How one county is helping Afghan refugees settle into the UK
- Credit: PA
Bin liners and plastic bags are piled so high they are almost within touching distance of the ceiling.
These are bags for life - donations for individuals and families forced to flee their home country of Afghanistan and seek refuge in the UK.
Staff and volunteers at storage facilities in Essex are working tirelessly to sift through these countless items, ready to deliver them to families who are currently waiting in quarantine, or adjusting to life in “bridging” hotels as they wait for more suitable accommodation.
Residents were so quick to act that Essex County Council paused its appeal for donations to help those fleeing from the Taliban regime only six days after announcing it.
Warm clothes, shoes, toiletries and other essentials make up the bulk of the stock, since these were the items specifically asked for by the county council.
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British Red Cross Emergency Response Officer Jess Mason heads a group of volunteers who sort and prepare the stock, ready so it can be delivered.
The mountain of unsorted liners is gradually whittled down into piles of men’s and women’s clothing, toys, toiletries, baby items and shoes.
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The volunteers themselves have been through a strict programme of training to help them deal with the emotional effects of working with the families, many of whom have experienced trauma before coming to the UK.
These emergency response teams were first on the scene when the families arrived in their quarantine hotels.
A needs assessment was done with each individual family to find out what they were in dire need of, before the county council launched its appeal.
But before the donations first arrived, the British Red Cross was relying on its own funds to provide aid for the refugees.
Ms Mason said: “The very first few days, before we had the donations, we were using our own resources, which are limited.
“We do have funds that are available to spend on these families, again when things go back into retail those funds get replaced and replenished, so we were going to the local supermarket with our funding card, buying baby milk and nappies, because that was the absolute most emergency need.”
At this initial stage, items for babies such as powdered milk, clothes, nappies and other toiletries were in such high demand they initially bypassed storage and sorting and went straight to the families.
Ms Mason said: “Delivering the donations that we’ve received was an absolute lifeline for them because it was direct to them, they can go out.
“A lot of the initial donations, the baby stuff and the toiletries and the baby clothes, went straight to the families.
“They didn’t even come to storage at all, they went straight there because those sort of things are needed week in week out.”
Some of the families have up to seven children, all living in the same hotel room, Ms Mason said, adding there is barely enough space for them, let alone an excess of donated items.
Toys, however, have been particularly well received, not only helping with the boredom of hotel living but allowing children who have been through so much at such a young age to play and return to normal childhood activities.
“I got sent a picture of a little boy holding a firetruck and the grin on his face was just fantastic,” Ms Mason added.
“So the fact that the toys were needed to help alleviate the boredom of families being trapped in a hotel room, we hear stories of that but there are so many more hurdles rather than good stories unfortunately.”
Ms Mason said: “The British public are brilliant when there’s an appeal, absolutely brilliant, but usually an appeal lasts quite a lot longer, which is probably why people were a bit perplexed that we stopped it so quickly.
“It’s because people were so quick.”
The Government said in August it will resettle 5,000 Afghan refugees nationwide by the end of 2021 and 20,000 over five years.
Several districts in Essex, including Chelmsford and Colchester, have committed to the government’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) or Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS).