‘Thank you for coming to visit me’ – these words were said to me by a young man from The Gambia at the end of my first ever visit to see someone held in detention. Never has a humble ‘thank you’ been so heartfelt. The impact of these two simple words in the hours after that visit left me with a very strong feeling that this volunteering endeavour would be the start of something quite extraordinary.
What has happened in the five years since has proved that my sense was spot on. I live just 10 miles from Gatwick Airport and at the time I was working even closer to the airport in Crawley. The airport has two Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) and, as a volunteer of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG), I visited men detained there each week for four years; one man I visited regularly for well over a year. The visits were always challenging and, unsurprisingly, left me feeling ashamed at what is happening in the UK today to so many innocent and highly vulnerable people.
JRS UK regularly visits men detained at the two IRCs at Heathrow airport.
Find out more about our work in detention
I was working for the Catholic diocese of Arundel and Brighton at the time and so was in a good position to promote the befriending work of GDWG, and a new campaign to bring an end to indefinite detention. ‘Refugee Tales’, a project very close to my heart, is an outreach project inspired by both the experiences of men held in immigration detention at Gatwick, and the 20 years of visiting by GDWG volunteers.
My role in the diocese also enabled me to work with other refugee support groups in Surrey and Sussex and network with justice and peace and social action groups on a national level. This inevitably led to me to hear about the work of JRS, and I admired their achievements and values from a gentle distance. However, when the job opportunity of Operations Manager was advertised this time last year I thought this move was meant to be and at the interview I felt very much at home, an unusual feeling for me at interviews!
I started working at JRS last December and after beginning with three of the most exhilarating weeks of my working life, I finally settled into the role in January. Since then I have taken responsibility for a lot of the ’behind the scenes’ work that helps JRS function and have overseen the development of new projects, managed building work, and developed our financial systems.
I feel privileged to be in this line of work, being able to meet our friends here at our day-centre in Wapping each day, and working alongside so many inspirational staff and volunteers. Here at JRS, the team work tirelessly to provide support for people who have come to the UK seeking sanctuary. I’ve also been able to deepen my knowledge and experience of accompaniment thanks to the team around me. Accompaniment can take many forms but it always requires us to be generous, kind and caring towards others. I am always moved when I hear stories from our friends and when I acknowledge or recognise their gratitude. I now recognise far more how much I have learnt and benefited from befriending others.
I still remain a committed volunteer with ‘Refugee Tales’ as the UK is still the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely, and this movement calls for that policy to end.
This Saturday I will be hosting a reunion walk in East Surrey for over 60 walkers, 14 of which have been held in detention. The walk will conclude with a ‘Persian Picnic’ to celebrate one of our ex-detainees from Iran finally getting his status here in the UK. There are happy endings for some and great joy to be had for them and the volunteers who have been able to support them. I have made many new friends.
The walk coincides with this week’s launch of ‘28 Tales for 28 Days’. Each day, the shocking and harrowing stories of those who have experienced detention will be told by leading authors and actors.
28 Tales for 28 Days highlights the need for an end to indefinite detention by reading the stories of those who have experienced it.
We here at JRS also believe it is crucial for refugees’ own voices to be at the heart of the conversation around ending all forms of detention.
As a volunteer visiting people in detention, it is easy to feel helpless at times, but I’ve heard, first-hand, so many ex-detainees say what a difference the visits have made to their lives. I appreciate now more than ever the impact that small acts of care and compassion can make to people’s lives, and how they can shine a small light of hope in the dark void that is life in indefinite detention.
I’d like to finish by saying ‘Thank you’ to the young man from The Gambia I met 5 years ago, I doubt he will ever know the impact that his ‘voice’ has had on me.
Join JRS UK as we call for an end to indefinite detention by writing to your local MP.
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