Asylum Welcome provides an essential lifeline
Menakshi, Volunteer Advisor
I support the work of Asylum Welcome and choose to work with refugees and asylum seekers, as this group is an extremely vulnerable section of the UK population. My personal PhD research topic is ‘Investigating the Aspirations, Experiences and Well-being of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children'. Through my research I have discovered there are a number of gaps in the services required for this group. Language and communication are more than often a fundamental criteria in how they adapt to the life in the UK. Lack of knowledge of services is another. Asylum Welcome provides an essential lifeline for this vulnerable group, by offering advice and support. My own experience as working as an advisor at Asylum Welcome has shown me how much this group value our service where they can come to for advice on essential issues such as healthcare, education and accommodation; fundamental aspects of life, which other members of the population may take for granted. Many of the refugees and asylum seekers have difficulty with understanding the English language both written and spoken; Asylum Welcome provides services, which assist them in this way enhancing any support they require. I also value Asylum Welcome for the range of help they provide in terms of detention support giving hope and assistance to this vulnerable group. Asylum Welcome continues ongoing work for this population by campaigning, advocacy and promoting public awareness. Asylum Welcome is a charitable organisation, whose work for this vulnerable group is highly commendable.
Each of us can choose to do something positive
Amy, Advocacy Programme Volunteer
I work with refugees and people seeking sanctuary because I am very often horrified by the way that the system treats people who have been forced to leave their homes and their families in order to be safe and to try to live the life that each of us as human beings deserve. I cannot begin to imagine some of the things that people have gone through in their countries that have forced them to leave, but each of us here in the UK can choose to do something positive in our lives that can show people we care. I believe that where there is injustice we must fight it and that is why I do what I do.
Many years ago when, while still living in Canada, I was asked by friends to let some asylum seekers from Argentina stay at my house for a few days. Sitting around the table over a meal I heard their story... how they had returned from work and classes to find their apartment ransacked and books thrown around. Their neighbours warned them that ‘the officials' would return and, in terror of becoming one of the 30,000 ‘disappeared' (http://www.desaparecidos.org) they each packed a small bag and escaped, although they had nowhere to go.
In the UK, my anger over the misrepresentation of asylum seekers by many tabloid newspapers and my memory of my housemates of a few days, encouraged me to seek out Asylum Welcome and offer whatever business skills and experience that might be helpful. From the start, I've found Asylum Welcome to be a unique, warm and welcoming community of people (volunteers, staff, members, clients and trustees) of all ages, nationalities, backgrounds and needs who work together to make a difference and bring light and hope to the community. The foreword in Chris Cleave's book The Other Hand quotes from the UK Home Office's 2005 Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship‘ Britain is proud of its tradition of providing a safe haven for people fleeing persecution and conflict'. It's our dream.
Learning new skills
Juliet, Detention Support Programme Volunteer
At first I found the work very challenging, and at moments frustrating, but in a short space of time I have learnt a lot of new skills and new information, and am now happily surprised at how much work I am able to get done in a morning. The work generally involves supporting people in detention at Campsfield, e.g. by updating records, calling clients and arranging visits. Unfortunately, I and other Detention Support Volunteers sometimes feel frustrated by the limits of what we can offer and do, but without a doubt, some support is better than nothing. I've been involved with Asylum Welcome for about three years on and off, and I'm happy to know about it and be part of it.
Open eyes and hearts
Jan, Advocacy Programme Volunteer
Asylum Welcome brings together people from within the Oxford community with the common goal of making a real difference in the lives of refugees. I believe asylum seekers are one of the most misunderstood groups of people and I feel driven to help raise awareness and to help fight prejudice. My experience with Asylum Welcome has opened my eyes and heart.
All this and more
It has been an enormous privilege and honour to work for Asylum Welcome. I am constantly amazed by the amount that we achieve as an organisation and by the breadth of the work we do. On any given day we could be helping young clients get into education or taking them to the cinema, we might be helping an immigration detainee find a solicitor or helping his family to visit him. We might be helping a mother find a nursery place for her children so that she can go to college or work. We could be handing out food or helping someone look for information on the internet. Chances are we are doing all this and more.
Our clients are some of the most marginalised members of society. They face challenges in their day-to-day lives that we cannot comprehend. And yet they have a vitality and humility that is wondrous to behold.
Sense of achievement
Jan, ex-Fundraiser and current supporter
Asylum Welcome somehow manages to get you to do all sorts of things you never pictured yourself doing... Fundraising from trusts and foundations is very much a backroom job, it is not very glamorous, and it can be hard, frustrating work. You go through weeks and weeks getting one refusal letter after another. But then, when you open the letter that starts "I am pleased to inform you...", it makes it all worthwhile.
