Mary started at RETAS as a volunteer in early 2015 and following this worked as an employment and education adviser until the middle of last year. She was an incredible asset to the organisation and had an amazing impact on so many service users. While we were incredibly sad to lose her, we were thrilled that she is still working in the sector and that she can now channel some of her frustrations and expert knowledge into her work with Asylum Matters.
What was your favourite thing about working at RETAS?
My favourite thing about working at RETAS was the feeling of welcome the minute you walk through the doors. I started at RETAS as a volunteer during a time of personal struggle, and the opportunity to give my time to help others and be part of something important really made a difference to my own life. The staff, volunteers and service users instantly made me feel like I was part of the RETAS family, and it is this warmness and openness that makes RETAS so special. As the CEO Roger says, RETAS is easy to enter but hard to leave! I still try to go and visit whenever I can.
What were the three biggest challenges you saw people face when you worked at RETAS?
It’s hard to chose three as there are so many challenges that people face as they journey through the asylum system and start a new life here in the UK.
Sadly, a huge challenge that we saw many of our service users face is hunger. People who are seeking asylum can find themselves destitute, for example if their Home Office payments are delayed or stopped at different stages of the legal process. Even those with refugee status, and therefore access to mainstream benefits, can struggle to access those entitlements, also leading to destitution. For these people, RETAS always has the fridge and cupboards stocked and a hand-out with a list of local food banks and drop-ins such as PAFRAS and Meeting Point.
Another challenge that we saw our service users struggle with at RETAS is homelessness. Newly granted refugees are only given 28 days by the Home Office to leave their asylum housing, access mainstream benefits and secure alternative accommodation. It is often impossible to secure housing in this time, particularly now that Universal Credit is being rolled out as new claims take 35 days to process. Homelessness is a huge challenge that really destabilizes and traumatizes refugees at a time when they should be being supported to find their feet and start afresh.
Finally, a challenge that I saw many people face and overcome is integration. It is never easy to make a fresh start anywhere, but in a new country, often with a new language and culture to adapt to, it can be incredibly difficult to feel at home and part of society. This is why the Steps to Settlement courses, ESOL classes, job search support and social activities that RETAS runs are so important, because they give people a leg up on their journey to integration.
How important is the work that RETAS does?
The work that RETAS does is vital. I have seen clients come back to visit who we originally met 10 years ago, which shows the value that the clients themselves place on the work that RETAS does. People often describe how, in the face of difficult challenges, without RETAS they wouldn’t have had anywhere to go. No matter what people are going through, and no matter what stage they’re at in their asylum/integration journey, at RETAS they will find tailored support and a warm welcome. That is why it is so important that RETAS is a place where the doors are always open.
How are you channeling your experiences of frontline work into your new role with Asylum Matters?
Asylum Matters seeks to amplify the voices of asylum seekers and refugees and the challenges that they face. It is important that the voices of people with lived experience of the asylum system are heard and working on the ground has given me the chance to engage with those voices. You see the injustices that refugees and asylum seekers face day-to-day at RETAS but have very little power to change the systemic issues at the root of these injustices. Working at Asylum Matters has given me the opportunity to channel the frustrations I encountered whilst providing frontline support into striving to affect social and political change.
What is one hope that you have for the asylum system in the near future?
My one hope is that policy makers will listen to the voices of refugees and asylum seekers, and the people who support them, in order to better understand the significant challenges faced whilst going through the asylum system and to address them. Policy changes that would make a huge difference to peoples’ lives include allowing asylum seekers the right to work; extending the move-on period to 56 days to reduce refugee homelessness; and a genuine move away from a “hostile environment” that is dehumanizing and demoralizing, to an asylum system that treats people who flee to the UK with dignity and kindness.
Established in 2002, RETAS (Refugee Education Training Advice Service) has a vision to see all refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants to feel welcome and supported to fully integrate into society.
We provide assistance with access to education, re-qualification, training and employment to help them better integrate in their communities. We strive to build confidence and hope in our service users, and empower them to build a safe and secure life here in the UK.
233-237 Roundhay Road
The Roundhay Road Resource Centre
Leeds, LS8 4HS
Tel: 0113 380 5630