Seven tips for starting work with refugees

Walking up to the door, I noticed Sahar. She avoided my eye contact and started to shuffle away. I buried my instinct to hurry past her. I was about to enter the church hall to set up for the Creative English Class. What if she was waiting?

“Can I help you?” I asked. Sahar looked blank and terrified. Then she held out a crumpled flyer. It was for Creative English. She had found the right place, but had no idea which labelled buzzer to press to get through the front door.

Experiences like this have taught me a few things, and in Refugee Week, here are seven tips for starting to work with refugees:

1 Base yourself in faith centres

Places of worship are a common first place of connection for new arrivals, so faith centres are a good way of meeting people who may otherwise be considered hard-to-reach.

2 Make it easy for people to get involved in your project

A lack of familiarity with the culture and language is a barrier to getting involved with activities and services. A phone number where you have to register attendance is not helpful when you aren’t confident in the language and don’t have money to call! Just being able to arrive and join in makes a difference. Be prepared to meet people beforehand and travel with them. Knowing what buzzer to press or how to get through your venue’s security can be intimidating when you are not familiar with it, so can you offer support with travel or move your course or activity to a location that is more familiar?

3 Use word of mouth to find people

Word of mouth is the best way of recruiting people to a project, so a consistent room and time slot helps people know where to find you. If you don’t speak much English and don’t find what you expect when you arrive, you are unlikely to return! Build relationships with community leaders who can refer people to your project, but recognise this takes time. Don’t be disheartened if your project takes time to build momentum.

4 Focus on the present and the person, not the refugee experience

Lots of us are curious about refugees’ experiences. None of us are defined by any one experience. In the experience of being granted asylum, refugees will have to tell their story over and over again and the more traumatic it is, the more likely they are to be given leave to remain. No one wants to be defined as a victim. It’s best therefore not to ask people about how they got here or why they had to leave. Focussing on the present and the skills and interests of a person is much more constructive.

5 Be flexible

The stress of settling in an unfamiliar culture, the uncertainty of the asylum process and common mental and physical health issues relating to past or present trauma means the most vulnerable are most likely to find it difficult to attend regularly. Follow people up if they don’t attend: it shows they matter. This is important as many services run on a drop-in basis where it doesn’t matter whether they are there or not. However, be patient when attendance is erratic. Be aware that refugees may still face destitution and homeless when asylum claims are granted. Refugees only have 4 weeks to find their own accommodation. Can you signpost people to sources of help?

6 Recognise the wealth of skills and experience refugees bring with them

Adult refugees are likely to be skilled people from a background where they have been affluent enough and resilient enough to get here – even if the route has been traumatic. They bring a huge wealth of skills and experience into your community but may face barriers like their qualifications being unrecognised here. Involving a refugee in the organisation or delivery of an activity can help to make them feel valued. Not only that, it will significantly enhance what you can offer.

7 Encourage friendship, don’t just offer services

Shared tasks can be a real opportunity to build relationships which provide support beyond the project itself. The focus on the shared task helps build a connection between people who may be very different and it’s important to facilitate social time to allow these relationships to grow. A cup of tea, a trip to the park or local playgroup: it doesn’t need to be complicated. Be aware of other opportunities in your area with which you can facilitate links.

I’m so glad I ignored my instinct to hurry past Sahar. She has become one of my most trusted volunteers, who is now taking the first steps towards setting up her own catering business. She is such an asset, helping new people, whose experiences are still very raw, feel at ease with hope for a new future.

Dr Anne Smith is the author of the Creative English Course, which uses drama and fun to teach people English through faith based organisations across the UK.

About Dr Anne Smith

Creative English Lead Trainer

Dr Anne Smith is the Lead Trainer and Founder of the Creative English programme. In this role, she writes session plans and materials, trains facilitators and supports those delivering Creative English. She is responsible for developments of the Creative English programme, including variations to support Health Professionals and Creative English: Family Learning.