Can refugees ever belong?
As I walked into the community café, I saw Rima huddled awkwardly in a corner. I’d met her before. She was living with a friend from my church who had welcomed her into her home and was supporting her in settling in the UK. Today this friend had brought her to the community café. I looked to catch her eye. In my mind, I imagined myself flinging my arms around her, warmly welcoming her to my group of friends, where we would all have a great time. I imagined her feeling loved and valued and welcomed in a completely different way to anything she’s experienced before, obliterating all those painful memories of all that had brought her to this area in the first place.
I hurried over. “Rima! How lovely to see you!” I chirped. “How are you doing?” I put my hand on her shoulder. She stiffened. Her face was blank. “It’s nice to see you,” I reiterated. An awkward pause. What do I say now?
Relieved by the obvious attempt to build a connection, my friend said, “Rima, why don’t you stay and talk to Anne?”
“No,” Rima said, abruptly. “I’m following you.”
“But it would be nice…,” my friend encouraged.
Rima had walked away.
This was not how I imagined my gesture of welcome to play out. Rima wasn’t being rude. She felt uncomfortable in this unfamiliar setting and lacked the language to respond to me. We had nothing to connect us beyond inane pleasantries that she’d probably heard from every other well-meaning local resident she’d met.
A sense of community can take years to develop. Think how often you’ve met British nationals who have simply moved to a different part of the UK, but not stayed there as they’d failed to put down roots – often even after a couple of years. People who have come to the UK through the vulnerable person’s settlement scheme have already survived enough trauma and disruption to deserve more than a slow, painful process of integration here. I am hugely excited by the announcement that for the first time faith and community groups have the opportunity to sponsor the resettlement of a refugee family (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/community-sponsorship-scheme-launched-for-refugees-in-the-uk), putting the opportunity for action behind the desire to support refugees, with the potential to offer so much to new arrivals through access to pre-existing community. However, an emotional response of compassion and care still needs to utilise conscious strategies to facilitate emotional integration. There are practical needs in terms of housing and language classes, but the need for friendship and to be able to be a valued member of the community to which you can ‘give back’ is just as integral to well-being.
We all need a sense of belonging. The development of a sense of belonging can be accelerated, but has to happen through more than addressing functional needs and social events. Building meaningful relationships with strangers is never easy, especially when those strangers are facing barriers of language, culture, loss of status and control, and often poor mental health. Volunteering for a charity which supports refugees and vulnerable migrants made me realise awkward conversations, like my own with Rima, were not unusual. However, a common focus on a shared task takes away the intensity of communicating with strangers and allows relationships to naturally develop. That’s why I developed the Creative English programme (http://www.creative-english.org.uk/), which addresses the need for people to speak English but also creates opportunity to build friendships over shared creative tasks.
As a refugee, you don’t want only to have superficial polite conversations, neither do you want to focus on the past and reframe your identity only as a refugee. Whether you are creating an improvised scene in a Creative English class; using your farming skills to create a community garden; or cooking food for a shared community meal, so long as you are doing it with others, side by side, relationships will grow. There is a present and a future to talk about that does not purely depend on the necessities of resettlement. You may not yet have strong English language skills but you can still share something of you and what you are good at through practical tasks. You are not just passive recipient. You have something to offer others too.
And it’s not just the refugee family who will benefit. As we naturally build friendships with those who we have some essence in common, these relationships benefit us too. In Creative English the relationships with the host community are real too. One refugee describes how a retired local lady is like her mum. This lady explained: “It’s given me a new lease of life. Living on my own I thought that was it, but I love spending time with the family and see the children progress. Somehow, it gives me energy I didn’t have before.” Another host community volunteer described the friends she has made through Creative English as her “family.” Despite not having any language needs herself, she still described the programme as a “tonic” in relation to her own well-being.
I am delighted that a process has been put in place to enable communities to commit to a refugee family. As part of this process, I encourage us to think about how we facilitate people in building meaningful friendships and being able to be a valuable and contributing member of their community, while meeting practical and language needs too.