Can you imagine moving to a foreign country, where you perhaps don’t speak the language, fleeing conflict and personal trauma, and being left to fend for yourself in a strange city, miles away from friends and family?
That’s the situation many refugees and asylum seekers find themselves in. But now that’s changing, thanks to an innovative mentoring project here in Swansea.
‘A Better Welcome to Swansea’, which is run as part of Swansea City of Sanctuary, invites volunteer mentors to team up with asylum seekers and refugees who are new to the city, show them around, and help them access essential services.
The volunteer mentors come from all walks of life – some are local people, others are asylum seekers or former asylum seekers, who have chosen to use their experience to help others. All are committed to providing the best possible welcome to our city.
The scheme, which in managed by Swansea Council for Voluntary Services (SCVS) on Walter Road, is administered by Development Officer Stepheni Kays, who is the only staff member, but based within other voluntary projects within SCVS. All the rest are volunteers.
“A Better Welcome to Swansea provides support, individually and in a group, to asylum seekers and refugees, and offers assistance in a variety of areas,” Stepheni explains.
“The aim is to reduce isolation and improve integration, by encouraging people to participate in local activities and get connected to the services they need. Volunteers can offer one-to-one support, refer people to English classes, go with them to the library, help them get on a bus and work out the timetables, or simply meet for a cup of tea and a chat, to get people out of the house and active again.
“We take it for granted, but something as normal as getting a bus can be a real ordeal for someone who is nervous to ask for directions and has never used the timetables before. Often, it’s just taking that first step that makes all the difference and gives people confidence to access other services, participate in different activities, attend events, and get to appointments.
“The volunteer mentors help people connect with other communities. We can help them find a mosque, a drop-in centre, or a church, or take them to the LC2 for a swimming session, or to Swansea College or the University to access ESOL, or Foundation courses. It’s all about making people feel they can contribute and be a valued member of Swansea’s community.”
Naeema Alraisa has been a volunteer mentor for almost a year. An Arabic and Urdu speaker, she also acts as a volunteer translator.“Of course, we do encourage people to learn English, as I have done myself, but there are some situations – going for a hospital appointment, for instance – where having someone else who can speak the language is invaluable,” explains Naeema.“When I first came to this country, I really struggled.
I felt so lost. For about two years, I hardly ever went out. Now I’m determined to help others, so they don’t have to go through that.
Naeema is also studying part time at Tycoch. “I’m very proud of what I do as a volunteer,” she says. “It can be difficult sometimes, juggling my volunteering with college, but seeing the smiles on the faces of the asylum seekers, and seeing them grow in confidence makes it all worthwhile.”
Tracy Anstee, from Mumbles, came to volunteer via a very different route. “I was living in Swansea and working as a primary teacher in the valleys when a medical condition made me unable to continue in my job,” she explains.
“I suddenly found myself, an active person, with lots of time on my hands. I knew that people were coming to our city as refugees but didn’t really know anything about them. I decided to find out more, and this volunteer role came up. I called, had the interview, and very quickly found myself mentoring two lovely women.
“I normally mentor several people at a time, and one of my first tasks is normally to take them for a shopping trip to Lidl, to show them where to buy the cheapest food. They have a very limited budget, and social isolation can be a problem, so I also accompany them to drop-in centres, food banks, and free choirs, as well as helping them to access public transport.
“The gentleman I’ve just finished mentoring comes from Iran and spoke very little English when he arrived. Some of our conversations were conducted using Google translate! But a lot of the time, just a friendly smile speaks volumes. I found out he used to live by the seaside, so I took him to Langland Bay, where we bumped into a friend, and he was so delighted to be introduced to someone else and made to feel part of the community. It’s the little things, really. A friendly welcome goes a long way.”
If you’d like to know more about volunteering with A Better Welcome to Swansea, or to find out more about the scheme, please contact Stepheni Kays at SCVS on Walter Road on 01792 457 299.