A day in the life of a volunteer therapeutic counsellor - Refugee Council
April 24, 2018

A day in the life of a volunteer therapeutic counsellor

Jenny Cousins is a social worker who volunteers at the Refugee Council’s office in Birmingham. Jenny supports people who have recently arrived in the UK and are seeking asylum. They often arrive in a state of severe distress.

The Therapeutic Services employs a therapeutic counsellor for 4 days per week and Jenny as a volunteer for one day. People are referred to them from Migrant Help (advice and support for new arrivals, awaiting placement in the UK by the Home Office) based in the same building. Her role is to offer sessions of up to one hour per person each week to share their story as a form of therapy and release. They are frequently still traumatised by what they have been through: “We’re there to hear and listen to their story”, to give local information and when possible, to point them to further help.

Nationally, about 75% of asylum seekers are young men but Jenny also sees a lot of women. Jenny is now coming up to her 100th client in 2½ years. Their background and reason for being here falls roughly into three categories, 1] political, 2] family, 3] cultural issues. These people have crossed the boundaries of what their regime will tolerate. People are silenced in the most brutal ways.

‘A’ was a non-English speaker from an African country. He was tortured in his own country. He escaped but was further abused on the journey and was traumatised by his experiences. He was a physically fit young man but was so depressed that at first he could hardly speak or make eye contact. He opened up only over several weeks. Believing that exercise can help with sleeping and with depression, Jenny tasked him to run the mile or so to the local park several times a week; then to learn English at St. Chad’s Sanctuary. He became so enthusiastic that he was running across the city to St Chad’s, back to the hostel for lunch and back again for the afternoon activity.

Jenny appealed for him to be placed in Birmingham where he would have access to ‘Freedom from Torture’, and to library and college facilities, but he was ‘dispersed’ to a rural location, miles from such supports. However, he now talks to Jenny on the phone, in English!

‘B’ was an older man who had been beaten publicly for his so-called crimes. During the beating he messed his pants and the ensuing shame was overwhelming. He had held a position of authority but was degraded, punished and tortured. When he eventually revealed the source of his misery the conversation with Jenny was therapeutic.

Family. Such people have stepped beyond what their family sees as acceptable. Retribution is severe.

‘C’ is a woman who was abused in marriage and left her husband but, such was the “shame” she had caused, that she was threatened with killing if she returned to her family. Jenny sees a lot of women who are fleeing domestic violence and sexual abuse (either at home or while being trafficked) but who have no recourse to help or understanding. They might be referred to Women’s Aid where they can get help and meet people in similar circumstances with common experiences they can share.


‘D’ is a young man who was wrongfully accused of being indirectly responsible for a family killing and had to leave his country precipitously. He was angry at the injustice and confused about his identity.

His anger spilled over onto Jenny whom he thought should be able to solve everything. Finally, he accepted help, and could talk about his distress, though Jenny believes he will need specialised psychotherapy in the future.

Culture. Such people act outside what is seen as acceptable in their society. In order to live their lives as they feel is right they have to escape. Jenny has met several clients who are lesbian or gay, where homosexuality is outlawed in their country of origin. She has also met clients who want to transgender, which again could bring devastating consequences at home. This can be difficult for the client to discuss until they feel they can trust the counsellor. Some time ago she was happy to watch one young man gain sufficient confidence to wear his new female clothes and to show her pictures of dresses he wanted to buy from money he saved from his weekly entitlement by going to food banks.

The role of the Therapeutic Services, therefore, is to listen and validate each person’s experience; to offer grounding techniques to help stabilize and regulate their distress; to signpost clients to useful information and contacts; and to refer to specialist help if necessary. Clients can be in the Initial Accommodation hostel for 2-3 months before they are dispersed, potentially to faraway parts of the country. Although the casework team rarely knows the long-term outcome for individuals, it is known that a large percentage of these people will be refused asylum at the initial decision and will have to appeal. Britain has the lowest asylum approval rate out of Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

Discussion. Interpreters are costly, and it is logistically complicated to bring them in to the office for  appointments. A telephone translation service is more often used, which isn’t perfect but is helpful.

What are their backgrounds? They aren’t ‘only’ refugees. Many and varied. One was a surgeon who slept in St Philip’s Square. When he woke one day his hands were frozen, “These are my tools, my precious hands…”. Some will have had professions in their home country and are now wearing charity clothing hand-outs; some will have come from very poor families with little education.

The next step: when a person is granted Refugee Status or Leave to Remain they are given 28 days to leave their ‘dispersal accommodation’ and to support themselves through mainstream benefits and seeking work. This is a very tough time and many such refugees become destitute.

*This article originally appeared within a newsletter from Bourneville Amnesty International