Skip to main content

My Journey as a manager with lived experience as a refugee

By May 18, 2023May 25th, 2023Blog post

Lived Experience of Managing Navigating Asylum Partnership (NAP) Programme

In August 2021, Kabul fell to the Taliban again, and I quit my job in England to join a group of friends to help evacuate and resettle people fleeing Afghanistan, including my own parents. I had to take them through a few countries before I could find one where they were granted temporary residence. I didn’t speak the languages in those countries and didn’t understand the asylum system, so I felt completely helpless.

That is why I decided to find a job in the refugee sector to help others, and that’s when I stumbled upon the Navigating Asylum Partnership (NAP) Manager position at Refugee Action.

I was positively thrilled to learn about the concept of Asylum Guides (AGs). Reflecting on my journey, I realised the invaluable support a guide could provide. I also noticed that the job was ringfenced for people with ‘lived experience’. I had to stop and take a step back to consider what it meant. I wasn’t sure if being someone with lived experience was empowering or a reminder of the traumatising experiences of being an asylum seeker. However, as I continued the journey of navigating the asylum partnership, the answer became clearer to me, and I hope it will become clearer to you too as you continue reading.

I was thrilled to get the job as the NAP Manager, joining Refugee Action’s Good Practice and Partnerships team. Being the only manager with lived experience on the team made me question whether there were different expectations and extra pressure on me to prove myself. This question hangs over my head like a question mark. Although I have previous project management experience, this title made me doubt my abilities, especially since I needed to catch up on the last two and half years of the programme; NAP was launched in June 2020, and I started at the end of October 2022. My first task was to go through the very comprehensive and slightly intimidating handover notes from the previous NAP Manager.

The Asylum Guide model, based on Refugee Action’s principles of early action and access to justice, aimed to reach asylum seekers early in their journey and provide them with clear information about their rights within the asylum system. The model relied on carefully selected partner organisations and trained volunteers, preferably individuals with lived experience, to assist others. After familiarising myself with the team and undergoing internal orientation, I met with the NAP partners.

Despite each partner having a different structure and management style, they shared a common passion for helping others and a belief that every person seeking refuge in the UK deserves a fair chance at safety and dignity. I was struck by how successfully the Asylum Guides model was incorporated in these different organisational structures.

A key aspect of the NAP program was engaging people with lived experience of claiming asylum at operational and strategic levels. To this end, each partner was asked to introduce two asylum guides with lived experience to form a part of the NAP Expert by Experience (EBE) Steering Group.

I don’t do very well with jargonistic terminology. I was still struggling with the “lived experience” label and now had to grapple with the term EBE. I had never heard of it outside the mental health sector and found it hard to come to terms with. I tried dissecting the term: expert by experience of what? Am I an expert on the UK asylum system or am I an expert on how it feels to have been through the system? I can go on and on, but I wouldn’t want to give you the same headache I gave myself. In the end, I decided to get over the terminology and focus on its intent which is to centre the voices of refugees and asylum seekers in the work that Refugee Action does.

The NAP Expert-by-experience group was meant to collaborate with the NAP Creative Learning team to evaluate the program and contribute to campaigns for systemic change.

I was excited to work with this group, and I observed the level of enthusiasm and hard work put into its establishment and to contribute to the evaluation and learning of the program, share experiences, and contribute learnings to campaigns such as Fight the Anti-Refugee Laws and Lift the Ban in an effort to affect systemic change.. One of the key learnings from the programme is that effective engagement with EBE groups require substantial investment, including time and budget, clarity of purpose, managing expectations, ensuring continuity, and understanding risks.

We all knew that the Asylum Guide model worked, and its biggest strength was its resilience and ability to adapt while maintaining the integrity of purpose. But unfortunately, Comic Relief decided not to extend funding in the final months of the project, leading to a shift in my role from reinvigorating the partnership to winding down the project. I questioned whether the outcome would have been different if managed by someone without lived experience. Evidently not, but the fact that I asked myself this question is telling of how identities affect our perceptions and expectations.

Despite facing challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and unfavourable government policies, the Asylum Guides model proved resilient and adaptable. I encourage anyone interested to visit the Asylum Guide website for resources on setting up an asylum guide programme or supporting someone claiming asylum.

These resources are developed in collaboration with partners and beneficiaries, reflecting our commitment to involving lived experiences. The NAP Creative Learning partner also played a vital role in ensuring inclusive processes were in place for evaluating the programme and documenting lessons learned. This collective knowledge is the invaluable legacy of NAP that will continue to inform and shape future initiatives in the refugee sector, ensuring that the voices and needs of asylum seekers are central to the support they receive.

As the project and my contract come to an end, I am hopeful that there will continue to be asylum guides to support and provide hope for people seeking asylum. The experience of feeling abandoned and losing hope is devastating for individuals and society. The compassion displayed by everyone involved in the refugee sector, whether they have lived experience or not, is undeniable.

Through my involvement, I have learned that working in the refugee sector as someone with lived experience does bring back memories of the traumatising experiences of being an asylum seeker. However, given the right support from the people we work with it can also be healing and empowering. I also understand that the system is intrinsically biased, and having a job ringfenced for someone like me with lived experience of forced displacement and seeking asylum is an attempt to overcome this structural racism. Despite the challenges, creating opportunities for people seeking asylum is a rewarding task, and the success of the NAP programme is evident in the fact that some participants have become Asylum Guide volunteers and even hired as paid coordinators and managers in partner organisations – a small but powerful ripple to shift power.