What do you think it’s like to work at Refugee Action? As Guest Editor of our recent newsletter Jack had the opportunity to speak to Berna, who first joined the charity in 2000, about her experiences and favourite memories.
What inspired you to join Refugee Action?
The commitment, dedication and passion the organisation has to help refugees and people seeking asylum to rebuild their lives. I became a first point of the contact for vulnerable clients. I want my work to impact on changes in their lives. I want people to feel more empowered, to be able to plan and direct their own future. Being a refugee myself, that had a big impact on how I want to help. The feelings of isolation and loneliness that people have, I experienced that too a long time ago.
You’ve have been a key part of the team for many years, do you have any standout memories?
Each role I’ve been in has brought me different experiences. One standout moment was when I was working as a detention case worker. We were assisting people at the detention centre so that they could return to their country of origin with dignity and respect. It had a very big impact on me because of what we were doing and what we were trying to achieve. At the time it was very powerful and unusual for Refugee Action to be present at a detention centre. We had many cases where clients who had been detained later got released. They were able to rebuild their lives, and many got their refugee status. It was because we were present to offer advice and support when needed. Overall, in all my roles I’m just very proud that I have the opportunity to influence changes to government policies that deny people seeking safety access to justice.
I imagine working with people when they are most vulnerable, witnessing their ups and downs and having to give news can be quite difficult. How has that impacted you, and its it hard to continue finding joy in what you do?
Working with people seeking asylum when they are living in poverty and destitute is not easy. But I’ve learned so many things from my different roles, I’ve become more confident and gained greater understanding of the difficult situations people face. I always remember that I’m doing this to help ensure that vulnerable people are empowered. That they know their legal routes out of the destitution, how to access the support they need and understand their next steps.
Can you tell me more about the Experts by Experience group you help facilitate?
Our group is a mix of refugees and people seeking asylum across West Midlands who are supported by the Asylum Crisis West Midlands project. The main aim is for these Experts by Experience to talk and bring their experience to the project and lead on its development. They have spoken to us about the challenges they face, difficulties they had experienced on asylum support, and how their confidence and self-esteem is impacted. Based on their feedback we can then improve the service delivery. We can better advocate for them and raise our voice for better government policies.
I’ve developed an obsession with documenting the stories and experiences asylum seekers go through. I’m just wondering if you think preserving and sharing these stories is something that this and the future generations can learn from?
Yes, definitely. We are very active in our current project in producing and collating different people’s stories. We want to share information about what’s going on and how the asylum system, and the failures of the decision-making process have impacted the lives of the people we support. This is something we want everyone to be aware of. It is vital in challenging misinformation and the negativity people have towards people seeking safety.
What do you think the biggest challenge or recurring barrier people seeking safety in the UK face?
I think the main barrier is actually the system and the hostile environment as a whole. The complexity of the asylum system is a key barrier in the search for safety. The weaknesses in how Asylum Support is offered has left an increased number of people vulnerable to homelessness and destitution. People struggle to meet their basic needs and because of this, their well-being deteriorates. These systematic failures prevent people for focusing on their actual claims. There are so many compounding issues that come together and have a really big impact on how people live.
During the last 20 years I’ve seen how this continues to be the main barrier for the people seeking asylum.
It’s like Domino’s all these issues kind of support each other and hold up the system that fails people…
That is why we need to strongly advocate for change and improve access to justice. We can do this by sharing stories and gaining feedback from Experts by Experience. This helps us shape our services and helps influence the changes that are needed so people can have a better life.