The Voices of the Workers

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.

Photo of David Hirst

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.

My first experience as a guest

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.

The first time I hosted

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.                                                                                                   

How lovely to be sharing our good fortune !


Looking for volunteers!


Photo of Helen

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)

To find our more contact me on or fill in an Family Befriending Application Form 2018


Helen Hibberd

Work with us!

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 by the 24th May 2018.

See here for more information: JB BIRCH FB May 2018

2017 was a busy year for the Meet and Greet

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!

David Hirst – Refugee and Migrant Practitioner.


Birch Volunteer Training – 2nd September 2017

Volunteer Training

Offering hospitality and friendship to those  seeking sanctuary

2nd September, 10-3.30pm,

Birmingham Central Baptist Church Hall, 35 Ellen St, B18 7LF

We are a volunteer led, local charity working to welcome vulnerable refugees and undocumented migrants to Birmingham. We are running training for new volunteers to join us in the following roles:

Family Befrienders

The Family Befriending Project matches vulnerable young refugees aged 16-25 who have come to the UK without their families with volunteer families. Family befrienders offer a regular (weekly or fortnightly) meal within the family home to a young refugee wanting a taste of family life. Our volunteer families come in all shapes and sizes, from single people to multi-generational families.

Contact David, 07708 339 362, for more information on befriending

Community Hosts

Community hosts offer to share their homes with an individual experiencing destitution, normally due to difficulties within the asylum process. Stays are usually from two weeks to a year, depending on the time set by the volunteer.

Contact Sarah, 07912 482 336 for more information on hosting

Please do get in touch if you would like to book a place on the training and/or talk further about any of the above roles. To book a space on the course email or find out more at

BIRCH community Hosting at NACCOM – July 2017

We recently attended an informative and inspiring NACCOM event in Newcastle. Its aim was to support the growth and development of hosting schemes across the UK. We were a team of 2 hosts, 4 hosted people, a volunteer and support worker.

Hearing the introduction talk, presentation from Action Hosting, part of Action Foundation in Newcastle, and later speakers allowed us to learn about other projects and initiatives. This helps us to have ideas on what we can improve and develop in our region. We also had the chance to discuss issues and share our approaches.

With so many of us attending we engaged with almost all the workshops, discussing how to recruit hosts, how to have a positive placement, support hosts, how to involve guests, move-on, confidentiality and safeguarding. These points, and others will be followed up at our local quarterly scheduled host meetings.

They talked about the new toolkit, a NACCOM / Homeless Link how to guide helping members of the public provide spare rooms to migrants experiencing destitution.

Interviews were completed with a hosts and guests by Lucy at NACCOM, these give insight into what hosting is about, and how hosts and guests feel.

Why people Host:

I think hosting is part of our social responsibility to help when there is a need. And this is a time of need.

When people first move in:

“She was my first host. That was the first time, it was too difficult because I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me and I was a little bit scared.

I was feeling sad because I don’t have family here. I want to stay with people who will be like my mother and my father.

As soon as I stay with her I know she is a nice person. She showed me love every time I need help.

 When we met our first guest we knew everything would be fine. We knew Lazarus was an ordinary person waiting out the time he has to wait out while he gets his application in.

 When I first came here I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve got experience with other countries, other cultures but not with British. I was asked if I would like to stay with a British family and I thought this would be a good experience, I could learn English and that would be a good connection. If it didn’t work out I could change my mind.

When I went to the house on the first day, he came to pick me up and help me with my bag, but his wife was not well and was in hospital and so he said ‘I want to go and visit my wife- make yourself at home’. Then he went.

Immediately I think to myself, how is it possible that this person from another culture, another country, trusts me? It is difficult for me to trust my family- my close friends sometimes. Then I promise myself that because of this, because he trusts me, I will never lose their trust. They were kind to me and they give me happiness”.

Being together:

“I cook for myself and sometimes I cook food from my country and she eats it. Sometimes she cooks food for England people and then I try it. It is not what I am used to but it is nice.

 I can enjoy my stay with them, I am doing my best, now we are happy and friends. We went to football, we went on a walk, we go to church, I help them at home with some jobs.”

On the Home Office and Solicitors:

“Sometimes the Home Office say they don’t believe you. I said everything true but they didn’t believe me. I didn’t have a good solicitor or interpreter.

My solicitor said I was her son, she would do everything for me…but when I signed she would never do anything for me. She just wanted my money. I lose my time, my life, for one solicitor. That’s not fair. I didn’t have experience, I was new.

 If people need help, the government needs to help them. My life is true, I don’t have time to lie. They need to help me, if they help me then I will have what I need, I can work. But now it is too difficult. They need to show people love. We are not the same colour but we have the same blood.”

On preparing a new case:

“He has been 6 months into preparing a fresh claim and we could see some depression setting in. He wasn’t eating and was sleeping until midday. He shared a little bit and this was enough to know that he was anxious. He felt as though his life was in limbo. He wants to work – he wants to be an electrician- and move on and have a family.”


“I would say thank you to BIRCH. When I needed help they helped me. They give me a place to stay that was safe.

 BIRCH have been good, they come round regularly to meet with us. We are all able to speak freely I think. We have a bit of banter!”


“Today I have met some new people, I have learnt something new, it is a good memory for me.”

Staying in touch:

“Now I have moved to Derby. I will miss her. She was a kind person, she showed me the love that I was missing from my parents.

I am keeping in touch. She will come to visit me. She wants to know that I am good. She showed me this love and that make a difference. When I was missing my parents, she was there.

 I know that in the end his Section 4 might take him to another part of the country, but we have said to him that maybe we can be a buddy for him. He likes talking to us and values the chats we have. He is also a person of faith and he is keen to ask lots of questions and gain more insight.”

 On becoming a new host:

“I always encourage people to give hosting a try, and say it is something you can be in control of.

The agency are there to help with anything that comes up, if we needed to we could call them up and they would make other arrangements.

People feel they might be taking on too much and people don’t need to feel that.”

Destitution is used as a took by the government to force refused asylum seeking people to live in desperate and exploitative circumstances, essentially to encourage them to leave the UK voluntarily. We provide a safe, stable space for those who cannot return, helping them engage with the system to re-present their case, with the hope they can move onto a more positive life. Or helping them understand what protection is, and what avenues are available in their particular circumstances.

There are many resources on destitution, two recent ones are Refugee Action, Slipping through the cracks, and Red Cross, Can’t Stay, Can’t go.

New year, new opportunities to get involved!

This year, we at Birch celebrated five years of providing support to destitute asylum seekers. To date, we have provided in excess of 4600 nights of accommodation through our hosting programme and supported vulnerable families and young people through our other schemes. We couldn’t have done this without the support of our dedicated and passionate team of volunteers.

As we celebrate the start of 2017, we would like to let you know how you can support our work throughout the coming year. There are a range of opportunities, suitable for however much time you have and the level of commitment you feel able to give.

Continue reading New year, new opportunities to get involved!

Overwhelming response following refugee crisis

Over the last month we have experienced unprecedented attention following the media attention of the worsening refugee crisis across Europe.

Continue reading Overwhelming response following refugee crisis