By Jeannie Tweedie - Elmbridge CAN
I help run a small charity called Elmbridge CAN which supports refugees in the local area. We set it up by accident, almost. A group of us who had connected on Facebook met up in a local pub in late 2015, wanting to do something about the horror stories we were hearing in the media about what people fleeing the war in Syria were having to go through. We were motivated by compassion, sure, but also by anger at the seeming dehumanisation in the way this was being reported or spoken about in some quarters. We wanted to do something, although we weren’t quite sure exactly what or how. What followed has been at times one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but also one of the most rewarding and the best. The learning curve has been immense.
We worked with the local council to support them in taking families through the resettlement scheme for vulnerable Syrian refugees (SVRP). We currently have five families who have arrived through that route. They are lucky in having an excellent support worker, but there is still a lot to do. The scheme is due to finish at the end of the year and we have been spending a lot of time recently looking for suitable rental property to enable us to take more families before it closes. We also currently support another seven families who have arrived independently, five from Syria and two from Turkey. Having got here by themselves, they tend to be resourceful, but our language, bureaucracy, and culture still take work to get used to, quite apart from the trauma they have undergone and the difficulties in setting a life up in a new country - so we do what we can to help. The aim is always to help people towards independence as soon as possible.
Much of my role is about volunteer co-ordination and working with others, trying to match the resources that we have available, human and otherwise, to the needs of those we support. We have about thirty currently active volunteers on our books, ranging from Arabic translators to ESOL teachers to people who help with benefits and paperwork. None of us are paid so people have to fit what they do around other things, which can make things more complex to organise. Our activities range from furnishing houses to helping translate at medical appointments, to supporting clients at meetings with job centres, providing group and one to one English teaching, and organising social events. We are part of the City of Sanctuary movement which aims to encourage a culture of welcome for those seeking refuge as well as raise awareness, and as part of this we try to support those who wish to in talking publicly about their experiences. I’m also part of the Steering Group, taking part in the leadership and direction of the organisation. I’m lucky in that I share this role with a fantastic and skilled team of fellow volunteers.
It’s hard to describe a typical day, but yesterday, for example, I accompanied a man to a meeting with a housing association about rent arrears. The family have been hit hard by the benefit cap and it’s a worry. He is working hard to improve his English but he needs a paid job too, and we are hoping to use our excellent network of supporters to help him with his job search. Then, I have another meeting to introduce a new one-to-one ESOL volunteer to a lady. Before and after, there are various emails to do with things ranging from a craft fair some kind people are organising in our aid, to a food hygiene course we are supporting some of the women in attending, to a lengthy saga involving a mix up over a double bed delivery. Its infuriating at times, emotionally difficult to manage at others, but always humbling, and when things work out, its satisfying beyond all else.
To find out more about what we do and how you can support us visit www.elmbridgecan.org.uk