Being a Befriender

I have been volunteering with Restore for 2-3 years, and have had three befriendees over that period, one from Syria and two from Iran. I wanted to do my bit to make Birmingham a welcoming place for asylum-seekers and refugees, who have all been through horrendous experiences, very often cut off from family and trying in very difficult circumstances to make a new life for themselves in Birmingham.

This situation is full of challenges: emotional, linguistic, cultural. Restore makes a hugely valuable contribution to the process of asylum-seekers and refugees finding their feet, and reducing their loneliness, and it is very rewarding to be part of it as a volunteer.

What is special about Restore is that it is a befriending project. Other bodies provide administrative support and advice for asylum-seekers and refugees, and those things are vital, but Restore is special because it allows for a more informal relationship to develop, which is greatly appreciated by both sides. There are boundaries, but they are looser than, for example, with Refugee Action which administers the Syrian refugee resettlement programme and, for good reason, maintains a strict professional relationship with the people it supports. ┬áBoth kinds of support are needed, but I cannot overestimate the particular value of the contribution that volunteers can make within the framework of the Restore ethos – it is valuable for individuals and also for society, because the Restore relationship is by its nature a process of integration.

The pattern of my involvement is:

  • regular meetings and chats, every week or fortnight– I have preferred every week, the pattern which I have adopted with my latest befriendee, who left a very threatening situation in Iran, having fallen foul of the Iranian thought police.
  • topics have been wide-ranging, including family, work, food, leisure, religion, politics (including, once enough trust has developed, the politics of the situations from which befriendees have escaped). The conversations have always been rewarding for me as a volunteer as well as, I trust, for the befriendee.
  • visits to local places of interest, a good way of getting to know the city better.
  • a lot of emphasis on language. Befriending is a great opportunity to provide informal advice about English. All three of the men whom I have befriended through Restore have been very interested in developing their English language skills and in integrating, and I have learnt a lot also in the process.
  • have been able to help in practical ways, eg assisting with the process of enrolling on English language and other courses, which is vital when the work opportunities for asylum-seekers remain so limited.

 

Group activities

In addition to the one-to-one befriending, I have enjoyed participating in the regular group outings which Andy Ferrari from Restore has organised for male befriendees and volunteers. This is another important Restore activity. In normal times these are physical outings to places in and around Birmingham. In addition to sight-seeing they are a great way for volunteers to meet a ┬árange of befriendees, and just as important, for befriendees from different backgrounds to meet each other. And the diversity is impressive – for example, a recent outing (to visit the Walsall leather musuem) included participants from Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and this may not be a complete list. Volunteers learn a lot during these outings and evidently befriendees learn a lot from each other also.

During lockdown these events took the form of fortnightly Zoom sessions in which volunteers took turns to introduce topics through slide shows, which we tried to make as accessible as possible, covering a wide variety of topics eg music, food, styles of dress, Birmingham canals, the seasons, common birds, the British seaside, the meaning of Easter. Judging from the feedback, these sessions have been a big success, and would be a good alternative to physical outings in future, if for any reason the online method is needed again.

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