A new British Red Cross refugee orientation project in Portsmouth is helping vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers to adapt to a new life in the UK.
Early morning during one of the regular drop-in sessions, and the Red Cross refugee centre in Portsmouth is already a bustling hive of activity. At tables set apart across a large room, Red Cross staff and volunteers are dealing with the pressing concerns of more than 40 refugees and asylum seekers – of all ages – from across the world.
Some are destitute and need food and clothing. Some need medical advice. Others have been granted refugee status but can’t understand the many forms they now need to fill out. Every one of them seems grateful to see a friendly face and get some helpful advice.
The Portsmouth orientation project, which was awarded £292,000 by the Big Lottery Fund, helps new arrivals access essential services and puts them in touch with social groups. It’s estimated that more than 850 refugees and asylum seekers will be helped over the three-year duration of the project.
Yangchhen Yeshi, who manages the project, said: “Refugees face really harsh challenges when they arrive in a new community, and we help them gain confidence and independence. Also, many of those we have helped previously are already volunteering to help other asylum seekers – our aim is to get 50 per cent of beneficiaries becoming volunteers afterwards.”
Reunited at last
Rahim, from Iran, has been disabled for the past 30 years following a car accident. Fearing persecution from the Iranian government, he arrived in the UK six years ago. Four years later, thanks to help from the Red Cross, he was granted refugee status and reunited with his wife and daughter.
“For four years I hadn’t seen my family,” he remembered. “I bought two bunches of flowers and felt so dizzy with surprise when I saw them. I was crying for a few minutes. Now I volunteer at the drop-in mornings and the clothing project every week, handing out clothes to asylum seekers.
“The Red Cross say that, as a volunteer, I am ‘as good as the staff’. It makes me laugh!”
Tahar, from Algeria, lives in Portsmouth with his wife and four children. He was granted refugee status early in 2008. Tahar’s wife has been very ill so he has to raise the children, meaning he is not available for work. The family of six receive £90 per week to live on. He says: “With just this money, I have to buy food for us all and clothes for the kids.
Today, Tahar has arrived at the centre visibly upset because he has just received a letter stating that his benefits will be stopped. Colleen, a Red Cross volunteer, takes on his case. One hour – and a few lengthy phone calls – later, the problem is resolved.
“It was all a misunderstanding,” Tahar says, smiling. “The Red Cross has made the problem go away – Colleen is my number one volunteer. Now I am very happy. It was a good decision to come here today.”
“So much help”
Lensa was forced to flee Ethiopia with her three children in 2004, and had to leave her husband behind. She arrived scared and distraught, and unable to speak or write English. Volunteers helped her fill in the necessary asylum forms and provided weekly vouchers so she could buy food.
Lensa said: “The Red Cross helped me so much. They helped me to understand – and then pay – my gas and water bills and my council tax. And when we had problems with the council, they wrote to explain the situation on my behalf and got help for us.”
After four years, Lensa and her children have been granted leave to stay in the UK and she has enrolled on a travel and tourism course.
Making a difference
In just a single morning, so many vulnerable people have been helped immeasurably. The huge impact that the project has had on the lives of refugees in the area is perhaps best summed up by Florence, a middle-aged woman from Zimbabwe.
She said: “Every time I come here, they encourage me and cheer me up. No matter what happens, they are always smiling and help me.”
Learn more about refugee support
More about refugee support volunteering