Volunteering Experiences

Volunteering can take many forms, but whatever you do you are guaranteed to have an amazing experience.


My name's Rich, I'm a students' union development worker and I live in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, though I come from the old mining town of Redruth in Cornwall. I've always been fascinated by the stories and the plights of displaced people, asylum seekers and refugees, in part because of my own family's history - we're Cornish to the core, but two of my grandparents in a sense were refugees: my grandma's family from the revolutions in Mexico which triggered their return to the motherland, and my granddad's family from the social upheavel in South Africa at the onset of apartheid, when white and black mineworkers were crudely pitted against eachother and those who could left in disgust at what the country had become.

When I was a student of Chinese Studies at the University of Sheffield, I got involved with Student Action for Refugees, who'd always had exciting stalls around the Union and who seemed to be involved with lots of practical, hands-on volunteering. The group was actively involved in a Conversation Club run by the Northern Refugee Centre, which was held twice a week and always packed out with enthusiastic volunteers and an immensely friendly community from all over the world and of all legal statuses: asylum seekers, destitute asylum seekers, refugees with exceptional leave to remain, fully-fledged refugees, naturalised UK citizens… Your status in the eyes of the Home Office meant nothing at Conversation Club. Cynical as I am, I expected the volunteers mostly to be a bunch of middle-class do-gooders with nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon, and the beneficiaries to be cowed into unwilling gratitude by their hosts at best, and inconsolable with grief at their shocking plight at worst. As it happened, the volunteers were on the whole people like me: all ages, all backgrounds, all occupations, but all with a common concern about the excessively intemperate tone that the media and even the mainstream political parties were taking against asylum seekers and a sense of shock at the inhumanity of the policy towards those who 'failed'.

For that matter, we never talked about these issues: Conversation Club was intended to be one of the few places in Sheffield where members (and volunteers too) could forget about their residency status and enjoy themselves. In practice, that wasn't always easy to achieve: particularly for newly-arrived asylum seekers, you had to slow down when you were talking and speak with almost pedantic clarity, and even when you achieved communication in the end, you still had the sense that all you were doing was reinforcing that feeling of being an outsider on the part of the asylum seeker. Some parts of the reality of being an outsider to the UK, its language and its culture and customs just don't go away: I still remember how painfully the poor Iranian lad Reza used to cringe whenever I asked him a question, and how openly he almost used to weigh up whether to embrace the chance to make a friend and answer, or just shy away back into his comfort zone and stick to Farsi. On the other hand, you quickly learn to overcome that initial sense of demoralisation, and that if you don't make an effort you'll just be compounding someone's misery. And for that matter, I only ever a couple of times got to use my Chinese, but that's ok - I'm not a careerist linguist all of the time. That said, the couple of times that I did use seemed to go a long way towards presenting a different picture of the UK to the Chinese refugees who I spoke to in it: that it's not uncommon to take an interest in the outside world and in other cultures, that there isn't an automatic belief in the superiority of the UK and that not everybody here feels the need to guard jealously our quality of life from 'outsiders'.

Conversation Club was just right in many ways, both for beneficiaries and for volunteers: it was led by the asylum seekers who benefited from it; they were involved in decision-making at every stage of the way (even if charity law sometimes can make that awkward); and volunteers' ideas and enthusiasm were welcomed without being relied upon. As a volunteer, you truly felt like a member of a community.


Ben describes his experiences visiting Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs)….

My first visit was quite by accident- I was attending a vigil outside Harmondsworth IRC (near Heathrow) for Bereket Yohannas, the 17th person to commit suicide in detention. During the vigil there was a request for people with photo ID to go and visit some of the remaining detainees and chat with them. After a little discussion and a few butterflies I decided to give it a go.

Imagine going to visit someone in prison; you can't take food, cameras, even your own pen inside in case you are concealing something inside them. However claiming asylum is not a crime, despite their treatment. In this claustrophobic atmosphere I met Baba Bari, an ex-slave and torture victim from Niger with a wide smile (I found out later) and a fascinating story. Bari had travelled across the world to the UK with nothing, relying on his instinct and opportunity to get him there. The Home Office had kept him in Harmondsworth for over a year and tried to deport him twice to Niger; both times he had been sent back to the centre because, as an ex-slave, he had no Niger passport.

I went to see Bari a handful of times and the situation seemed static; he had slipped through the system and neither of us knew what to do. However, after seeking advice from the National Coalition of Anti Deportation Campaigns we, with a new solicitor, applied for bail. After a stressful bail hearing and a few complications the Judge said that they would try one more deportation and, if it didn't work, he would be released. We waited with baited breath on the deportation day, and then YES! He got sent back to the centre again. A week later I was skipping (quite ecstatic) down Holloway road with a man I had only known in the context of detention before. We could taste the freedom between our teeth and are good friends to this day.

Of course many stories do not have the this happy ending; many detainees in much greater need of help never get a visit from the outside, so a group of us at SOAS decided to try and spiral out the work we were doing. Last year we started a Detainee Support Group. The most elemental thing we do is visiting (mainly families) in Yarl's Wood, but in our effort to help detainees our activities have grown. Many detainees just want a smiling face and open ear to provide some respite from the grinding stress and monotony of life in detention. Others need specific help to find a lawyer, a doctor that can certify they are a victim of torture, translation or reading of documents, a phone card so they can call their families or surety for a bail application. Three of our members went to Uganda and met the families of detainees they have visited.


My name's Anita and I am a volunteer for Student Action for Refugees. I am a communications intern in the National office. I keep track of developments in news and policy, chat to student groups, carry out interviews and produce newsletters. I was involved in volunteering for Amnesty International at school and University as well as other international development and fair trade campaigns, but volunteering for STAR was my first encounter with volunteering with refugees.

This may seem odd, as I grew up with the stories of my mother's family, who fled across Poland during the Second World War. They lost everything, their home, their possessions, but most importantly their sense of identity and sense of where they belonged. Many of the older generation of my family spent the rest of their lives trying to cope with the realisation that their way of life had gone forever, trying to adapt to an alien country and language. Almost everyone has a story of migration if you look back at their family history.

What has struck me working for STAR is the passion and commitment of all those involved in volunteering with refugees, and the sheer stoicism and innate dignity of refugees and asylum seekers themselves. It is a constant uphill struggle, asylum seekers are a constant topic in the media but rarely in a positive way. Formulating the news roundups every week is often depressing; stories of detention, refuges being closed, headlines proclaiming asylum seekers are a drain on the state. Unlike some causes, working with refugees is not currently seen as 'fashionable' in the media, it is often difficult, complicated, hard to explain and lacks 'glamour'.

Refugees and asylum seekers are rarely seen as people, more often they are treated as a series of statistics and numbers. But every person has a story, talking to and interviewing refugees, it is breathtaking what some have been through. One woman had lost her husband and children in the rwandan genocide, yet spoke of the kindness and gratitude she had received from volunteers.

Everyone who volunteers and is involved in campaigning does so for different reasons, there is no one volunteering 'type'. Volunteers aren't do-gooders with time on their hands. They are a diverse group of people drawn togther by a sense that something must be done about the increasing hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers. Volunteering really does make you part of a community, united by small victories; a positive news story, a successful campaign action. everyone's contribution is valued.

The 1951 Refugee Convention was formulated due to the realisation that something had to be done to protect the refugees produced by war, it was realised that something had to be done to protect those vulnerable group of people who had lost everything. This appears to have been forgotten, it is refugees and asylum seekers are those who need protecting, they are those seeking sanctuary often from unspeakable horrors, rather than the UK needing to be protected from them.

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