December is a very busy month at JRS when the opportunity to offer practical support for refugee friends is always the priority for me, JRS colleagues, and our highly committed team of volunteers. This support consists of replenishing and stocking the JRS Shop; to placing hardship grants on Equals cards, to distributing mobile phone top-ups.
The JRS Shop is regularly attended by over 130 refugee friends each month. The increase of food prices in the Cost-of-Living Crisis, is likely to cause those we support to experience increased food insecurity. The JRS shop is a place that allows refugee friends to collect their basic necessities, which will therefore lessen their anxious thoughts of where they will get their next meal from. Each week, we continue to thrive thanks to a wonderful team of volunteers who support the functioning of the shop every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. In September, we renovated the shop by introducing a new racking and shelving system which was greatly welcomed by refugee friends, volunteers and members of staff. One of our refugee friends who regularly attends the shop said
The shop looks great. I am able to freely browse and have a better look at the clothes and pick the items that I like.
We are all thrilled by the improvement this has made to their experience at the shop.
Furthermore, we are always looking for donations and are supported well by other organisations which allows us to operate the shop effectively. The Felix Project, a food redistribution charity tackling food waste and hunger, regularly delivers to the JRS Shop. The partnership provides fresh produce to be added to the shops’ provision and thus expanding the range of food offered. Moreover, with the help of the St Vincent de Paul Society, we’ve already distributed over 138 ‘Vinnie packs’, with more on the way! These packs contain items such as a hat, scarf, gloves, toothbrush and toothpaste, and a thermal blanket. In addition to this, we’re anticipating the arrival of winter coats from ‘Wrap up London’, a fantastic project which “gets coats to those who need them” and with whom JRS has been partnering for several years. These donations and partnerships are critical to the continuing support that we can give during the winter months and help to incorporate balanced, nutritious food into the diets of our refugee friends.
Alongside accessing the JRS Shop, we also provide refugee friends with hardship grants ranging from essential regular bi-weekly hardship grants, emergency grants and travel expenses to their pre-paid master card “Equals”. Each fortnight, I top-up £15 to over 300 refugee friends’ Equals cards. One of our refugee friends has voiced what the bi-weekly grant means to her:
Receiving the £15 bi-weekly payment has been extremely valuable. With the bi-weekly payments, I am able to use the money to do my laundry and travel to places and appointments without the need of asking others for funds. For some, receiving the bi-weekly payments might not be sufficient, but for me, it is useful as I have no other financial recourse and it gives me a sense of financial empowerment.
These pre-paid master cards offer those we support immediate access to essential funds. It allows them to have a sense of financial empowerment as they do not need to ask others for cash, and gain a sense of independency as they are able to choose what they spend it on.
Another type of practical support comes in the form of mobile phone top-ups. This has been a crucial element of support provided since the start of COVID lockdown, and something we hope to continue being able to provide. Offering top-ups has highlighted the importance of staying connected with each other. Refugee friends are offered a £10 monthly voucher to a network of their choice, allowing access to calls, texts and data. From my experience, phone top-ups are vital as it allows refugee friends to maintain connections to friends, families, solicitors, GP, caseworkers etc. Access to data also provides them with the ability to use the internet, speak to those abroad and join activities via zoom. One of our refugee friends has expressed the importance of these top-ups:
The phone top-ups are extremely good and very very helpful. It allows me to call my solicitor, the hospital, make appointments and have contact with different people. I also use the credit for internet data and attend English classes on zoom.
So much of the practical support we offer today was set up at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. It seems to me, perhaps more than ever, that this type of help is essential and highly valued by those we support.