'Our work is about refusing to ignore people in crisis' - British Red Cross worker talks about how he helps asylum seekers and refugees integrate into Preston
Helping refugees and asylum seekers integrate well into the community in Preston is crucial.
Wonder Phiri, the city’s refugee services co-ordinator at the British Red Cross, knows this only too well.
Smoothing the way for their transition into life here can mean starting a football club to taking a refugee family to their local GP clinic or simply providing a hot meal.
“Our work is about refusing to ignore people in crisis,” said Wonder, who was an asylum seeker himself from Zimbabwe. “We welcome them.”
The first thing Wonder does when a family of asylum seekers arrive into Preston is to meet and talk to them to figure out what they need and where the charity can support them.
“We take their information so that we can do a needs assessment,” he said. “That involves finding out if they need regular English language lessons, taking them to a GP, they may also need to be screened for TB and if they have children they will need schooling.
“We then refer them to Preston’s College for English lessons and for computer lessons. They also find companionship in going to these classes.
“Some people have even joined a cycling club.”
Wonder says that it’s great news when an asylum seeker or refugee joins a community club like a cycling group because like any person, they can start to get depressed staring at the four walls of a house all day long, everyday.
“We try to keep people occupied because we are worried about their mental health,” he said.
“We’ve got a very very competitive football team. During Refugee Week we set up a tournament which we called Refugee World Cup Tournament in Manchester.
“Teams from Liverpool and other nearby cities came to play.
“Our team did well, it was the first time they participated. We were knocked out in the semi-finals.
“We are lucky to have people from PNE supporting us. We get our kit and coaching from them and we even have an FA accredited coach.”
As well as mental health, Wonder says that for asylum seekers having good health is vital – not just for themselves but for the communities they live in.
He said: “It can bring community disharmony so they screen them for TB. That’s why its crucial to have a needs assessment.”
Getting through each day as an asylum seeker or refugee can be a struggle. From not being able to afford a hot meal to their children getting bullied in school, the transition can prove a rough ride.
Wonder says that the Red Cross provides a hot dinner every day for people who want it. He said: “We do these things because an asylum seeker gets about £37 a week and that money is not enough to have a hot meal so for some they know that we provide the hot meals. It can be the only decent meal they have a week.”
Wonder’s role also involves a lot of visiting groups of people at schools or other institutions to give them an insight into what life has been like for those fleeing war-torn countries.
“We had some issues in some of the schools where children were being bullied,” he said.
“Children don’t understand so we go in to explain to them what it means to be an asylum seeker.
“Then they’ve got a better understanding.”
Wonder says that as a result of one particular situation where refugee children were outcast by their peers, after his talk the youngsters brought in gifts to the families of asylum seekers.
He says he tells people: “It could be you, put yourself in that situation – you wake up in the morning and your house is gone, there was a bomb. It could be you.”
Conference coming up
Plans for a conference for those involved with refugees and asylum seekers in Lancashire is coming up this winter.
The day is open to all but is specifically aimed at front line staff in public sector bodies.
“It’s a follow up conference that we did last year in July,” said Wonder. “This year we are trying to bring in people who are from organisations or involved in working with asylum seekers, so people from the housing department, health, employability and schools.
“I’m asking to have a doctor or two, people from A&E and other front line staff to talk about experiences. It will help inform practices and better help outcomes for services users.
“Because of where the refugees come from the health services are either totally different or non-existent. If you are coming from a country which is a war zone, where there’s been a civil war for the past 20 years the health system’s broken down.”
Organisers are particularly keen to see receptionists and front desk staff in surgeries, hospitals, housing advice centres, schools and colleges to book a place at the conference.
It will include workshops on health, housing, education and employment.
A spokesman said: “The morning session will consist of an interactive simulation where participants will experience the life of an asylum seeker who has just arrived in the UK as they navigate their way through a confusing labyrinth of official agencies, representing what was officially described until recently as a ‘hostile environment’.
“After a lunch break with space for networking and to peruse the resource market place, there will be a series of themed workshops on housing, education and health sectors with a facilitator and panel of experts including Sanctuary Seekers who are experts by experience.
“Through questions and discussions each workshop will be asked to come up with some realistic recommendations that would improve services in each sector.”
A free buffet lunch, tea and coffee is included in the £30 conference fee.
Any profits from the conference will be assigned to Together Lancashire’s Sanctuary Fund which is used to support the housing and emergency needs of destitute asylum seekers.
The conference takes place on November 2. To book a place search ‘Sanctuary Lancashire 2018 - Asylum and Refugee Conference’ on www.eventbrite.co.uk
Project to help those who become destitute
A project soon to get underway in Preston is a hosting service for asylum seekers who become destitute in the area.
Wonder says that the Red Cross is looking to set up a network of housing hosts for people who are not granted refugee status.
He is concerned about the numbers of people who enter the UK as asylum seekers who then become destitute, going underground.
“There are over 200 asylum seekers in Preston but when an asylum seeker is granted refugee status he moves on and that person is replaced with another asylum seeker by the Home Office,” said Wonder.
“So that means the number of refugees gradually increases. All together there are 500 service users.
“As well as asylum seekers other groups include refugees and undocumented migrants which are not known to the authorities.
“Asylum seekers are becoming established in Preston, as are refugees, so they all need housing, jobs and education.
“We can also see the number of asylum seekers who turn destitute will rise as we grow older and we will have people coming from the undocumented path as well.”
When asylum seekers become destitute they are not escorted to the airport to go back to the countries they came from, they stay in the UK but without leave to work or the ability of registering their children in schools. It means they then become vulnerable.
Wonder warns: “They have got nowhere to go so they go underground but they keep coming back to us for emergency provisions so clothes in the winter, travel assistance and food parcels.
“While they are on the street they become vulnerable to exploitation.
“You have got your car wash, your nail bars, you don’t know who is who.
“There’s so much modern day slavery happening under our noses everyday.
“We are working in partnership with different groups to try and set up a service which would provide housing for those who are destitute - similar to the Boaz Trust in Manchester. We are hoping to emulate that hosting service.”