Of course, the big cheques are tremendously exciting - I won't forget the day we heard the Lottery had given us a three-year grant of £250,000. But almost better than that are those grants, some just a couple of thousand pounds at a time, from trusts who support Asylum Welcome year after year because they respect and believe in our work. Their handwritten notes at the bottom of the letter, "Keep up the good work" or "It sounds as though the Youth Programme has done really good work this year", are almost better than the cheque itself, particularly in the days when it feels like the whole world thinks asylum-seekers are terrorists or benefit-scroungers. Trusts and foundations are Asylum Welcome's main source of income, so I was able to feel that my work underpinned everything the organisation did. There haven't been many jobs in my life that have given me more of sense of achievement than that.
Privileged to be involved
Jean Kaye, Education Adviser Volunteer
On the day that the Asylum Welcome office opened, I arrived as the first volunteer. The office was equipped with some files, a telephone and a donated computer (which I had no idea how to use!). After some time in Reception I volunteered to be one of a two-person Education Advice team. With no office, we interviewed clients in the foyer of St Columba's Church.
The move to our present office gave us a space of our own and, in time, our own computer, which I can now use... at least to some extent. My Education Advice colleague's illness left me 'holding the baby' and on an almost vertical learning curve. We are now a team of five and I could retire leaving the work to my very competent colleagues but I love meeting different people, seeing their achievements, rejoicing with them when they are given leave to remain, offering advice and support when they are downhearted. Of course, there is sadness too when people we have come to regard as friends are deported or just disappear. However I meet and work with so many wonderful people that I feel privileged to be part of Asylum Welcome.
Many brave people
I have come to know many brave people, some of whom have at last won leave to remain in this country, but many more of whom have not - mostly unjustly, and often arbitrarily and unaccountably. Of those who have been able to stay, I think of a Syrian doctor, now a specialist in the NHS; an Albanian journalist, the founder of the first Albanian-language newspaper in the UK; and Quinta, a young mother, who waited seven years to find out if she and her small daughters would be sent back to Cameroon, to face the threat of forced marriage and female circumcision from which she had managed to flee.
The ones I think of every day are the others. Quinta's husband, who broke down mentally and physically under the strain and disappeared; Behar, a gifted young artist, who was sent back to Albania, where his artistic career almost certainly ended; Pierre, Jean, Marc and Andre, all sent back to Cameroon - even though Marc is HIV positive, and even though Pierre helped them all, and is so able and energetic that we lost someone who could have founded a dozen newspapers, or contributed to our country in a hundred other ways.
Richard, Chair of Trustees
I think it was Gandhi who said that a civilisation is to be judged by the way in which it treats its weakest members. We all enjoy travel, especially the thrill of arriving somewhere we have never been before. But how terrifying it would be to have to leave your home to save your life, and arrive in a place where everything is completely foreign, without being able ever to return.
The least we would expect would be to be given a fair hearing - the opportunity to explain why you have had to come and to be told how you might start to pick up the pieces of your shattered life. A fair hearing - that is what Asylum Welcome strives to provide and I count it a privilege to be involved in a small capacity.
Extraordinary group of people
Mercedes, ex-Director and trustee
I still remember the first day I turned up at Asylum Welcome. It was just beside the Church Hall, the walls were bright yellow, there were lots of posters up on the wall, a ramshackle set of furnishings, nothing matched! Some clients were drinking coffee in the kitchen and a reception volunteer was saying goodbye to a client with a warm hug. I knew then that I had come home.
Years later wherever I go, I still talk about the extraordinary group of people who with such generosity, commitment and love have kept Asylum Welcome going all these years. I always knew myself to be privileged to be in such good company.
Mutual kindness and courage
I was running weekly Art and Craft sessions at Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre when I met Shelagh Ranger, who was running from her home, a large, informal, multilingual support group of visitors to detainees. She was planning to open a centre in Oxford for detainees who had been released and needed guidance, accommodation, support - and, above all, friendship. There were almost no services or support available specifically for asylum seekers in Oxfordshire.
St Columba's Church offered a small cloakroom for an office - there was one desk, one phone/fax, one secondhand computer and a handful of volunteers working in pairs. Within a year, client numbers - who included new arrivals - grew from six a week to sometimes 60 a day. In 1996, I started the most rewarding job of my life - running this small office. The encouragement and help in kind from supporters, the constant stream of small donations and long hours worked by committed volunteers enabled the project to succeed and grow. We outgrew the cloakroom and moved to the current office. I have kept in touch with many ex-clients who settled in Oxford and rebuilt their lives. I feel immensely fortunate that for over 20 years my life has been touched by the resourcefulness, mutual kindness and courage of people from all over the world.
Find out about Asylum Welcome's history.
Campaigning for change
I became involved with Asylum Welcome six years ago when working on a writing and photography project with young refugees and asylum-seekers in Oxford. It opened my eyes to the difficult situation that refugees face when they come to the UK; how many of them feel that what they go through at the hands of the Home Office is comparable to the torture and suffering they have fled from. It seemed to me that this was something that should not be tolerated in a democratic country. As a writer and journalist, I wanted to campaign for changes to their situation and also to publicise the stories of those who have suffered so much and have so much to contribute to society here. Following on from the work with young refugees, I wrote a book published by the Oxford Literary Festival called How the World Came to Oxford. Proceeds go to Asylum Welcome and Refugee Resource.