‘It brings me joy’: Meet 5 refugees giving back to Britain during coronavirus
They came here to escape war and famine - and, after being welcomed to Suffolk in their time of crisis, these refugees have now devoted their lives to supporting us in ours.
The coronavirus pandemic has put a huge strain on the British way of life, from the restrictions of lockdown to the very real struggles people have faced with job losses and social isolation.
It has taken heroic nurses, carers, shop workers and others to bridge the gap, with many of those being refugees who have made huge sacrifices for the good of their adopted nation.
“Over recent months we have all become more aware of the importance of key workers, in particular people doing vital work that might previously have been under-appreciated,” says the charity Suffolk Refugee Support, which is marking some of the refugees giving back to the county during Covid-19 as part of Refugee Week.
“Among the refugees who have found safety in Suffolk over the years, many are employed in these roles, perhaps because their experience of trauma and hardship has given them a stronger sense of empathy, compassion and community.”
So who are those helping out? Here are five remarkable stories of refugees helping people in Suffolk during the crisis. Some have asked us to only use their first name or initial.
Seraphine - care worker
As a carer at a nursing home for older people in Ipswich, Seraphine said: “I feared catching coronavirus through work.”
The Covid-19 crisis has been doubly challenging for the Rwandan refugee, who has also had to home school her three children when she should be resting from her job on the frontline against the virus.
“I normally work night shifts and sleep during the day when my children have gone to school but, during coronavirus, it has been difficult because they don’t go to school,” she said.
“I have to sleep just a short time, so that I can help my children while my husband works.”
While she realises that personal protective equipment (PPE) is important in her role, she also says it had created a barrier between her and those she is caring for.
Yet despite all the challenges and the risks to her own health, she said: “I felt that it is my duty to help even more, because this is the time those people that I help need me the most.
“I feel privileged that I have been able to help during this difficult time.
“It brings me joy to help people while talking to them and how they appreciate the help I provide. People in the care home can be lonely without anyone from outside to talk to, especially during this time when no visitors are allowed.
“Sometimes I stay longer than my time, just to talk to someone who might need to talk.”
Seraphine has also received awards for her voluntary work with Suffolk Refugee Support, winning Inspirational Learner of the Year and Outstanding Learner of the Year at the 2019 Suffolk Adult Learners’ Awards.
Adib Mahmudi - shop owner
Moving to a new school would be daunting enough for any 14-year-old.
However, when Adib Mahmudi moved to Ipswich from Iran in 2004, he spoke “absolutely no English whatsoever”.
Having arrived with his parents, who were refugees for political reasons, Adib said: “It was very difficult to start with.
“If you decide to move to a different town, that is a challenge - but moving to a new country with a different culture and language is even harder.”
However, he slowly but steadily mastered the language and settled in - and is full of praise for how he was made to feel welcome in Suffolk.
“Generally, as a community, English people have been really positive,” he said.
“They tried to help when they knew I didn’t know the language, for example by speaking slower.
“I’m pretty sure racism is out there in every country and that there are racist people everywhere. However, for me as a person, I’ve never experienced racism or discrimination.”
Adib, who arrived in 2004, now works as an IT technician at Debenham High School.
He also manages Your Local, a shop run by refugees which provides work for refugees for Kurdistan, Syria and elsewhere.
The shop provides a valuable service all year round, with an array of food from around the world to make people from different cultures feel at home.
However the store, with its fresh fruit and veg, deli counters and bakery with a traditional oven, has been particularly important during the coronavirus crisis - with Adib and his colleagues delivering to self-isolating customers.
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Adib believes anyone emigrating to the UK “has a duty to learn the language and engage with the community”.
He added: “The majority of things that become a problem start from a language barrier.
“If you have an understanding of the language, you will be able to understand the culture as well.
“I’ve been able to make friends here. I feel like I’m at home here.”
Francois - social worker
Seraphine’s husband Francois likewise said he was “scared about catching coronavirus by visiting people” - but added: “I felt a sense of responsibility to make sure that those I am supporting are safe and have all the support they need.”
After completing a social work degree at the University of Suffolk, he works in adult community services by providing professional advice to vulnerable people, as well as carrying out assessments and reviews.
He said: “It has been difficult to work from home having to support our children while my wife Seraphine is sleeping after a night shift.”
However, he said: “Due to the nature of our jobs, we had to adjust to new ways of working to ensure the people I work with are supported.
“Each time I finish work, I can’t stop thinking about the people I am supporting.
“Some of them live alone in the community and I always understand that I might be the only person who will speak to them the whole day.
“Each morning, I make sure that I go through the list on my caseload giving them a call to ensure that they are okay.
“I feel so happy that I have been able to give my contribution to my community during this time of crisis.”
T - hospital cleaner
As a cleaner at Ipswich Hospital, some people urged T to stop working during the Covid-19 pandemic “because it was too dangerous”.
She admitted she was “scared at the beginning about coronavirus”.
However, she said: “I couldn’t imagine not working and didn’t want to sit at home doing nothing. I have to work.”
T has worked at the hospital for three years, after volunteering with Suffolk Refugee Support to build up her confidence and her employability skills.
She has praised hospital staff for being supportive throughout the crisis.
“I like the fact that my role is appreciated and all the publicity about the NHS and that all jobs at the hospital are seen as vital,” she said.
Tajinder - test and trace worker
Tajinder, from Afghanistan has worked hard to improve his English language skills since arriving in the UK in February 2019.
He says people have been “warm and welcoming” in helping him and his family to start a new life in Ipswich.
And he now has a crucial role in the fight against coronavirus, working on the test and trace campaign to alert people who may have come into contact with coronavirus and give them advice on how to deal with it.
He recognises that “this campaign is very important in order to turn the tide and prevent a second wave of infection”, adding that getting people to self-isolate where necessary will “break the chain”.
Tajinder believes his work will “make a big impact with the community, especially NHS staff and vulnerable people”.
He added: “By helping people, we can protect the citizens who are at greater risk and ease the NHS staff from the burden of incoming new cases.
“Our frontline team will also be better protected when they have to deal with less infectious cases.
“In the current situation where many workers are laid down from jobs, we are blessed to have a full-time job while remaining in our home.
“While working, we are paying tax and contributing to the economy while helping people and keeping them safe.”
■ For more information on Refugee Week activities in the county and the work of Suffolk Refugee Support, visit www.suffolkrefugee.org.uk
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