Join our sponsored night bus ride team to raise money for our hosting project for destitute refugees and asylum seekers
We are asking volunteers to ride Birmingham’s buses throughout the night from 10:30pm, in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers who face destitution and can end up street homeless. You will ride
a variety of buses across Birmingham and ask friends/family/supporters to sponsor you to do so. All funds will go towards our hosting project and will help more asylum seekers move out of destitution.
If you are interested, please call Helen on 07709645097 or email us here
An opportunity has arisen for a part-time Refugee and Migrant Support Practitioner – Family Befriending Project, to join our small team working 22 hours a week on a fixed term 12 month maternity cover contract.
If you are interested in this opportunity please send a CV and covering letter to email@example.com by the Friday 26th April 2019.
This training is aimed at anyone who might be interested in finding out more about BIRCH’s Family Befriending and Hosting projects and are thinking about volunteering for one of the projects.
When: Sat 16th March 2019
Where: Friends of the Earth, The Warehouse, 54-57 Allison Street, Digbeth, Birmingham B5 5TH
The plan for the day is as follows:
Morning – tea/coffee etc Introductions, ice-breakers, hopes and fears, background to BIRCH’s activities
Mid-morning: background information on where do refugees come from, the asylum process, key terms/jargon, what is destitution, and cultural awareness sessions.
Lunch – buffet lunch will be provided
Afternoon – Q & A with current BIRCH befriender/host
Discussion about the needs of refugees, expectations and qualities we look for in volunteers, boundaries and guidance.
Revisit hopes and fears and final questions.
If you would be interested in coming or have any questions or queries, please contact Helen on 07709645097 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Context: Like many within the Birch community, last month I discovered that Nas Popalzia had been granted Leave to Remain, for 5 years as a refugee! A long-awaited achievement which took a collaborative effort from Nas, his befriender Jane Thakoordin ;and dedicated individuals from ASIRT and Migrant Voice networks. In a time where the Home Office’s decisions are undoubtedly questionable; I thought it crucial to sit down with Nas and Jane in order to share their story of success and great friendship.
From being in their presence for a few minutes, I naturally assumed that they had been good friends for years. To my surprise, Nas and Jane had only met in July last year. They met when Nas was sharing his story for the first time in front of an audience, at the Ikon gallery in Birmingham, for Refugee Week. Regardless of this, both of them agreed that it felt as though they had known each other for a lot longer. Jane who attended the event with her husband Paul, mentioned that “What was so powerful about that event was, it was an event for Migrant week. And people were asked to come along and talk about their involvement in organisations that support refugees/ asylum seekers…. then of course Nas got up … and Nas told his story… Nas was the exact epitome of all the things people were talking about. He was the face of those people. Not a distant person”.
When deciding to start his campaign Nas came across infamous stories of the Windrush generation. Nas felt encouraged to share his story and stand up against injustice due to the way the windrush generation had been treated. Nas got in contact with Migrant Voice and they began to support Nas throughout his campaign. In particular, Nas said multiple times, that he is grateful for the support and friendship of Salman Mirza from Migrant Voice.
Prior to speaking at the Ikon, Nas tells me that he wasn’t in a good place at that time. Roughly in March/ April of last year Nas had been refused asylum. From my understanding this was the sixth time (yes six!) that Nas had been wrongfully refused. “I didn’t know what was happening, it was hurting me and those people (the Home Office) saying that there is a law in this country, but the law doesn’t apply to them”. Rightfully, Nas feared leaving his friends behind and the life that he had built in Birmingham. “All I know is here”. Born in a small village called Urozgan, North of Kandahar in Afghanistan. Nas lived in Kabul for three months when his mother handed him to a smuggler. He could speak the language but Nas could not write or read. He didn’t know anyone and he was worried about getting work. Since coming to the UK, as a minor, age 14, Birmingham has been Nas’ home.
