Asylum seekers and refugees arrive in England fleeing war or persecution in their home countries with a dream of rebuilding their lives. The reality they are met with can be far from what is expected.
Without support and guidance, those seeking refuge in the country can become isolated, depressed and unaware of the opportunities available to them.
Sheffield, however, is a city recognised for providing a warm welcome to those in need of safety.
In 2007, it became the UK’s first City of Sanctuary for asylum-seekers and refugees – and has since developed a rich and diverse refugee and asylum community.
Through a variety of services and organisations, those fleeing desperate situations in their native countries are supported in building a new life in the city, while making positive contributions to their community.
One of the organisations assisting asylum-seekers and refugees in achieving their goals is Voluntary Action Sheffield. Based at The Circle on Rockingham Lane, Sheffield, VAS supports those arriving in the city in finding volunteering opportunities that benefit the wider community.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of its New Beginnings Project, through which 900 asylum-seekers and refugees have been placed into volunteering roles with 170 different organisations.
But Paul Harvey, VAS volunteer centre manager, says organisations in the city have not always been willing to get involved.
He says: “The New Beginnings Project was set up after we invited some 500 organisations to attend a meeting on welcoming asylum-seekers and refugees and only two responded. It was clear more needed to be done to break down the barriers of organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers.
“Today it’s a different story with the majority of organisations welcoming asylum seeker volunteers, because they know we can address any concerns they have.
“Asylum seekers are not allowed to work in this country.
“Refugees can work, but often come up against problems such as language limitations, a lack of confidence or find their skills aren’t recognised here.
“Without work, people can feel trapped and worthless, but volunteering enables them to get out of the house and gain a sense of purpose.”
According to Paul, those attending The Circle are self-motivators whose skill sets and abilities vary.
He says: “We place people in volunteering roles from professional to entry level. Some who come to us are specialist doctors, others successful business people, then there are those with basic English – there is an opportunity for all from working with professional bodies to local charities and community groups.
“We know getting the right match is critical and it has to benefit the organisation and the refugee – and so we support both throughout the process.
“As well as gaining an extra pair of hands and unique skills, the organisation reaches a wider diverse community while showing commitment to equality.
“Meanwhile the volunteers build relationships, confidence and skills.
“New Beginnings is not about encouraging asylum seekers and refugees to come to England, but helping those here to contribute to the community in a positive way, initially through volunteering and hopefully into employment’
“With 170 organisations involving refugees, Sheffield can be proud of what’s been achieved over the last decade.”
When the latest war broke out in Iraq, the circumstances were such that Oday felt compelled to leave his home country.
He fled to Jordan in 2006, where he gained an international certificate in IT.
However, he was considered a second-degree citizen, and so in 2009 he came to Sheffield as a refugee.
Having run his own IT business in Iraq and studied mechanical engineering at Baghdad University, Oday had big dreams of securing a well-paid job, but was shocked to find his experience was not recognised in the UK and he would have to start a career from scratch.
Keen to avoid holes in his CV, Oday visited VAS, where his skill set was matched to an opportunity with the Heeley Development Trust to help deliver digital inclusion courses.
Having volunteered for two years, Oday was offered a part-time job with the trust, which later progressed to a full tim e contract.
Oday, aged 39, says: “Working as a volunteer was very helpful for me, as I had a chance to develop my skills, experience different working environments and build contacts.
“I felt real satisfaction contributing to something worthwhile and adding to my CV.”
New beginnings project
Heeley Development Trust is one of the Sheffield organisations pleased to offer volunteering opportunities to asylum-seekers and refugees through VAS.
So far, the trust has welcomed 20 volunteers through the New Beginnings Project to help deliver its digital inclusion courses, which teach people with limited IT skills how to access and use the internet.
The courses are held in community spaces on estates throughout Sheffield.
Maxine Bowler, an online project coordinator with Heeley Development Trust, said: “The asylum seekers and refugee volunteers we take on have a fantastic array of skills that are invaluable to us – we couldn’t deliver the courses without them.
“Despite what people think, they aren’t here for our jobs or our health care, they just want a better life.
“Volunteering means they don’t just feel like another number, but integrate into society while passing on valuable skills to local people.”