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Oxford is Open - Even in Lockdown

Ghazala and Angus, during an Employment Advice session, September 2019
Ghazala and Angus, during an Employment Advice session, September 2019

We took part in a digital first yesterday: Asylum Welcome’s innovative Virtual Open Day, where the charity used Zoom to introduce us to members of their team and discuss how they are adapting to the pandemic conditions.

Asylum Welcome have been supporting Oxfordshire’s refugees and asylum seekers through providing practical support for over 20 years. In normal circumstances, they run an integrated programme of support, which includes a food bank, English teaching, legal advice and advocacy, and much more, with the aim of reducing isolation and suffering among people who have fled persecution and danger in their own countries.

Because of the complex vulnerabilities that refugees, asylum seekers and detainees face, Asylum Welcome calculated that a temporary closure of their centre in response to the social distancing measures would not be an option: the people they help would likely suffer severely if this support were not available, and for many of their clients, there would not be support available elsewhere. Instead, keeping the health and safety of the charity’s employees and volunteers as a top priority, they have transformed the way their support is being delivered.

First, we met Asylum Welcome’s new Director, Mark Goldring: it is his second day on the job, and, in these unusual circumstances, the first time he has set foot in Asylum Welcome’s premises, given the entire recruitment process had to be conducted remotely. Mark emphasised that what drew him to the charity, having previously worked for Oxfam, was the opportunity to make a difference in his own community, right here in Oxford - summed up in the charity’s motto of ‘think global, act local’. Since the lockdown measures have been implemented, backed up by an energetic team of 150 specially-trained volunteers, Asylum Welcome have been able to negotiate housing for people without face-to-face meetings, facilitate contactless food distribution, and provide practical advice and emotional support via phone and video calls.

We then heard from Navid-Almas Farsi, Frontline Services Manager, about particular ways in which the charity has met the unique challenges brought by the pandemic. For example, they successfully petitioned the Home Office to suspend immigration centre visits, which required asylum seekers to travel weekly, fortnightly or 6-monthly for face-to-face meetings. With the nearest centres to Oxford being London and Solihull near Birmingham, the requirement for these visits put people at the additional risk of catching the virus while travelling. The suspension of face-to-face meetings with immigration officers has now been rolled out across the country, thanks to Asylum Welcome’s efforts.

They were also at the forefront of the effort to share information about the pandemic and the required social distancing measures with varying communities of refugees and asylum seekers: working with interpreters to make the official advice available in numerous languages, to ensure that not speaking English was not a barrier to people’s health.

All this comes together to make Asylum Welcome's work extremely important, and appreciated by those who benefit from it. They recently conducted a survey of clients who had received food and cash donations, with positive feedback highlighting 'wonderful volunteers doing the deliveries, the amount of items, the sense of caring'. Like many charities, the requirement for people to stay at home has meant that fundraising has been reduced, just when the need for these services has increased. While this energetic organisation is doing all it can to meet these new challenges, and doing a lot with a little, any donations you can afford would make a huge difference to the lives of the particularly vulnerable communities that Asylum Welcome reaches.

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