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.

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