Stranded boats at sea. Last breaths in lorries. Traumatisation by traffickers. These are just some of the horrific risks refugees take to reach the UK – a place that historically has been full of promise and hope for them. Yet when they arrive here, they’re met with a hostile government and campaigns of hate. However, the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum provides a range of services to help them survive and thrive in the face of adversity. As it celebrates its twentieth anniversary, Eve Smallman talks to Director Matt Atkins about what they’ve achieved and how you can help them carry on their work…
“You helped me at a time when I didn’t have anyone to help me, when I was turned away, when all the doors were shut. I know you might say you were doing your job but I believe you acted on the will of God.” This is just one of many heartbreaking yet heartwarming comments from the Forum’s case studies.
The Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum was founded twenty years ago by organisations in Nottingham collectively wishing to provide a better service for refugees arriving in the city. The Forum has now grown from having one part-time worker to 43 full-time workers, 200 volunteers and 2,000 clients. “We've got seventeen different services, including support groups, our cafe, and the vulnerable persons’ resettlement scheme, when the Home Office brings people in from refugee camps and they get settled in the city,” Matt tells me. “We also have the drop-in clinic where – before COVID – we would see between thirty to forty clients a day Monday to Thursday. Depending on the complexity of the case, they could be supported, signposted to other areas, or referred to our on-site specialist advice team.”
If clients have been granted refugee status by the government, the Forum can help them claim benefits and find accommodation. They only have twenty days to get housing, otherwise they will end up facing homelessness. One major area the Forum deals with is working with destitute clients – those who have been through the asylum process, and have had their application rejected. Matt explains: “We can either help them put together a fresh claim – which has to be completely different from the original asylum claim – or help with the voluntary return, which is where they choose to go back to their home country.” He continues, “I think a lot about the fact that many clients would prefer to sleep on the streets than return home. It says a lot about what their circumstances are like.”
For the Forum there have been countless highlights, both from helping refugees as well as moments where their staff and volunteers have really done them proud. For example, as for many companies, COVID-19 has brought its own set of defining moments. “The way we’ve been able to continue providing support during COVID has been fantastic; we all came together as a team to look at how we'd have to shut down our building while still continuing to offer support to clients,” he says. “We've been able to transition from a face-to-face service to a remote service, with people being able to ring and then be assigned to a caseworker.”
I think a lot about the fact that many clients would prefer to sleep on the streets than return home
Last year the Forum was given the Investment in Volunteering award, which is the national standard for good volunteer management. A quarter of the Forum’s volunteers come from a refuge or asylum-seeking background, and they aim to help them build confidence and improve their communication skills: “We’re so reliant on volunteers – it’s not just about what they do for us but it’s about what we can do for them also, so for them to feel so positive about our volunteering process is fantastic for us.”
The relationships that volunteers build with those they are working with are a key aspect of being part of the Forum. Matt describes recent feedback they got from a client as part of a new befriending service, where the Forum calls new settlers into the city to check how they’re doing: “The befriender said the client described him as a beacon of light in these dark times. We deal with a lot of grief and hostile environments; there's only so much we can control for our clients, as a lot of it is Home Office decision making, so when clients are able to give positive messages back, it makes it all worthwhile.”
While being faced with COVID has pushed the Forum to be even more innovative, it has also brought difficulties in terms of how the services run. “A lot of our clients suffer tech poverty, so even though we run Zoom meetings for our youth and women’s groups, a lot of people don’t have access to phones or can’t afford credit for them,” Matt discloses, “The anxiety is that we're missing out on helping clients, as not everybody can access our services when we can't do face-to-face work.”
They have also faced financial difficulties; while they have successfully applied for some grants, these have been short-term ones and don’t guarantee a future for the Forum. “The fear today is that there's a likelihood that local and national governments won’t be able to fund our traditional services – they're spending a fortune on keeping everything going, but at some point they're going to have to catch up on that,” Matt tells me. “It is a potential threat to our services when they’re needed most, as our clients are most prone to be affected by COVID-19.” Because of this, the Forum has launched an emergency appeal for donations, which has raised £18,000 so far. This has allowed them to keep their food bank running, as well as allowing them to plan to reopen while being COVID-compliant.
The Forum is always happy to accept food and financial donations, however, one other area they’d like people to help with is in creating a collective voice on the true picture on the refugee situation in the UK. “If you ask the average person, a lot of people seem to think that we’re swamped by refugees, when actually we’ve only taken 1% of them in from the whole world,” Matt reveals. “People wonder why they journey to Britain, but we have historical links to the places they come from as, generally, they were part of the Commonwealth or the Empire.”
He continues: “It's incredible when you actually meet some of our clients and hear what they’ve gone through to get here – I've got clients who have had their entire family murdered in front of them, they’ve had horrific journeys, and some of the women have been attacked by traffickers and smugglers… They come to this country and expect sanctuary and safety, but are met with this hostile environment – yet they still stand there with dignity, optimistic for the future.”
The Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum has helped refugees create and work through defining extraordinary experiences, and we are lucky to have such a remarkable organisation in the area. Whether you can donate cans or cash, share their Facebook posts, or even try and educate your stubborn anti-immigration uncle, everything we can chip in to help the Forum continue its wonderful work is well and truly worth it.
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