The need for Refugee Action’s asylum services has never been more vital. I’m Asha, a member of the Experts by Experience network, and I was introduced to Asylum Services Manager, Mary, a few months ago. I was inspired by how she talked about her work. I am delighted to have had the opportunity as Guest Editor of Refugee Action’s newsletter to talk to her about her motivations and what inspires her.
You’ve spent nearly the last 20 working years at Refugee Action, what first inspired you to join the team?
To be honest, it was a bit accidental. I was actually only ever meant to be at Refugee Action for a 3 week placement! I remember worrying at the time that I didn’t have enough knowledge and experience. But I’m so glad I took that step because the passion and inspiration has grown from that initial opportunity.
From a 3 week commitment to a 20-year experience, what’s kept you here after all these years?
It’s a wonderful thing to stumble across something that makes such a strong connection with you. That’s what happened to me in those first three weeks. I stay because the work itself matters. Human rights matter. Fighting against inequality matters.
One part of what’s really motivating is that it’s hard to walk away from that. Yes, there have been challenges over the last 20 years but the work is important enough that you go through those things and stick with it to see positive change.
How have those challenges and your worked generally impacted you?
I’ve learned about the many faces of human nature, the kindness, compassion, resilience and warmth of human beings. But also the brutality and cruelty that people experience and that exists in the asylum system.
I’ve learnt how to better respond to those things. In the early days working as a caseworker I remember those feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. It took me quite a long time before I could process that in a healthier way.
Having gone through that, is there a message you’d want to share with other people starting out in this work?
I’d start by saying that this is an imperfect system and we work in it very often with insufficient resources. That often it feels that you’re not doing enough. But to remember that being part of that force for positive change is important. Hold onto that and remember that it’s okay to feel frustration and anger at the system we’re fighting against. That can be used and channelled positively.
One of the things I’d love to see in the coming years is more stuff done across the sector supporting people’s mental health. That is a real concern for me. Is there something you’d really like to see happen in the coming years?
I completely agree! Increasingly it feels difficult to see how we can continue delivering support services without taking full account of the wider impact the asylum system has on people’s mental health. We need resourced services to respond adequately to this while also being mindful of the impact this work has on staff and volunteers, and putting meaningful support in place for them too.
So, I absolutely agree that we need to do more in this space. We’ve made some progress in ensuring we think about holistic service delivery in our asylum services, but with better resources we could do more.
We’re clearly seeing people traumatised by the asylum system and it’s having a huge impact on mental health and wellbeing. It’s important that we respond to that. I see our Expert by Experience members being a central part of that.
From your time at Refugee Action is there any stand out moments?
There was a transition period where we completely changed how our services were provided. We drilled down into our specialism and expertise and had a clear understanding of the range of needs people going through the asylum system had.
It was a moment in time that allowed us to shape and identify where we were most needed. To be at the start of that and play a role in how we designed and modelled our services going forward is something I’m really proud of.