“People ask us, ‘how do you do it when you hear horrific stories every day’,” two coordinators explain the motivation behind a Stockwell project providing a ‘friending’ service to refugees.
The London Welcome Project hosts a specialist Sunday service for asylum seekers and refugees in need of company, hot food and help with English and practical paperwork, such as CVs.
Volunteers Maria Makri and Sophie Agrotis are both keen to make sure I don’t give away the details of those they help and pepper our interview with requests not to print certain facts.
They haven’t said anything incendiary but they are just fiercely protective of the refugees who come through their door each week, people just looking for food and friends.
The project began in May 2013, when three volunteers from the Hackney Migrant Centre noticed a gap in provisions for asylum seekers and refugees on Sundays and decided to act on it.
Relying solely on volunteers and donations, the London Welcome Project is the only service offering such provisions on a Sunday in south London.
Sophie, 26, said the service is about helping people adjust to the often harsh conditions faced by a refugee, often thousands of miles from their homes.
She said: “We wanted to create a space where people could meet together and potentially eliminate the isolation refugees face.”
SUNDAY SCHOOL: Refugees gather to play board games and socialise
This was echoed by Maria, 29, who described the project as more of a ‘friending’ service as many people come along from the surrounding community irrespective of whether they are seeking asylum or not.
“We don’t give advice, what we do is cook lunch every Sunday as a group, provide a library, board games, and computers with the internet,” she said.
“Mainly it’s more about giving a sense of community.”
This sense of community was evident in the way they supported Ali, a photographer and artist who fled from Iran to claim asylum due to his political beliefs.
Through crowdsourcing, the group and the community funded artist supplies so Ali could make a calendar, which was then sold to help fund the project further.
While the sense of community is important, I was struck most by the range of support offered, especially in things I would take for granted.
As a Londoner who relies on public transport and Google Maps to navigate, I am immensely fortunate that any journey is never more than a quick internet search and an Oyster tap away.
This isn’t the case for many refugees, who must negotiate the foreign, complex and loud expanses of London to attend events that dictate whether or not they are allowed to stay in the UK.
To help combat this London Welcome Project introduced the Bike Project where with the help of volunteers, refugees can fix up donated bicycles to keep and ride in London.
TWO WHEELS GOOD: Volunteers fix up bikes
Maria told me the scheme a practical way of affording people independence, while also stressing the essential need of refugees to be able to get around London.
“People in the asylum process often have to pay extortionate fees for public transport, having to travel around for meetings, interviews and various other things even after they have a secure status,” she said.
“They aren’t allowed to work when in the process, so the project enables those who don’t have access to a lot of cash to travel independently around London.”
These bikes come from a range of donors including local bike shops, who now offer stock to support the project.
The organisers remained impressively upbeat when I asked them about the current climate of stigma towards refugees.
Instead of criticising those who have cultivated such a stigma, the two highlighted how inspiring refugees were to them.
And as for the heart-rending stories the volunteers hear every week, Maria said: “Well to me their stories are not just horrific, they are inspiring as well.
“Who could blame someone who wants a better future for themselves for their children?
“I’m here to do something and that’s why I can’t leave the field, I hope more people will join us.”
If you want to get involved with the project, you can email [email protected], or phone 07438506392.