Tackling isolation at City of Sanctuary

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This week I sat down with to discuss her work with Durham City of Sanctuary, the refugee crisis and how we can play our part when it comes to helping our community. Jasmine is the Project Lead of the City of Sanctuary kids club in Durham. City of Sanctuary is a national charity that supports refugee and asylum-seeking community, encouraging inclusivity, solidarity and compassion for people from a forced displacement background. 

Tell me about your work with City of Sanctuary. 

I got involved with City of Sanctuary nearly two years ago at the end of my first year at Durham University when I applied to be Project Lead of the Kids Club, a job I share with Ross, another Durham student. The kids’ club is part of a drop-in centre that runs every Saturday afternoon that supports refugee families from across County Durham. 

There are two parts to the drop-in centre: one is the adult conversation classes and the other in the kids’ club, which we run. The two parts really complement each other as it supports the adults to develop their English and get help with any questions they may have, whilst we occupy the kids through activities such as arts and craft and sports. Recently we have set up a tutoring scheme, where children are partnering up with a university student who helps tutor them through certain subjects, as lot of the children who came to the kids’ club really wanted. 

What are the biggest challenges the people that City of Sanctuary works with are facing? 

The continued impact of COVID-19 on the families and people we work with has been really significant. Families who were resettled prior to COVID coming into a very unfamiliar environment when they moved here, were then faced with national lockdowns. This served to really isolate people and families which put a massive strain on their integration into the community. Unable to go out, speak English, meet people in their communities, a lot of the people we work with have had their confidence impacted. If people don’t have confidence in their ability to communicate, things as simple as getting on a bus can become really difficult, further isolating them, which is a particular issue in the the north-east many of the families live in rural communities. 

Learning English is an opening of a door for the refugee community

Speaking to people at our drop-ins, it is really clear that all the families feel that they can improve their lives if they can improve their spoken and written English. This has meant we’ve really placed extra emphasis on English learning classes for adults and the tutoring for the children. Learning English, but education more generally, is an opening of a door for the refugee community. It opens the door to different experiences, to integration, to confidence, to communicating in their community. 

What are your thoughts on how the ‘refugee crisis’ is discussed in the media and in politics? 

The refugee crisis, especially the two major events of the last decade – the 2015 refugee crisis and the current Ukrainian refugee crisis – has been have been heavily politicised in the media with huge coverage across many platforms. 

It is on the radio, on TV, in the news, it is being discussed in parliamentary debates. Yet as we saw in 2015 and its aftermath, the media eventually goes dormant on the migrant issue. New stories come about which are seen as more pressing and more relevant, and we move on. To an extent, this is the role of the media, but it makes you think, what is a ‘crisis’ actually about? I would argue that a crisis, in the way it is framed in the media, is actually about politicians, governments, policy makers; it is crisis of politics. When the refugee agenda is no longer considered the major crisis in politics, it is then side-lined. 

Here lies the problem with calling it a ‘refugee crisis’. In the media, a crisis is seen more or less having a beginning and an end. For refugees, and the charities and organisations supporting them, there is no such thing as one moment of crisis. Yes, the Ukrainian war and the events of 2015 were times of heightened refugee activity, however the challenges facing refugees and the supporting organisation are situated on a much broader spectrum of time that must continue to be addressed. 

What would you say to people who are interested in getting more involved in charity work? 

The main thing I would say to people, especially students, is just to be involved in your community. Giving back to your local community is really something I think everyone should be doing. Yet, it doesn’t have to be in a role like mine that requires a lot of your time and energy, it can just be donating clothes or volunteering an hour of your week.
Just tutoring a child once-a-week may not feel it could be massively impactful but it can absolutely transform the opportunities of those you are helping. The same goes with donating clothes. A lot of refugees arrive in the UK with only what they are wearing, in flipflops in the dead of winter, and the one set of clothes you can donate can give them such a breath of life. 

The media representation of the refugee crisis is actually about politicians, governments and policy makers

We must remember that breaking a huge issue like the refugee crisis into small, tangible actions is really important and that making a difference, even if it is just to one person, can be very simple. 

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