How new BAME community engagement officer hopes to make Sheffield charity more culturally sensitive
“Being able to talk in multiple languages is a great skill to have,” said Azura McIlwraith.
“Differences in religion, race, culture and language can make seeking or receiving support challenging, or inaccessible.
"The language barrier in particular can cause a deeper sense of loneliness, especially when a person can only express themselves effectively in their mother tongue.
“In community and social work, speaking more than one language helps to bring inclusivity and provide an outlet for non-English speakers to interact and feel included.”
28-year-old Azura moved to Sheffield from Singapore last year, and admits she initially found the transition to a new country challenging.
She heard about the work being done by Sheffield Churches Council for Community Care and, eager to boost her social confidence, decided to volunteer.
The charity’s Inclusivity Community Care project particularly aims to provide targeted support to older people from diverse backgrounds, some of whom face cultural or language barriers which prevent them from accessing the support they need.
“Mostly, I wanted to make new friends, and I’ve gained new life experiences and knowledge from my service users,” Azura explained.
"Sharing our different cultures and experiences gives us a lot more to talk about, broadens our perspective and creates a stronger bond in our friendship.”
Azura works alongside Rehneesa Inez, who started her new role as BAME community engagement officer with SCCCC back in April.
Rehneesa said: “Of course it was strange starting a community engagement job, just as we were all going into lockdown.
“I decided I wanted to be ready to hit the ground running, so I threw myself into research, calls, and online meetings, and learning all I could whilst in lockdown at home in Nottingham.
“I also spoke with our current service users and volunteers by phone to find out directly how they felt about the existing service.”
Rehneesa’s new role, as part of the Inclusive Community Care project, is geared towards making the charity’s services more culturally sensitive.
“The charity currently runs a Good Neighbours Scheme in the city, to support older members of the community,” explains Rehneesa.
“Volunteers visit with older people who may be feeling lonely or isolated, and take the time to sit with them and have a conversation over a cup of tea.
“This service has been running for a long time, and is doing really well, but we’d noticed there was a gap in terms of reaching people from a variety of different cultural backgrounds.”
According to the 2011 UK census, 19 per cent of Sheffield residents classify themselves as BAME, with some neighbourhoods having up to 62 per cent of BAME residents.
However, take-up of support from the BAME community and engagement across the city is much lower than this, particularly in relation to the elderly BAME community who often face additional language and cultural barriers which prevent them from accessing much needed services.
This lower up-take up can also be seen at SCCCC, where currently only 4 per cent of volunteers and services users are from the BAME community, with specific communities such as Somali, Roma, Afro Caribbean and Chinese totally absent.
Rehneesa says: “It can be anticipated that there is a huge unmet need in these communities
“We realised that in order for us to engage with people in these communities, the service needed to become more culturally sensitive, adapting to suit different needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all method.”
One of the barriers Rehneesa is keen to address first is language, and she is seeking people across the city that speak one of a number of different languages, to come on board as volunteers.
“We don’t want people thinking it isn’t for them - this service is for anyone and everyone,” says Rehneesa, who has a Masters in cognitive neuroscience, and a background in psychology, as well as personal experience as a BAME community member.
“My family is British Pakistani, and I’m very in touch with my Pakistani background, which I think makes me relatable when I’m going out to communities and trying to build trust and rapport with people from all different ethnicities and backgrounds.”
Vijay Raghavendran travelled, studied and worked in several countries before moving to Sheffield in 2018, to further his career as a research scientist at the University of Sheffield.
Originally from South India, he heard about SCCCC’s Good Neighbour Scheme from a colleague’s girlfriend, signed up straight away, and has been visiting one of the charity’s service users, Joseph, ever since.
Vijay, aged 44, said: “I see Joseph, a Jamaican man in his late 80s, every week.
“I enjoy talking with him, sharing photos and videos from my trips, playing music on my iPad and watching the telly with him.
"SCCCC and its volunteers are doing a wonderful job by reaching out to older people who still have a lot to share to those in their younger years.”
Vijay, who is fluent in many languages including Tamil, Kannada and Hindi, is pleased the charity is adapting its services to make it more culturally sensitive.
“The term ‘BAME is merely an acronym for people from different countries and cultures.
"It is natural that each community deserves the support that best suits them.”
Rehneesa added: “We are especially looking to recruit volunteers and to support older people from BAME backgrounds and those who speak additional languages.
“I do feel confident that we can adapt this service, and ensure that it’s hitting all the notes it needs to, so that everybody’s needs are being met.”
Contact Rehneesa on [email protected] if you would like to talk, as a potential service user, or volunteer.