ASSIST Sheffield

Challenging asylum destitution

Elizabeth - Helpdesk volunteer

Fri, 08/12/2016 - 14:51 -- Cath Baldwin

Following her internship at UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), Elizabeth – a law graduate studying for a masters in Sheffield – decided she wanted to volunteer with asylum seekers. Searching online for local opportunities, she quickly found ASSIST Sheffield.

She started off volunteering at the night shelter. She applied to work with Advocacy, but they were not recruiting at that time. But the Helpdesk – who run the Wednesday drop-in at Victoria Hall – were in desperate need of an administrator, a role Elizabeth was more than able to fill.

However, her role is not restricted to making electronic copies of English class materials, legal letters, and all the various other documents that enable ASSIST Sheffield to function. She was encouraged to meet ASSIST Sheffield’s clients and to hear their stories, and get to know the people she was helping. This pleased Elizabeth, who enjoys meeting people from different cultures, particularly asylum seekers, who invariably have interesting stories to tell.

But this was not the only advantage of volunteering with ASSIST Sheffield. Not originally from Sheffield, Elizabeth did not really feel at home here, and was struggling to integrate well at university. At ASSIST Sheffield, however, she found people who were kind, compassionate and sensitive to the needs of others. Sometimes her voluntary work involves listening to distressing stories and worrying for the clients. But surrounded by such people, it is easy to take the bad with the good. When she was going through some personal issues, the people around her at ASSIST Sheffield proved a supportive community.

Friends ask Elizabeth how she can do this kind of work, which she struggles to understand as it’s “lovely” seeing these people. They have gone through so much, but still laugh and joke, and in general she has always found them to be very polite even in difficult situations. Elizabeth is dismissive of the idea that asylum seekers are ‘freeloaders’, and instead describes them as ‘inspirational’. They have helped her to put aspects of her own life into perspective, she is more grateful and less phases her.

Elizabeth cannot remain at ASSIST Sheffield indefinitely. In a few months she will move back home. But that doesn’t mean she will give up working on behalf of asylum seekers. “You get drawn to it, you can’t really explain it,” she says. “It’s a case of ‘why wouldn’t you?’ instead of ‘why would you?”