A significant factor as to why Jane decided to support Nas is because she discovered that he is only a month older than her eldest daughter – Nas turned 23 on February 1st. “If the situation had been different, if it had been her (Jane’s daughter) in the situation; coming to a new country with a whole different set of difficulties and challenges. I would wish that there would be somebody like me looking out for her”. Eventually, Jane and her husband began befriending Nas through Birch, whilst helping him run his campaign.
Jane has been involved with Birch for several years having previously befriended a young Iranian man. She has also been able to use her experience as a befriender to train others who have shown an interest in befriending. Jane is also a freelance artist and a part-time mental health social worker. Though Jane’s family background has been in advocating against social injustices. Furthermore, Nas mentions that it was Jane who suggested that he should volunteer at Birch’s Meet and Greet project. He now regularly volunteers at the sessions: he helps bring newly arrived asylum seekers from a nearby hostel (initial accommodation centre) to the Meet and Greet, where lunch and activities are hosted. Nas can also speak several languages including Pashto therefore he acts as translator for those coming from the hostel who cannot speak english.
We began discussing the campaign, both Jane and Nas were keen on emphasising that it was a collaborative effort. Jane affirmed that the campaign wouldn’t have been successful without the maximum input of everyone involved; “When we all put our skills together, we all worked really brilliantly”. Although, Nas says that in the beginning he had lost his confidence and had been feeling stressed -“I lost hope”. Nas also mentions that at times, during the campaign he felt emotional and it was hard to repeat his story to different audiences. Sometimes Nas would have to speak 3 or 4 times a day and he was required to commute on his own to different venues. He even appealed to different MPs who refused to take action on his behalf because he wasn’t apart of their constituency.
Moreover, Nas touches on the tragic stories that he knows of long-lost friends from the Afghanistan community who had been in the asylum process for so long that they gave up and went ‘underground’. “They end up on the street, with no support and that’s why it’s a kind of punishment. What the guys decide to do is to go underground and work with some criminals”. He further mentions that these individuals will end up getting exploited and employed for as low as £2. Nas had feared that he too would end up in a similar situation. Yet despite this, Nas calmly says that during the campaign he did what he needed to do and what was asked from him. “It was a good experience, I learnt a lot, about the campaign and I actually learnt from people about helping people… It was good, a good campaign”. Jane also recognised that it was hard for Nas at times, she was worried that he may get pulled in different directions for people’s own purposes. Jane believes that is was down to having “a small group of committed people at the core” surrounding Nas during the campaign who enabled him to keep grounded.
Towards the end of the interview, I was curious to know whether Jane felt as though she ever needed to separate campaign life from her personal life. “I think it all just blends in together really. I couldn’t imagine Nas not being a part of our family life, and Nas can come and go when he pleases. I wouldn’t put expectations on him… He’s a part of that family unit”. Jane goes on further to say that Salman Mirza and herself want to make sure that Nas gets the “absolute best out of life” – whatever Nas decides to do in future.
Finally, I asked Jane and Nas, what one thing they admire about each other. Jane responded sincerely “I admire his spirit and personality really, he’s just a very good nice person”. It took Nas a while to respond “If I start now it’s going to take at least one hour”. However, as Jane stepped out the room, he continued “If I could give her a Nobel Peace Prize award, I would give her one, to Jane and Salman. Whatever they can do they will do for you”.
A big thank you to Nas and Jane for letting me interview them and write this blog piece. I know if we’d gone into more detail, I could probably write a book about their experiences. Congratulations to Nas for getting his stay!
Happy New Year everyone! We have all had a safe and positive festive season. We wish that 2019 brings you good health and well-being. As you get inundated by the idea that the New Year is for fresh starts and as everyone begins to ask you what your ‘New Year’s resolutions’ are; the focus of the blog this month will be from the Birch employees and volunteers perspective. The Voices of the Workers. It’s safe to say that Birch would not be what it is now, and growing, without it’s employees and volunteers. As a charity, whether it be conscious or unconscious, it echoes compassion from its core. That compassion which also lies within the hearts of those who choose to work in any capacity for Birch.
