When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, JRS UK had to respond quickly and work flexibly to adapt our services so that we could continue to serve refugee friends whilst we were unable to see people face to face. My role as the Emergency Response Team coordinator was to ensure that phone credit, hardship payments and food parcels were provided for all those who needed them throughout the pandemic, and with the support of many volunteers and staff members, we managed to deliver this.
However, as restrictions began to lift in the UK, we began to reflect on how these services would evolve in the future. Should we return to the Day Centre style provision that JRS was known for before the pandemic? Did people still need food parcels on a regular basis?
Do the benefits of social interaction outweigh the more practical support of phone top-ups and hardship payments? By the beginning of this year, although refugee friends were coming into the centre to collect their food and toiletries from the JRS shop, to attend activities and for casework appointments, I would be asked regularly by volunteers, colleagues, and refugee friends – “When is JRS going to open again?”
Do you know that £5 can provide a refugee with a one-month supply of toiletries?
I knew we needed to adapt our provision, but I didn’t know how. It didn’t seem right to just return to how we were running before the pandemic without taking into account what had changed for the people we serve over the past two years. So, I arranged some focus groups where friends could come together and talk about what they would like to see at JRS.
With the help of colleagues and volunteers, we facilitated discussions in four different languages (English, French, Arabic and Amharic). It was really interesting to hear different people’s experiences. There was a lot of reminiscing about the benefits of the Day Centre. As we thought, having a place to come to socialise with others, have a hot meal and have some time away from the struggles of daily life was very important for people. It helped their mental health and enabled them to connect with other services and activities. However, when presented with the option of having the Day Centre or the shop, overwhelmingly people voted to keep the shop. This completely changed my plans. I had expected to slowly wind down the shop and prepare to return to a weekly Day Centre. But this was not what people wanted or needed at this time. So instead, I started working on ideas of how we can incorporate more socialising space at JRS but continue providing food and toiletries through the shop.
This experience showed me how vital it is to proactively seek out input from refugee friends on how we run our services and I started to think about other ways to do this. I created a suggestions box to be placed in the shop where friends could tell us what they would like to see provided for them. Some ideas are things we already expected but are difficult to provide – like more fresh meat, fruits and vegetables instead of tinned food, but others are less obvious and quite easy to add to our provision – like custard creams and washing up liquid! Some friends used the opportunity to share their gratitude for the support they received from JRS, and others express that they are still struggling financially or have no permanent accommodation.
We know that we are not going to be able to please everyone, and unfortunately, we do not have the solutions to many of the challenges facing our refugee friends. But at least by encouraging their input and participation when planning services, we can be confident that we are responding in a way that is useful and appropriate to their needs.
We are always looking for physical items to support our refugees at our JRS shop