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My experience working with refugees

My experience of working with refugees

Alice Crawford, welfare and housing adviser at the Refugee Council, shares her experience of working with refugees.

Following on from our article on how to get a graduate job working with refugees, we asked Alice Crawford to tell us all about her career to date, her role at the Refugee Council and how you can follow in her footsteps through volunteering and work experience.

How did you get into working with refugees?

I had always been interested in working in the international development/poverty alleviation sector, mainly from seeing just how many injustices there are all around me. I started volunteering at a refugee drop-in centre in Cardiff one summer and was then offered a job with Citizens UK – I reached out to them about a campaign I liked just when they were setting up the Welsh branch of the charity and it turned out they had a role going. So it was really just from reaching out to them that an opportunity came up.

What is the recruitment process like at the Refugee Council?

The recruitment process is rigorous. Each interview panel will usually consist of three people and they make it as diverse as possible, in terms of gender and ethnicity as well as – particularly for front line jobs like mine – trying to have a refugee on the interview panel. There will also often be a role play exercise to see how you might work with clients.

Do you need any qualifications or experience?

There were no formal qualifications as a requirement for my role but I did need the right kind of experience for it. I recommend getting volunteering experience. You don’t need a huge amount, but having some is essential for getting paid experience – a real catch 22! Some people are lucky and are able to live at home while working for free. People I’ve met who couldn’t do this had other jobs and did a day of volunteering a week or had evening jobs and volunteered during the day. It does take quite a lot of dedication to get the right experience.

The Refugee Council is a small charity so, as with others like it, the paid positions aren’t usually entry-level. However, another route to working in the refugee charity sector could be to do a paid entry-level job in a related field and then move across.

Apart from volunteering, what other experience would be useful?

I think any customer service work would be helpful, or work where you are assisting others. It could mean working behind the till in a shop and the experiences this brings, for example when someone gets very aggravated and is rude to you; it might feel easy to get very invested in that exchange and get upset afterwards, but it’s up to you to develop the skills of listening, seeing where that person is coming from, maintaining a professional boundary and recognising that it’s not personal to you.

Previous admin jobs can also be helpful. My role is very much office based, which involves lots of writing, using my research skills, speaking on the phone to people of different levels of seniority (MPs, solicitors, councillors) and involves negotiating with government agencies and landlords on behalf of a client.

Could you tell us more about your job role?

I work as the Refugee Council’s integration adviser, concentrating on welfare and housing. The Refugee Council’s Refugee Advice Project was designed to address the ‘move on’ period when people gain refugee status or similar after seeking asylum in the UK. We work with people who have gained refugee status in the last six months. Upon receiving status, refugees have just 28 days to leave the accommodation provided by the Home Office. Almost all of our clients are homeless and/or destitute when they access the project and we help over 90% of those accessing the service to secure stable accommodation.

My main focus areas are supporting refugees who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless to find suitable accommodation, as well as helping people access the welfare and disability benefits they need. Many of our clients have physical disabilities as well as mental health problems, most commonly post-traumatic stress disorder, so it’s really important they are supported with this. When local authorities make a decision about a homelessness application that is unlawful, we assist our clients to challenge it, often through involving a legal aid solicitor.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I would say client contact and building relationships of trust with vulnerable people. I also enjoy telling people about the rights they have as refugees and supporting and empowering them to access these rights. It’s amazing to see people rebuilding their lives – finding a home when they have been homeless and getting the benefits they need to heal from their trauma. It’s also fantastic when people’s family members come from overseas and they settle together here.

What do you find most challenging?

I’ve worked in the sector for six years and developed ways of guarding myself against vicarious trauma, which can be an issue when you are working with people who have suffered a lot as it’s possible for you to absorb some of that. I’ve developed methods of self-care which work well, like building reflective time into my calendar, including clinical supervisions. This is when a psychologist comes in to talk to me and my colleagues about the impact of our work. I also meditate and take time out for reflective practice to think about how what I am hearing and seeing affects me and how my reactions to this may impact on the people I am helping.

I also find supervising the volunteers to be challenging as it’s very different from working with clients and the other parts of my role.

Are there any particular highlights of your career so far?

I would say my work on the case of a woman who was trafficked as a child for sexual exploitation from Albania to Italy. She claimed asylum in the UK and was in danger of being re-trafficked. She realised she was pregnant shortly after arriving here, which was six years ago now. When she was granted refugee status, the local council housed her and her child in accommodation that was very unsuitable for them, and since then they have been moved several times into different accommodation, all of which have been unsuitable.

I have been able to successfully argue to the council that her accommodation is so unsuitable that it effectively means she is homeless, which is typically a difficult case to argue. This should result in her being moved to accommodation more appropriate to her needs. Being able to build a relationship of trust with her has been really important, particularly as she finds this really hard, given all she’s been through.

What skills/qualities are needed to work in this area? How can applicants develop these skills?

  • compassion
  • the ability to listen
  • flexibility
  • intuition
  • sensitivity.

I think that with experience it’s possible to maintain both compassion and an openness to the people in front of you, while at the same time not absorbing the client’s trauma. It’s about recognising that you are part of a framework that has been set up to support this person, but also appreciating that you are only one person and there is only so much you can do.

Where do you see your career going in the future?

I am training to be a solicitor alongside my current role. This entails three evenings studying per week at Birkbeck College, University of London. I hope to become a legal aid lawyer in the future, working with a similar client group to the one I work with in my current role.

With thanks to the Refugee Council for their help with this article.

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