I had the pleasure of recently coming across one of these compassionate souls. We discussed his role at Birch and his life from the perspective of someone who works for the charity. David Hirst, has been working with asylum-seekers and refugees for the past 10 years. He joined the Birch team in Autumn 2015 following a large influx of the public wanting to host a “Syrian refugee”. Since then David has immersed himself into Birch’s projects, from tending to host-guest relationships to coordinating the Family Befriending and continues to help organise the weekly Meet and Greet session for newly arrived families. Although having spent thirty years working as a Youth and Community Worker, David acknowledges that he hasn’t had any specialist background knowledge surrounding the refugee and asylum-seeking sector. He learnt the majority of what he now knows whilst on the job and through experiences.
During our chat, David explained that some of the major reasons resulting in the public’s interest in hosting stemmed from the media coverage of the Syrian civil war. In particular, he mentioned the shocking image of a Kurdish toddler drowned and washed up on a shore in Turkey. This image swept the nation and motivated the public to seek information about ways they could help refugees and asylum seekers. However, David believes that things have changed since then and people have become almost desensitized to the ongoing news of refugees fleeing war and persecution. In addition, he pointed out that this loss of public enthusiasm has been exacerbated by the Home Office’s “Hostile Environment” policy. This policy seeks to restrict undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from employment, receiving benefits, renting a property, obtaining a driving licence as well fostering general antipathy against those seeking sanctuary through political statements in the media. Despite this, David highlighted that he has been overwhelmed by the high percentage of those still interested in hosting schemes and family befriending.
Furthermore, I discussed with David what his thoughts were on the government since working within the refugee sector. He acknowledged some occasions where he was made aware of the “unsympathetic side of the Home Office”. A sadness filled my heart when he brought to light that there is a great stress and strain put on undocumented migrants and asylum seekers as a result of their contact with the Home Office. David mentions the mental health pressures that can arise in refugees from harsh encounters with the Home Office and quite often refugees and asylum seekers are unsupported, left to face them alone.
This led to me question David on the pressures he feels as someone working alongside these vulnerable people. He was very open about occasionally finding himself being emotionally involved those he supports. Especially, the younger adults, who I suppose look up to David and see him as a friendly and respectable figure. He mentions that being in such a profession, it’s not unusual for individuals to take on a lot of work. Although, he finds it is necessary to intermittently take breaks in order to “recharge the batteries” as the job can get “quite upsetting”. David raised an important point about the employees finding the best way to be supported when they take on a lot of emotional baggage. It appears to be quite easy for work to converge with home/personal life. David has said there needs to be a balance between the two. Though he can often find that if the phone rings and a destitute asylum seeker is in need of somewhere to stay, he will drop everything and try to help “but it comes with the territory” he said modestly.
Towards the end of our discussion, it only seemed right for me to ask David about the happy moments he has found working within the refugee sector. “Apart from being Father Christmas” he grins… David enjoys helping to facilitate the weekly Meet and Greet session. This is a collaborative project with colleagues employed by the Children Society, which aims to host activities and creative workshops for newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees, in particular the families. David explained “Our visitors come from what’s called the initial accommodation centre. Where people first, when they claim asylum, that’s where they are first housed before they’re dispersed. All over the country sometimes. These people can often stay in the hostel for up to 2 months, sometimes shorter”.
Finally, I asked David if there was one piece of advice you could give yourself 10 years ago when you started the job what would it be? And why? I think we both laughed at the question. I could see from his face this wouldn’t be an easy one to answer, and he almost gave up. But in the end he spoke about the balance of being a friendly professional or being a professional friend – “Sometimes you need to be aware of this, sometimes you need to just hold back a bit, because you want to help people… it’s a difficult thing”.
I’d like to thank David for taking the time to be so honest and open about his experiences and job role.
This is the second instalment in the “Journeys” series! This entry is from a current guest living with a host family.
“In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.” – Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love)
I don’t think I really understood it… I mean, maybe I understood it but I hadn’t really internalised it. I think experiences like this change you… From being a guest in someone’s home, then that home becoming your home and then the people in that home becoming like… family. Even if it’s for a short period of time, you change. Why would you let complete strangers into your home? We’ve been through worse, how much worse could this be?
