“Our refugee friends embark on a journey whose destination is uncertain, and fraught with danger. People move from one place to another in the hope of a new life and a new beginning. Sometimes they can be like thespians embodying a role and bringing a script to life. As such, reinvention becomes a necessity and it, therefore, behoves the newly arrived to assimilate, learn a new language, integrate and become embedded in the customs and norms of their adopted land. Theoretically, this ought to be a seamless transition, but it is not always the case and sometimes people can feel marginalised and on the “peripheries of society”. The constrictive measures that are put in place by the government such as the barriers to health care, career opportunities, and education lead to stagnation, a lack of intellectual stimulation and a state of helplessness for our refugee friends.”
Phone-befriending – where it all started
It starts, as always with listening: we listen to refugees and their needs, and accompany them to understand what they may lack; and according to that, we shape our services, so that they fit perfectly with their needs. We make sure to treat refugee friends with respect and interact with them on an individual basis from the time they first register with JRS and moving forward. The acknowledgement of their individuality as human beings, recognised by their names and not numbers or labels makes a difference in their lives.
During those first whirlwind days of lockdown in March & April 2020, we heard from refugee friends how the isolation was affecting them negatively. Not only that they were living far away from their families in a different country, but they were also isolated from JRS’s centre, other organisations who offered support, and their network of friends.
In response to this, we set up a new phone befriending project, as a way to connect volunteers befrienders with refugee friends, so that they could check in on each other during the most isolating times of the pandemic. Volunteers were, and still are, matched with refugee friends to keep in touch with, usually on a weekly basis. As time went on a rapport builds up, and friendships are formed – volunteers and refugee fiends become mentors and confidants to one another.
“I have been surprised how much help my befriender has offered and given on the phone and through others when necessary. I cannot say thank you enough.”
-JRS refugee friend
“When I speak to A, it is just like speaking with my father.”
JRS refugee friend commenting on his experience of speaking to a befriending volunteer.
Our phone befrienders are a real help for me and my team – it was impossible the JRS team to reach out to over 100 refugee friends each week, without the support of a network of befriending volunteers to support the team.
Knowing refugee friends are being supported and accompanied regularly is critical to our day-to-day work at JRS, as refugee friends will often disclose something to their befriender that they may not see as important to raise with the JRS team – something as simple as issues with phone credit top-ups, or something more concerning about their health and wellbeing. Each week, volunteer befrienders send me feedback and reports from their conversations that week: these reports allow me to pick-up on any immediate needs that the JRS team may be able to help with.
We were over the moon to hear feedback from befriending volunteers and refugee friends alike: befrienders often share how talking to a refugee friend brings a smile to their face each time, and 86% of our refugee friends shared that the scheme had a positive impact on them in the past year.
“Of the 10 or 12 people I have befriended since the start of Covid (since March/April 2020) I have developed a strong and supportive relationship with maybe two thirds: I think my calls are important to them. A handful call me when they need to.
“…it is a rewarding scheme which offers me as a befriender a satisfying role’.
Sharing good news & the future of befriending
I support befriending volunteers and refugee friends, and so often am the first point of contact to both. The thing I enjoy most about my role is hearing the good news from our refugee friends – being granted leave to remain or hearing stories about someone celebrating their birthday fills my heart with happiness.
As the world is now returning to normality, the phone befriending scheme is opening up an evolving too – volunteers and refugee friends have begun meeting in person, as well as over the phone – it’s really wonderful!
Did Liliane’s article inspire you? If so, we are always looking for volunteers to support our JRS team. Our volunteers have made a huge difference over the last year and you can be a part of that.