Because lockdown was the best way to be safe, I have almost liked it. I knew how badly other countries suffered with the virus before it arrived here in the UK. I remember how anxious everyone felt when the first case was found in Swansea. It was miserable not knowing what was happening.
As a full-time volunteer, I spoke to a lot of asylum seekers and refugees who were as anxious as me or may be more. Everyone worried about the delay of lock down. It was too late when it happened. Our family includes a person ‘at risk’ so I kept the kids at home to prevent any exposure to infection – and I stopped volunteering physically. However, my mobile phone was always on for those who asked for service updates, signposting or for general discussion. Everyone, especially from BAME communities, worried about rising death rates.
As soon as the lockdown started, the support services shut their doors. No face to face services and no alternative means of providing them. While the rest of the world was running after toilet rolls and bread, asylum seekers had to wait for their weekly support of £37. Without buses, getting to a cash point was a challenge and then having to queue at the supermarket meant that by the time you got inside the shelves were empty. Prices were also rocketing sky high in local shops so people on asylum support couldn’t cover their basic needs. They had to resort to food banks or bartering – rice for sugar, flour for pasta and so on.
I drew attention to the devastating impact of the lock down of all services for asylum seekers at a Swansea City Volunteer Service (SCVS) steering group meeting. Amanda Carr, director of SCVS, promised they would help people. As lives had moved online, access to the internet at mobile connectivity became a vital lifeline to access the services offered by volunteers. They started by funding phone top-ups to those in most need. As problems worsened, Swansea City of Sanctuary (SCoS) management committee consulted with key support organizations, triggering the creation of the Swansea Covid19 Asylum Seekers / Refugee Service Providers’ Forum. Representing Swansea Women’s Group and SCoS, I focused on the issues facing asylum seeker/refugee. Ethnic Minorities and Swansea Youth Team (EYST) hosted a weekly zoom meeting of all refugee support groups from the start. Representation from Swansea Council ensured that this forum was much more effective in making things happen compared to other meetings in which I participated. Swansea Council’s Local Area Coordinators and wonderful volunteers worked together with SCVS, to support those in need. Outside our circle, I saw a massive solidarity emerging via digital outreach and social media networking which covered all of Swansea and beyond, for example, via Swansea Asylum Seekers Support Group. I realized I was spending more time on Zoom than with my family! My life moved to my workstation in the corner of our living room (see photo below). It was the place where all the magic happened. As volunteers we hoped to create a gentle breeze to sweep the pain away of people suffering.
Initially the need was for basics like food and toiletries. Immigration support and advice about asylum claims proved much more difficult. Once the material need was managed, there was the issue of digital poverty. BAME children are less likely to have IT equipment and Wi-Fi, while asylum seekers weren’t even supposed to possess it. The Hay Brecon and Talgarth Refugee Sanctuary offered us some devices but no group had capacity to manage the distribution of donated devices this equitably. Instead we increased phone top-ups for asylum seekers so they could use their phones and provided online information about available services, housing issues, Section 4 support, free school meals, No Recourse to Public Funds. Asylum seekers are not supposed to have bank accounts, so we are proud of one of our achievements -that free school meal payments are being added to Swansea ASPEN cards – no other council does this, to our knowledge. ASPEN cards have, for long, been subject to criticism. My own personal experiences, together with that as a volunteer with organisations like the Wales Refugee and Asylum Seekers Advocacy Forum, the Welsh Refugee Coalition gave me deep insights into the common issues.
When schools started sending out home learning materials, I received requests for devices and, helped by various organisations, I’ve been personally involved in allocating laptops and tablets to at least ten families. However, despite the Welsh Government releasing £3M for IT equipment, I still encounter people daily who have as yet received no digital resources even though, their children’s education depends on them. As an administrator for the EYST Crisis Fund, I am able officially to support people in need with small grants via support workers – e.g. for children’s clothes – the closure of charity shops has hit hard – or for nappies etc.
I have done many other things over lock down but they are for another time. When an organisation where I have volunteered for over three years offered me an opportunity to work from the safe bubble of my home, it was an amazing opportunity to contribute something vital. Volunteering is now more widespread and let’s just hope that it keeps on growing – a positive outcome perhaps amidst the many tragedies caused by Covid-19.