I got used to the idea of ‘home’ being wherever I lay my head at night. Temporary accommodation after temporary accommodation, I think we’d moved about 11 times by the time I was 18 years old. You learn to adapt but the world seems harsher and harsher. You hear stories about people migrating for years seeking refuge in unmerciful countries; being refused asylum over and over again, waiting for – Of course I had thought about going back. We have some family over there and the weather’s better. But it’s never that easy. So the world is harsh and my spirits were broken. I remember being tired because I had taken my suitcases with me on two bus trips to get to their house. It’s funny how I hadn’t got used to carrying my suitcases across long distances by now, I had done it countless times before. The area was familiar, I was certain I had taken the bus past it a couple of times. Walking up to the hosts’ house, I don’t think I would describe them as nerves, although I had been prone to bad anxiety. But I wasn’t exactly scared. I tried my best to keep an open mind, to not have any prejudgment – just neutral thoughts. We’ve been through worse, how much worse could this be?
I think it took awhile for me to really settle, I found myself confused at first by the eating times and when my host would say “help yourself to anything”. Honestly, I hadn’t seen a fridge that full in a long time. And it continued to be full, so were the cupboards and the pantry. Help yourself to anything I think after a year with my host and her family I still hadn’t really grasped at the sheer peak of human generosity that had been bestowed upon me. At the beginning I don’t think I spent much time at the house; I remember feeling quite shy around everyone. I was sceptical of where to be around the house at times, whether or not I was just subject to my room. It’s funny because I don’t consider myself to be a shy a person at all. The children reminded me of my nieces, but more well-behaved than my nieces; their excitement and energy always uplifted my mood. I think from the beginning I was always bound to get along with my host. We have similar views about the world and she was a vegetarian (like myself) attempting to be a vegan in a house full of keen carnivores. We’d discuss her sneaky attempts to gradually convert the family to herbivores and find humour in her failed attempts. She began to encourage me to start cooking and baking. I was finding my confidence again. During religious holidays and fasting the family were completely respectful and cautious of my well-being. They’re not particularly religious but aim to acknowledge the beauty and value of all backgrounds. I’ll always be grateful for them and grateful they allowed me into their home.
Thank you for reading! This blog post, an entry from a current BIRCH host will act as the first in a series of “Journey” blogs. This is where we will share the stories of those involved in the BIRCH community, from Hosts to Guests to Befrienders and volunteers. The aim for these blogs is give you a taste of what BIRCH does!
*For purposes of identity we have decided to use pseudonyms to protect privacy*
It doesn’t seem long since our first nervous foray into hosting. Saraf, we were told, only needed a room for a month while she awaited a place in a house for destitute women. A month! – only a month surely, however difficult it was we could cope for a month! We had only signed up for short-term hosting. With relatively young children a woman felt safest. Lizzy, who coordinated and supported Birch’s hosts would bring Saraf round to meet us and then all parties could have a little time to decide before proceeding. My son was too young, but we had asked my daughter’s views early on about hosting; she said it would be okay “as long as they aren’t sad”. I realised this reflected one of my fears. Would our home be filled with the sadness that anyone who feels forced to flee their country of origin must carry? Was it too much to ask that their sadness be at least partly contained?
We’d done the day’s training – some facts still fresh: Did you know that by far the greatest majority of the world’s refugees flee to neighbouring countries, who are themselves struggling with poverty and instability? We knew Saraf was from Guinea in West Africa; a quick Google: no major conflicts but plenty fled particularly young women. Our training had taught us not to ask about guests circumstances, potentially such traumatic ones. That advice felt a relief too, I wasn’t sure how I’d cope with hearing the details of the traumas that many seeking asylum have gone through.
The doorbell. One of our children hides the other runs into my arms, probably picking up on my anxiety. Lizzy walks in followed by Saraf. Our eyes meet and in the exchange of nervous smiles my fears subside and I know it’s going to be okay. Of course there were practical arrangements to iron out: We sometimes ate together; the “let’s just all be veggie” solution to a Halal diet in the family suits me well, but not so my husband! Saraf offered to cook on the days I worked later. My husband was nervous but after discussions about his preferences and a trip to the Halal butcher, he enjoys the chicken dishes that Saraf prepares. With encouragement Saraf talks about the foods native to Guinea that she loves and how they would cook outside.
