Over 800 Yorkshire folk volunteer over 150,000 hours of their time every year to help refugees and asylum seekers, according to the Refugee Council in Yorkshire and Humberside. Their research echoes the findings of a national study for Refugee Week which estimates that nearly 10 thousand people volunteer each year to help refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, giving up an estimated 1.3 million hours of their time.
A survey of organisations and interviews with volunteers shows that the picture often painted of British people as hostile or indifferent to refugees and asylum seekers is one-sided, as many people are happy to volunteer their time to help people who have fled from persecution.
Charlotte Cooke, Head of Operations (Yorkshire and Humberside), said:
“This research shows that Yorkshire’s tradition of welcoming people fleeing from danger is still alive and kicking. In recent years, some sections of the media and some politicians have helped to foster the idea that the vast majority of Britons are only interested in stopping people getting here in the first place or kicking them out as soon as possible. But this research tells a different story of a large number of people who are so supportive of refugees that they will give up their time freely to help them. Our figure of 800 people in Yorkshire and Humberside is a very conservative figure. In addition, we know there are many, many more churches and support groups all round the region doing a great deal to support people fleeing persecution.”
“Volunteers of all ages and backgrounds are befriending and mentoring refugees, they are working at drop-in centres or giving practical support, counselling people with difficulties or helping them to learn English. British born people are working alongside refugees, who themselves are keen volunteers, and out of this experience many mutually enriching friendships are born.”
Maggie Ashworth, has been volunteering with the Refugee Council for several years. She is a member of their Talks Team, where she works alongside asylum seekers speaking to schoolchildren and groups of adults. Before she retired she worked teaching English as a foreign language for 40 years, including 15 years teaching English to Japanese businessmen, running courses for Sotheby’s and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and prepared Indonesia bankers for an MBA course.
Maggie said, “I wanted to volunteer to work with asylum seekers and refugees because I had always enjoyed the different cultures and ideas I encountered during my career. I could see there was great deal of hostility towards asylum seekers and refugees and I wanted to do what I could to help change that.”
“I often think I get far more out of the time I spend volunteering than I give. I have learnt a great deal about tolerance, optimism and courage from working alongside asylum seekers and refugees, and at times I feel very humble when I hear about what they have survived and see them speaking about their experiences.”
Maggie volunteers in the Talks Team with Frank Stevens from Iran and Mariam Barry from Guinea Konakry. Frank Stevens, 30, is a former table tennis champion and geography teacher. He fled Iran after being tortured and persecuted by Iran’s regime. Frank said,
“Maggie is a retired teacher so she taught me how to act with children in a classroom in the UK. She gave me courage and encouraged me to be brave in the classroom. Maggie looks like my tutor from when I was training to be a teacher in Iran, which is a nice memory. Maggie made a giant photocopy of a newspaper article about me to bring in the classroom, which made me feel great.”
“When I visit schools it brings back happy memories of my school pupils in Iran. I want to tell my story to young people because I want to show them we are the same as each other, we are all people. I want to contribute to England, it is my country now because I live here.”
Mariam Barry, fled Guinea Konakry in West Africa because her father, who has beaten all his children since they were young, had arranged an enforced marriage for her to a 75 year old man with 3 wives, one of whom recently died of HIV,
“I like working with Maggie and getting more experience from her. Maggie has lots of experience and she introduces the issues to the children very well. Volunteering changed my life a lot. In the 11 months I have been working with Maggie , Lesley and the others at the Refugee Council, I have become a lot more confident and am better at dealing with problems. My English is much better, I have even spoken in a public meeting at the Houses of Parliament!”
Hannah Hawthorne , a social work student at Sheffield University, volunteers with The Refugee Council’s Resettlement team in Sheffield, and helped set up “SHARE”, a homework club for Burmese refugees who came to Sheffield through a UN sponsored program. The volunteers help the children with their homework and help them improve their English, as well as organising art and sport activities.
Hannah said, “I have learnt an enormous amount from working with the Burmese people who have come to Sheffield. The children’s enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring and brightens up my week. They work extremely hard. If I could follow their example I’ll definitely pass my exams!
“Working on SHARE has also made me rethink what I want to do with my life and my work. In particular I realised how much help young people who come here fleeing persecution need to help them achieve their potential.”
Ed Carlisle, 28, a community project worker, volunteered on ‘Out and About’, a project welcoming new people to Leeds. Through the project he met Olivier (Oli) Nkunzimana, 22 who had come to the UK from the Democratic Republic of Congo in early 2006, and was soon moved to Leeds. The two have since become very close friends, working and volunteering together on various community projects, regularly talking politics late into the night!
Ed said, ‘Oli’s an amazing, inspiring and generous guy: I’m so grateful we met! It’s been such a privilege journeying with Oli over the past year, as he’s developed a new life here in Leeds. I’ve been able to support him in various ways, like helping him get plugged into some great community projects (which he’s totally given himself to), meet lots of people (who all love him), and simply encouraging him as he finds his feet here in the UK.
‘And I’ve ‘received’ so much back from him: he’s a funny, charming and fascinating guy with a lot of integrity and vision, someone who enriches life for all those around him.’
Oli’s said,‘I hadn’t been in UK for long when I met Ed, so hadn’t had opportunities to develop meaningful contact or friendship with people here. I had (and still have) a double perception of British people: some as very conservative, closed, unfriendly, but others as open, friendly, and good humoured… Ed is definitely the second of these!
‘We had so much in common, we just talked and talked from the beginning – and we’re still talking! Politics, culture, society, faith, personal things, everything. And Ed helped me get involved in lots of really good social projects, to learn a lot about British culture, and meet so many people.
‘We’ve now develop a really solid friendship, learning so much from each other. My friend Ed is one of the most passionate, intelligent and caring people I’ve ever met, someone with a deep and strong sense of what it means to be a citizen of the world.’
Notes to editor:
- The data for Yorkshire and Humberside was gathered by Richard Byrne, Regional Media Officer, Refugee Council from organisations in Yorkshire and Humberside. The national survey of organisations was undertaken by Active Learning Research Associates.
- Refugee Week is a UK-wide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK, and encourages a better understanding between communities.
- Every year during Refugee Week hundreds of events are organised across the UK. In 2006, there were over 450 small and large events, ranging from big music festivals and art exhibitions to political debates, film screenings, conferences, school activities, sports and community events. Further information can be found at www.refugeeweek.org.uk