My Volunteering Experience: Migrants Organise
During my first year of university I eagerly attended many academic talks/conferences around my personal interests of social and health challenges. I listened to powerful stories and innovative solutions for issues ranging from sustainable food systems to healthcare access for migrants and whilst I left these events feeling inspired and motivated, I did not pursue my thoughts with action. I became acutely aware of this and, tired of not working towards my vision of social and health equality, I felt compelled to get directly involved in community volunteering. Previously, I had volunteered in charitable organisations but I was repeatedly confronted with a lack of satisfaction since the volunteering was not directly related to the operational work of the charity, consequently it was difficult to trace my time and investment to a tangible outcome. Of course, indirect and distant volunteering is necessary and incredibly valuable but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted to be directly engaged with the organisation’s actions and connect with the people involved. My volunteering experience turned a corner when I realised the ways you can support organisations and initiatives in a more personal and direct way. I discovered this through volunteering with the charity ‘Migrants Organise’ which is a grass-roots platform that supports migrants from all backgrounds organise for power, dignity and justice.
I am interested in migration since it is global in scale yet its impacts manifest deeply at a local scale as well. It has profound economic and political implications, yet people are at the heart of the process. Consequently, it is a deeply social phenomenon which requires a simultaneously holistic and people-focused approach. In recent decades, the migrant community in the UK have faced increased barriers to accessing public services due to the ‘hostile environment’. This term refers to a series of policies introduced in 2012 which aim to reduce the ‘pull factors’ (positive features that attract people to move to a particular location) of migrating to the UK by making it more difficult to access welfare and public services. Furthermore, the Immigration Act of 2014 expanded the NHS charging regulations for overseas visitors which made accessing health care more challenging. The impacts of these policies are damaging and dangerous, and accumulating evidence increasingly suggests that the policies are detrimental. In light of this, prominent institutions including the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians have called for a review of the charging regulations. Recently, some of the damaging impacts have been made more visible due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has accentuated the challenges faced by the migrant community.
I decided to work with Migrants Organise because I could be involved in community work, connect with members and provide direct help whilst increasing my understanding of the experiences and challenges of migration. The charity’s philosophy is that “Migration is fact of life, instead of resisting it – let’s organise it”. This philosophy resonates strongly with me as it aligns perfectly with my own—I believe the politically charged view of migration as being detrimental and an impending crisis is not only flawed and abhorrently unjust but also completely useless. It is naïve to ignore the challenges of migration because there are many, yet this is exactly why efforts should be concentrated on organising migration rather than implementing hostile policies in an aggressive bid to reduce migration. Migration has been part of the human journey from the beginning, it exists today and will continue to do so. The advocacy for and creation of platforms for change and justice by Migrants Organise is immensely valuable and necessary for the migrant community who are greeted with much political hostility. This hostility perpetuates harmful and unfair narratives about migration whilst simultaneously degrading the lives of people.
My volunteering experience:
My engagement with the organisation began in the community mentor programme. I became paired with a member in a mentor/mentee relationship. Each individual volunteer is paired to a member according to their personal skills and attributes and what they can bring to the relationship. Each partnership is different and the volunteering experience will differ vastly for everyone as each volunteer is collaborating with people whose experiences and goals are unique. My mentorship has taken the form of helping a member develop her English and communication skills. When the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, the voluntary sector was shaken immensely. Community volunteering especially relies on face-to-face interactions and the period of lockdown brought some major organisational changes since services had to be transferred to remote platforms. The staff and volunteers of Migrants Organise had to perform their roles from home and transfer their services to remote delivery methods. For me in my mentoring relationship, this took the form of continuing English sessions over Skype. This has been a vastly different experience to in person meet-ups yet I have learnt to appreciate the quirks of delivering online sessions. On one hand it was difficult to schedule the sessions due to communication difficulties, yet, on the other, the internet has proved to be a valuable translation resource which has been helpful in navigating the language barrier between me and my mentee.
During lockdown I decided to immerse myself further in Migrants Organise’s remote volunteering so I joined the buddy phone call scheme in which I was allocated a list of members to call on a weekly basis to check in with and have a general chat. The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but lockdown was by no means an equaliser as the experience and challenges it brought varied immensely between people. The migrant community have been disproportionately affected since their immigration status causes their lived experience to be shaped so acutely by external factors and government policies. For example, migrants residing in temporary accommodation may be moved to a new address suddenly or be unable to access government and public health advice due to technology or language barriers.
When phoning members, I found it difficult to be confronted with distressing situations and be unable to provide immediate assistance yet Migrants Organise’s network of volunteers, staff, and connected organisations is vast and supportive, and the central staff are innovative in delegating the appropriate action to be taken. The plethora of challenges raised in phone conversations motivated me to pursue further responsibility in delivering more personalised support for members. This took the form of casework and involved a diverse range of tasks such as applying for grants, liaising with social workers, obtaining evidence from the Home Office and general administrative tasks. Casework has been a particularly challenging element of the volunteering experience yet immensely rewarding and I have learnt so much about the experiences of people as migrants in the UK in addition to practical knowledge about the immigration system, public services, and the charity sector.
Amongst the difficulties encountered, communication stands out as being consistently challenging as it is tough to communicate with people for the first time remotely, especially when the topic is sensitive or personal. There have been instances where I needed to obtain sensitive and/or important information across language barriers, technology barriers, and the understated barrier of being an unknown face. The challenge of effective communication has taught me to be patient and furthermore improved my endurance in overseeing tasks to the final outcome.
Whilst the experience was challenging, it by no means lacked reward. The level of gratitude people showed me was humbling and incredibly rewarding in itself, but an achievement I am particularly proud of is helping Migrants Organise establish a partnership with another charity. The partnership enables them to obtain laptops for members with children who are unable to access digital technology. Lack of digital technology was a challenge brought to light by the pandemic and, when speaking with members, I was repeatedly confronted with similar stories of children being isolated from their education since learning was transferred to online platforms. Multiple families have received laptops through this partnership which will be incredibly valuable for the children’s educational progress, mental health, and ability to connect with their peers. On a personal level I found this deeply satisfying as the positive benefits were immediately clear and tangible. I am proud to have enabled this and observing such beneficial and substantial outcomes has motivated me to continue to work hard and compassionately. My experiences have taught me to uphold this attitude not just in volunteering work, but all spheres of life.
Author: Abigail Lampkin
Editor: Chloe Lee