Phoebe Reilly – Derby, UK:
Hi, I’m Phoebe and I am a criminology student, based in Derby. As a student, I always have a lot of time during the summer, so this year I put myself forward for a one-month volunteer placement with a Christian charity, Upbeat who work with refugees and asylum seekers. Volunteering was something I had not considered before, though I always admired others who gave up an hour or two of their week to serve their community. I have always had a heart for justice and often felt comfortable being with people who lived in difficult circumstances. While I knew that I wanted to work in the criminal justice system, I had never before considered working with refugees or asylum seekers. Through this placement, I gained a better understanding of the hardship they go through to find safety and begin a new life.
From the first day, I was interacting with people from around the world. I quickly discovered how someone’s culture is often conveyed through conversation, regardless of their level of English. I have always been someone who loves to explore new cultures and places. Each day, I became more accustomed to multiple languages being spoken and different cultures being expressed, all in the same room! While it felt a little chaotic at times, I loved the constant buzz. I often found myself tuning in to different languages and asking about the meaning of certain phrases. I found this to be a good conversation starter, as people were always so ready to share their culture with me (that’s me below, on the right).
One of the biggest highlights was the one-to-one interaction I had with certain people. Normally, when talking to someone with little English, I would slow my speech and gesticulate quite a lot. However, during my first week of English classes, I met an Iranian guy who was blind and had little English. Talking to him was a completely different experience as I had to think of other ways of explaining something without pointing or gesturing. During one of the classes, we were talking about the position of items, so I gave him my coffee cup and, while he was holding it, moved his hand about into different positions so that he could feel where the cup was in relation to himself. This was, by far, the most I have ever thought about communication; and while it was a challenge, it was also a glimpse into the life of a refugee who would have experienced incredible tragedy in the past and was now faced with the enormous challenge of starting a new life without language or sight. And yet despite all of this, he was an incredibly patient, smiley guy, with a desire to learn and connect with others.
Before I started this placement, I had very little understanding of the procedures involved in gaining refugee status and the reality for those who don’t. During the welcome visits (where I would go to visit new refugees and help them sort out a GP, school for the children etc.) I met two women who had both left their children behind and were living in shared houses. Their rooms were incredibly small and on the first visit, I had to avoid mouse traps placed around the bedroom. This woman had been living in a mouse infested room, with paint peeling off the walls and dirty carpets for three weeks. I found this incredibly heartbreaking, that someone would flee their country and leave everything behind only to be offered refuge in such a place. Having gained better understanding about the reality for many refugees, I now have far greater respect for them and see the resilience and determination they maintain, in order to create a safer life for themselves.