I wondered how Saraf would feel about witnessing our easy life – perhaps a stark contrast with the life she had led in Africa? But Saraf is thoughtful and careful and only once during our stay am I reminded of how different things must have been for her in her early life: As I caution my son for getting mud on his clothes “Mummy’s got enough washing to do!”, Saraf just says one word “Washing?” I suddenly realise that piling clothes in and out of an automatic machine really isn’t washing them! But later that day as the sun shines down on our “automatically cleaned” clothes on the line, I hear much giggling from the bottom of the garden. The children have persuaded Saraf onto the trampoline for her first bounce ever time where all 3 are greatly amused by her uncontrolled antics.
I have just started working for BIRCH on their Family Befriending Project and we are currently looking for volunteers to join our scheme. Would you or someone you know be willing to host a young refugee (aged 16-25) in your home once a week or fortnight to help them feel welcome in Birmingham? Most of the young refugees we work with have no family in the UK and can be quite isolated, befriending is a way to reduce their isolation and also introduce them to new areas and activities, as well as introducing volunteers to new cultures and experiences.
One of our current volunteers had this to say:
“Grace has been coming about twice a month since October. She comes for food and we have practiced reading, written Christmas cards and played badminton. She loves playing games particularly Rumicub. We play the radio whilst playing games and she is a big Lionel Richie fan. She cooked for us some traditional Angolan food one evening and it was lovely to see how relaxed she was. She is a bright young lady with much potential.” (names have been changed)
An opportunity has arisen for a part-time Refugee and Migrant Support Practitioner to join our small team working 7 hours a week until 31 December 2018, with the intention to extend dependant on funding.
If you are interested in this opportunity please send a CV and covering letter to email@example.com by the 24th May 2018.
Our “Meet and Greet” family support sessions happen every Tuesday lunch time at a Youth and Community Centre based in central Birmingham. In 2017 an average of 25 individual children and 20 adults attended each session.
Children housed in initial accommodation are not attending school so our Meet and Greet offers some respite to families living in cramped hostel accommodation.
During the sessions we organise a programme of play, sports and arts activities for children. We have a pool of around twenty volunteers supervising activities. Alongside the BIRCH Volunteer Co-ordinator a staff member from the Children’s Society has organised arts activities. As from late September 2017 the Children’s Society have added two more staff members to help us with signing visitors in and out casework and general supervision. We have a small team of volunteer cooks, kitchen helpers and individuals helping to distribute donated clothes, toys, books and toiletries and other essential items.
This year, thanks to dedicated volunteers we organised knitting and crochet which has proved very popular with our visitors. A volunteer also came in and taught conversational English for a few months.
Every four weeks we hold bread making workshops organised by Bread2share CIC. The Meet and Greet in 2017 received support from Birmingham MIND staff who held counselling surgeries and art activities. We have had the occasional visit from a qualified cricket coach and a qualified masseuse. In December we had a session organised by Birmingham Community Art Therapy. Eastside Projects (local arts organization) have also supported us by organizing a badge making activity.
We receive donations from a number of sources including local schools, a local Muslim charity many kind hearted individuals. At Christmas a local Secondary school organised donations of Christmas shoe boxes of gifts for the adults and children who attend our session.
In September we held two volunteer training sessions for our volunteers. One of the sessions was dedicated to Child Protection and Safeguarding. In 2017 we held 46 weekly sessions with 1138 individual visits from children and 730 adults.
During 2017 we conducted a survey of our visitors to find out if they enjoyed our food and asked our visitors about the activities we have on offer. In response to this survey we have tried to widen the menu (which is mainly vegetarian) and improve the way we deliver activities to adults and children at a time that is full of anxiety and extremely stressful.
Many thanks to everyone who was part of the Meet and Greet in 2017!