Isolated but not alone: how technology is helping young refugees combat loneliness
As our refugee support programmes moved online, our teams found an unexpected bonding opportunity for the programme’s female members
Separated from friends, family and partners, 2020 was a lonely year for many of us. And for some, this period of social distancing has only added to the worry and sense of isolation they were already experiencing.
Across the UK, young refugees – many of them unaccompanied minors – attend British Red Cross centres to receive individual support, meals and group activities.
"The young people who attend our sessions are usually aged 15 to 21,” explained Kalyani, the national project manager for the young refugee programme Surviving to Thriving. “And nearly all of the young people we support are unaccompanied asylum seekers and refugees in various stages of the asylum process without any family in the UK.”
A need to adapt through lockdown
Activities in the centres include practical courses on accessing healthcare, asylum support and budgeting, as well as art, music and dance classes. They unfortunately came to an abrupt halt last year when the first national lockdown was announced.
Ambra coordinates two local groups in London and Peterborough. “We have snacks together, play games, have a main activity and then we finish with a cooked meal,” she said. “That is a very important part for the young people because it’s not often that they have the opportunity to have a communal gathering.”
MENTAL HEALTH IS IMPACTED BY THE FACT THEY'RE NOT ABLE TO SEE OTHER YOUNG PEOPLE.Ambra, project coordinator
As lockdown began and schools and colleges closed, Ambra said there were two issues that worried her: interruption to education and impact on mental health from the forced isolation.
"Their mental health is impacted by the fact that they’re not able to see other young people, the few friends that they know, and not being able to go to college or school,” she said . “[This will] not only have an impact on their mental health but also on their education, so there will be a massive learning curve on the way they experience education.”
If there has been an upside to the way our lives have changed this year, it’s been the presence of technology. Refugee support teams worked quickly to move their projects online. Unfortunately, this unearthed another problem: many young people didn’t have the technology or connectivity needed to join.
“Since the lockdown we stopped the face-to-face project activities and started adapting our individual casework support and regular group sessions to online delivery. It took about two weeks to start running them on Zoom,” said Ambra. “But we soon realised that many young people had connectivity issues, for example lack of WiFi, data or even a smartphone, let alone a laptop. All the things that keep you connected to reality and help you spend your time whilst at home, things most people would take for granted.”
Pulling off a mammoth task
Red Cross staff worked with Samsung and Vodafone to get 60 smartphones and phone plans donated to young people who needed them. The Red Cross is now delivering online sessions in every area where there’s existing support for young people.
“It's been a bit of a mammoth task,” Kalyani said. “But we've managed to get nearly £5,000 worth of donations from two separate crowdfunding pages, and then also some corporate donations as well as phones and data packages.”
The online groups got off to a slow start, as people took time to adapt to seeing faces on a screen, but are already having a positive impact. “It’s a bit strange to see other people’s faces on a small screen and trying to speak when your English maybe is not great, so it took a while,” said Ambra. “We just try to recreate what we used to do together, and also make sure that they know we’re here for them to speak to if they need to. To create the same kind of safe space, with their friends, with us, and with the volunteers.”
A chance for women to take the lead
Another unexpected but positive side effect of the lockdown was the chance to set up women-only online groups. The majority of young refugees who attend programmes all over the country are male, so there were never enough women to form a standalone group. But amid lockdown, young women across the country came together to start a regular group, which they have decided to call 'Women of the World'.
“The young women we consulted suggested having sessions on things like health issues that they don’t feel confident talking about in front of the boys, as well as career prospects that are specific to their needs and interests,” said Yasmin, engagement officer for Surviving to Thriving.
Maryam, from Afghanistan, was one of the founding members of the online sessions. Having moved to the UK with her family at the end of 2019, Maryam and her family were granted refugee status just before lockdown.
ALL THE GIRLS ARE COMFORTABLE, SO THEY CAN TALK WIDELY AND SHARE THEIR PROBLEMS.Maryam
“When I first joined [her local Red Cross group] there was only me, one girl,” explained Maryam. “But now with the online groups all girls are talking to each other. Some girls might feel like ‘OK, there is a guy, I can't talk properly.’ But all of the girls are comfortable, so they can talk widely and share their problems, their opinions,” Maryam said.
It has given her the chance to meet girls from all over the UK, many of whom speak the same languages and have shared similar experiences.
“In the last session we talked about sports culture and shared apps and details like how to do it [exercise], when to do it,” she said. “I want to give a session on make-up and beauty to all of the girls.”
Keeping connected, informed and empowered
Maryam feels fortunate to have her family with her but is aware that others aren’t so lucky.
“I don't get bored that much because I'm busy with my stuff” said Maryam, who is studying for her GCSEs. “But I know there are some girls who might not be with their family, but when they join the group, all of us are there to help.”
“The group is important for me because some of the girls are new to the country. So, I know when you come to a new country, what are your problems? What are those issues we face when we go to a new country? I faced those problems as well. But I know how to deal with it - and I can also give suggestions to those young ladies."
It is hoped that sessions in person will be able to continue as soon as we progress out of lockdown. But until then, technology continues to prove itself as a tool for education, empowerment and connection.
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