Anna refugee volunteerEvery year, we support thousands of refugees and asylum seekers all over the country. Anna Bromwich, a student, tells us why she volunteers with this particular group – and how there is more to her role than meets the eye…

I volunteer for quite a few reasons. I volunteer to complement my studies. I volunteer so I don’t sit in front of a computer all day!

But I also volunteer because I want to help refugees and asylum seekers.

Thrown together in Paris

When I lived in France, I went to some free language classes. There was this real mix of people there, from very different backgrounds. The group included political refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, as well as people like me from western Europe: all thrown together in Paris.

It was this incredible thing. We were learning French but also bridging these cultural gaps and understanding a bit more about each other. I really appreciated the sense of community. I realised it must be even more important for those who come from more difficult circumstances.

Good training and common sense

When I returned to London, I looked for charities that supported refugees and asylum seekers in my area. The British Red Cross was one of the few that did.

I sent in my application, had an interview – everything was done very quickly and efficiently. I had to do a few days of training before I could start volunteering – but a lot of it felt like professional training and good common sense. Stuff that everyone should know!

A month later, I was ready to volunteer at the refugee centre in Hackney, London.

A chance to chat

Downstairs is a day centre, with washing machines, computers and phones for the clients to use. We also offer them food parcels and lunches.

They come here because they are destitute and trying to find their feet. They can’t work and have very little money. Some are stuck in limbo, while waiting for their legal status to be resolved. The centre and its community becomes the core thing in their life.

On a typical day, there might be 30 or 40 people coming in to pick up some food to take home. It’s a numbered system and there is a lot of waiting around. Nobody queues though – it’s a chance to sit and chat.

More than a hot meal

I’m there to prepare food parcels and help serve the hot lunch. It sounds mundane – but it’s not.

It’s not even the real point of me being there. If it were just manual work, it wouldn’t be what I was looking for. I’m there to build up relationships and trust with the clients.

Building relationships slowly

There have been some incredibly powerful moments, but nobody has ever sat me down and told me their background story in a big ‘X Factor’ way. It doesn’t need to be that super-powerful, ‘somebody bursting into tears’ kind of moment. The relationship builds more slowly than that.

It’s actually really touching when you realise that someone just wants to talk to you about a Turkish author they like – or about one of their interests. They are reaching out to you. You become a kind of constant in their life. You’re a cog in their community.

But I reach out to the clients, too. I get something out of it. It’s a two-way process. I like being in this place full of different cultures and backgrounds, where everyone has to get on.

Art clubs and energy

When the clients wait for their food, you can sense all this energy in their minds and hands. They want to occupy themselves.

My background is in art and I would love to run an art club at the centre – just two hours, once a week, so I could have some dedicated time with the clients. I’d like to channel all that energy in a useful and playful way.