It’s just a month ago that I was at the launch of the TimeBank Impact Report at the Palace of Westminster. At that meeting I was asked to talk about why I volunteer to mentor refugees and asylum seekers and it’s a really tricky question to answer.
But it is a question that has been asked of me by many people- friends, former work colleagues, neighbours and occasionally strangers. Often the question is a well-meaning enquiry, sometimes of genuine interest and just occasionally it is asked in such a way that feels like a not very friendly challenge.
To answer it I have to go back to 1959 when we arrived as a family in UK, with five of us in bed and breakfast accommodation in Blackpool, sharing a bathroom with many other families, with only a basic grasp of English and little understanding of the culture and ways of life in the North West of England.
Speaking German, or heavily accented English, was often met with indifference, for which we were very grateful. Sometimes we were met with hostility, and on occasion, aggression - a lot harder to accept passively but which we did. Life was complicated and we made many errors of judgement because of our lack of knowledge. Queuing at the tram stop was an eye opener and we quickly learned the etiquette of lining up but not without drawing hostile looks and comments during the process.
However, the things that stick in my mind are those individuals who, without patronising or judging us, offered advice, let it be known that “it is done like this in Blackpool”, who offered a smile, a warm welcome, a silent acknowledgement that we were different and didn’t know any better and took it as their responsibility to show us how to do things (properly!).
These individuals were rays of sunlight in a wintery Blackpool, and helped us to understand our new home, enabled us to start to build an understanding of what to do, how to behave and what to say. It was the foundation of that “cultural capital” that formed the basis of our future growth and development and informed our career paths and where we chose to work.
My sister and I both went on to be successful at school (she more than I), becoming school teachers and head teachers. I even worked at the DfE in 2001, on the child poverty agenda, and I often reflected on the journey from those early days in bed and breakfast accommodation to Whitehall. I can only be grateful to those people of Blackpool who were, unknowingly, setting me on that amazing trajectory. Thanks to them, I have built a cultural capital that far exceeds my and my family’s needs, and it is time for it to be shared.
Now that I have retired, I want to pass on those kindnesses of 1959 to the next generation of newly arrived individuals and families. To smile and encourage, to point out that there are many ways of fitting into our communities and sometimes it easier to know how to go about that.
So I joined TimeBank’s Time Together project, which recruits and trains volunteers to mentor refugees and asylum seekers.
The volunteering is an opportunity to make use of the networks and connections that have been built up over the years and sometimes it is just about having 45 minutes to sit, have a cup of coffee, chat and listen, to share a joke, or a story, to remember about the days before arrival in the UK, and set goals for the future. It gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment and every week I look forward to meeting up.
I have learned new skills and developed new insights into the lives of asylum seekers and refugees. It has made me more active and it engages me with a wider group of people.
Feedback from the guy I have been mentoring tells me that it has made a difference to him - he talks about being better informed, of being more confident, and more able to address the issues of isolation that many asylum seekers and refugees experience. Now that he has gained the right to remain, he is also considering mentoring an asylum seeker and I am waiting for my next assignment. Perhaps, on a good day, I am helping to make the UK a better place for small groups of individuals. Not a bad return for my investment of one hour a week.
If you'd like to know more about our Time Together mentoring project, do take a look here.