Copyright meets two sets of friends from very different backgrounds to discover how Bristol refugee organisation b.friend is helping the city’s newest residents settle in.
The refugee crisis in Europe is impossible to ignore. The hundreds of thousands of people fleeing persecution, war and economic turmoil are, quite rightly, at the forefront of the news. But behind the epic figures and political stalemates are individuals. Sometimes the human story is diluted – journey’s ending in stable democratic states. Bristol refugee organisation b.friend looks beyond this and into what can be an un-certain and, at times, frightening future. By pairing up refugees in Bristol with people already living in the city, the organisation encourages friendships to blossom, making the difficult process of settling into a new country much easier. We spoke to two pairs of people involved with b.friend to discover how these relationships, far from being one-sided, are enriching all their lives.
Layla & Clare
Clare (43): I heard about b.friend about three years ago. I had volunteered before for Refugee Women of Bristol teaching conversation class and I wanted to do something similar again. I eventually completed my training with b.friend this January.
Layla and I are still developing our relationship under the umbrella of b.friend but we have agreed that we will be friends for life.
I’ve grown very fond of Layla and her family. She’s made my job very easy by each week having something for us to talk about. I hope I’ve been able to help in practical ways. Very early on, I found out that Layla likes to read romance novels. So I rang Bristol central Library and tried to find out what there was in Arabic and after a little bit of probing I found out there were no novels available at that time, although some budget money was going to be made available. I popped it on Facebook and old friend of mine living in UAE managed to get hold of some and bring them back.
Clare (left) and Layla (right) have been meeting since February.
When Layla and her family were granted asylum so many things changed for them very rapidly. They were given a month to leave their accommodation and the benefits they were receiving stopped. They were in between benefits and still are in between homes. Layla invited me to a meeting with the Red Cross, I remember the lady saying to her ‘Because you have children, you won’t be made destitute’, and that really shocked me. Had Layla been here without her children a month after being granted asylum she could have been effectively homeless.
After they’re asylum seeker benefits stopped it took a few weeks to process they’re new benefits so the Red Cross supported them, they were given destitution support, £10 per week per person. That was a hard time. This has given me an insight into just how hard the process is.
Layla (39): I heard about the b.friend organisation through refugee action but I’d never thought about getting involved with a project like this before.
Clare and I communicate together using short, snappy sentences and sometimes hand gestures and drawing as well (for the purpose of this interview Layla’s daughter Rojin is translating for her). It’s getting easier for us to understand one another but it’s going to take a bit of time before it comes naturally.
We are originally from Syria but we – myself, my husband and three children – arrived in the UK in November 2013. We have been granted asylum here now.
My friendship with Clare is making it easier for me to feel settled in the UK. The Red Cross and Refugee Action have helped me a lot but when Clare came along she really made a big difference. I think the future will be good. It’s taken a long time but I think it’s all for the best. I would be happy if 10 years from now my daughter is in university and my sons are in education too. That would be the best outcome for me.
Kate & Leah
Kate (33): I started training for b.friend in winter 2011 and I met Leah in June 2012. I often say to Leah that she‘s no longer a b.friend but an actual friend. Initially I was meant to see Leah for six months but we decided to keep seeing each other after that. And after that time it became outside the remit of b.friend as an organisation, I could still contact Sam and ask questions and get support, but I wasn’t under the b.friend umbrella anymore.
Leah is the most amazing person I’ve ever met in my entire life. Initially when you do befriending you can’t introduce your friends or family. But after a while Leah met my husband and this summer she met my mum and my sister too. I’ve just learnt so much from Leah. I‘ve learnt a lot about Bristol too. Leah and I try and get out quite a lot. We’ve been to the museum, Cabot Tower, Blaise Castle – I’m from Bristol and I love it, but it’s so exciting taking someone else around the city and Leah’s just been so enthusiastic everywhere we go and that makes me feel the same.
Leah (left) and Kate (right) spend time together now outside of the programme.
Leah’s story isn’t everyone’s story, but everybody has one. From Leah I’ve learnt a lot about things I didn’t understand, especially when she’s told me things about her background and how she grew up. It was so different to how I imagined it would be and not in a bad way. It’s helped me recognise my own misconceptions about other cultures and what other people’s backgrounds might be like. For me now, seeing the news I think here could be a lot of people like Leah who are very well educated, able to speak a lot of languages and have a lot to offer if we can give them the opportunity.
Leah(26): I heard about b.friend through my doctor, she recommended me to go to a befriending group and sent a letter to Sam to organise it. When I first got here I didn’t know anybody and I hadn’t met anyone that had taken me seriously as a friend. This wasn’t my country, it wasn’t the culture I was used to. Then I met Kate. She gave me time, she text me, she wanted to show me around the city. That meant so much to me.
I arrived in Bristol by chance. When I arrived in the UK from Eritrea I sought asylum. From Northampton I moved to Cardiff and from there to here. I was an asylum seeker when I met Kate. It was a difficult situation that a lot of people are going through. After waiting two years I was granted asylum and now I’m working and have a future here.
Meeting Kate has really helped me improve my English. It’s the most important thing to be able to communicate with people, if you can’t speak the language where you live everybody seems to look at you with suspicion.
With Kate I have somebody I can tell my story. She is willing to listen and that makes me feel really comfortable. I’ve learnt a lot from her and have visited so many places and I’m really grateful for that. It definitely made me feel more confident. I’m happy here in Bristol. I’m not planning on
going anywhere. I have friends in London who are always trying to persuade me to move there and I always reject that. I tell them, ‘I’m Bristolian, I’m not going anywhere.’
Find out more about b.friend:
Other local agencies working in this field are also very often in need of volunteers and funding: