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Volunteers bring forth light in dark of winter

By JULIAN SHEA in London | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-26 09:51
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A volunteer delivers a hamper containing food and gifts to an isolated community member, in north London, Britain, Dec 25, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

Christmas is a time associated with family gatherings, home comforts, and the giving and receiving of gifts and goodwill, but for many displaced people these are some of the most significant things missing from life.

Even for those who have reached the end of their geographical migrant journey, the administrative one, which could decide where they spend the rest of their lives, can continue for months or years, often spent in temporary accommodation, so Christmas can be a particularly tough time.

In towns and cities across the United Kingdom, volunteers play an important role in helping displaced arrivals feel at least slightly at home and giving them some seasonal cheer.

Bassam Mahfouz is the director of Refugee Action Kingston, in southwest London, which this year supported about 1,500 people who are either refugees or seeking asylum.

He said that during Christmas, more than ever, this and similar groups across the country could not function without the contribution of volunteers trying to make the lives of those less fortunate in the depths of winter that little bit less bleak.

"We have around 145 volunteers across all sections of the service we offer — language teachers, counselors, people who help with job hunting, even basic needs and feeding people — they all help," he said.

"Our clients' lives are tough enough at the best of times, but it's even more challenging at Christmas. Some don't know whether they have a future in this country, and some will be living in tiny, confined spaces, so there's no special Christmas deal for them there.

Community connection

"We know that social isolation can be as bad for your physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, so we bring people together in a community hub to learn and connect with one another, and to be happy in a way they can't be, stuck in their rooms."

Of the 1,500 people Refugee Action Kingston worked with in 2022-23, 16 percent came from Afghanistan, 15 percent from Syria, 14 percent from Iran and 9 percent from Iraq. Of them, 300 used English language classes, and 100 were helped to secure improved immigration status, so the work done by volunteers makes a life-changing difference.

"Our areas of operation include basic needs, such as legal advice and advocacy, to make sure people make appropriate representation in relation to their cases and what they're entitled to," Mahfouz said.

"Almost all these people come to us with trauma — the trauma they left behind, the trauma of how they got here, or the trauma of being processed. Sometimes you will see child migrants playing, and they act out what they've seen in the places where they've come from, and it makes you realize the horrors they've gone through.

"There's so much change, and so much for them to deal with, that we try to help in whatever little way we can, like offering somewhere for people to gather and feel warm and get fed at Christmas."

Refugee Action Kingston has been working with refugees and migrants for more than 30 years, and it is one of many such groups across the country doing their bit to make newcomers feel a little bit more secure.

"About half the people we work with have been given their status and remain in Kingston thriving, which is fantastic," Mahfouz said.

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