2 and that would make getting a job working with food, or selling their own delicious dishes possible.  The classes were thoroughly enjoyable as while we were learning we talked about everyone’s favourite dishes, chatted about recipes and food was bought into share.

Now we are working on food based AQA’s award scheme for clients to earn awards to build confidence and help with CVs.

I also hosted a meal to raise funds for Refugee Action Colchester. It was well attended by supporters and   a lot of fun. Can’t wait for lockdown to be over to do this and return to helping with AQAs.  

Phil Dunnett

My name is Phil Dunnett and I am currently helping Kate Khan with our Fund Raising effort, which is proving to be something of a challenge in these difficult times.

I became involved in Refugee Action – Colchester during April 2019 after hearing Maria Wilby give an inspiring presentation at a local meeting. The plight of refugees had been something I felt I needed to do something about but wasn’t sure what or how. Therefore, after Maria’s chat I went along to a Friday evening community event at First Site. Then I attended a volunteer day at which I found that Kate Khan was in need of support for Fund Raising, and I agreed to help.

Since becoming involved with RA-C I have gathered a considerable amount of knowledge and understanding about the issues affecting refugees, and it is now clear to me that it is a very complex area with a multitude of challenges. It is amazing and inspiring how the RA-C volunteer team have managed to rise to these challenges and become a key resource in Colchester and the surrounding area.

Clearly refugees will be in need of significant help for many years to come, and I am now committed to the cause.

Elizabeth Curry

I attended my first meeting of what was then Welcome Refugees Colchester on January 2016. At this meeting i was inspired by Maria Wilby and the other enthusiastic attendees, some of whom are still my friends. At that meeting, with a friend, Alison Berridge (sadly now deceased), I agreed to look for private accommodation so that Colchester could welcome more refugees. We approached church congregations but received only one lodging which was given to a shy, young, unaccompanied Syrian man of 19. My husband Richard and I gradually became his family (his words) and helped him to acquire benefits and  further accommodation and received his help in our garden and allotment. Through his own strength and determination, with the support of RA-C, he is now a confident, trained barber who is pleasant with customers and speaks good English but who unfortunately is isolated and unemployed in the present Covid situation.

During the first 2 or 3 years I did English and conversation with 4 other Syrian refugees and 2 Afghan women, either in cafe venues in Colchester or the office which RA-C acquired. I helped in the kitchen for pop-up cafes and attended some of the cookery classes whose recipes became the back-bone of our cookery book. For me this came at a time when weekly grandparenting became unnecessary and it has been an essential replacement for that.

In 2017 Alison and I were asked to organise aspects of the Community meetings which we attended regularly. This coincided with First Site giving us the use of their cafe area for the meetings and these have gone from strength to strength with the involvement of a band of committed volunteers and the growing bonds and relationships which have developed between us all. Thus newcomers feel welcomed and safe.

From this my volunteering has extended to being involved in the organisation of other ‘well-being’ activities and groups and to becoming Volunteer Co-ordinator for these activities. All this is done with constant collaboration with the other members of the RA-C team. I attended a training for Volunteer Co-ordinators whilst remaining a volunteer myself. And all this activity depends on the other volunteers who contribute in so many different ways and varying amounts, depending on their other commitments. Everyone’s contribution is valued.

The highlight of my week, pre-Covid, was my sessions of English learning and conversation with a group of Arabic- speaking women who have enriched my life with their friendship. This is followed closely by the children’s cello group! The highlight of my month is the Community Meetings which continuously provide surprises, like the first time a local drumming group turned up and involved children and adults in rhythm.

David Gynn

Like many people I first felt compelled to try to help with the refugee crisis when it became clear in 2015 just what a nightmare was unfolding in Europe…

But it was a chance meeting an Iraqi Kurd asylum seeker with serious mental health issues, living on the streets in Colchester, that led me to Refugee Action – Colchester.

Working with RA-C we managed to gain access to psychiatric support, mount a legal challenge to his failed application for asylum and provide temporary accomodation for a period of stability before the Home Office took responsibility for his ‘well-being’. A disatrous sequence of events which led to him losing access to vital mental health support, being made street homeless in a strange town by the Home Office (twice!), and a lengthy period spent in night-shelters. His resourcefulness then led to him disappearing for several months – before being spotted by night-shelter staff, apparently living a life of relative stability under the radar. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of his original claim for asylum – that’ll be 20 years in limbo – but being here for 20 years changes the rules slightly in favour of the applicant, so there may still be hope.

Working full time in my own business I am unable to commit a great deal of time to RA-C, and the time that I do commit is very much in line with the mix of technical, marketing and creative roles that I’ve undertaken professionally for many years – so I look after the website, publish the RA-C Newsletter and undertake occasional photography and video production work. None of these tasks expose me to the kind of extremely challenging work undertaken by our caseworkers – but every organisation requires a cast of many to support those working at the very sharp end. So if you’d like to help RA-C and the people we support but can’t work out quite what it is you’d like to do, or would be immediately good at, why not give some thought to what you normally do and chat to us about how your transferable skills might be put to work for the good of others in a very rewarding way.