Anju Bhatti hates having to fight for the resources and care packages she needs for service users. Yet, for all the strain on services in this country, at least there’s support to fight for.
Bhatti knows that’s not always the case. Every year she visits India to provide much-needed free eye care to some of the country’s poorest communities. It is part of her work with Vision Bharat UK, a charity she set up in 2014.
It also, she says, puts the very real challenges of UK social work in context.
“When your manager tells you no, they’ve decided you can’t have that funding, you just think ‘oh my goodness why can’t they see what I see?’ It’s so, so hard,” Bhatti says.
“But when you look back and think about where you’ve been – those people haven’t got anything. At least here we’ve got a system in place, people have got some support.”
Bhatti’s 24 year social work career has spanned many parts of that system. She says her decision to enter one of the caring professions was likely influenced by her upbringing.
SOCIAL WORKER OF THE YEAR AWARDS
Anju Bhatti was recognised for her achievements at the 2015 Social Worker of the Year Awards, where she received the Lifetime Achievement Award.
If you know a colleague who should be nominated, enter here. The closing date is 22 July.
Bhatti grew up in Uganda but came to the UK as a refugee in 1972 – a period when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the country’s Asian minorities. She was 11-years-old at the time and was accompanied by her mother and adopted sister [who is also now a social worker].
Her father died the year before they left, but she remembers fondly his kindness to others – something that enabled the family to start a new life in this country.
“We had a struggle when we came here as children, we had lost everything, but because he always helped people, that really helped us in the future,” she says.
“When we were rehoused it was with one of his connections.”
The family spent nine months in a refugee camp before they were rehoused. Much of Bhatti’s time was spent caring for her mother, who was a diabetic, and her sister, who had lupus.
“It’s quite interesting that both of us went into social work,” Bhatti says. “Even at the camp we used to get called into interpret in the kitchen or by the health worker for her clients…
“We both started at a very young age,” she laughs.
Bhatti’s professional training started in nursing but after the birth of her first child she took a voluntary placement in an Asian women’s refuge. The experience sparked her interest in social work.
“I really liked the fact this work involved looking at not only the physiological side of care but social issues as well,” she says.
Bhatti went on to qualify from Reading University in 1992. Her first post was in a hospital.
“I just felt really at home in a hospital having done my nursing training and that’s where I wanted to be really,
“I felt at least I will understand patient care and I’ll be able to offer something different as well – by looking at the social and psychological aspects of care.”
In 1996, Bhatti moved to Wokingham where she now works as part of a team that provides long-term social work support to older adults and people with learning and physical disabilities. Her service, Optalis, is a local authority trading company.
“It’s quite a diverse client group,” she says. “When I first took on some learning disabled clients I thought ‘oh gosh, I’ve never done this’ – I’ve always felt more comfortable working with older people and those with physical disabilities because I know a lot about illnesses.
“But I realised that my skills are easily transferrable – I have a good grasp of those clients now, the different aspects of care, different resources, and the legislation.”
Her work with the team has provided one of her career highlights, says Bhatti. A woman with learning disabilities had been living in a mental health institution for a very long time. With Bhatti’s support she has since been able to return to live in the community.
“It was really nice to hear that people you have done the work for have now moved on and you’ve actually made a difference in their life,” she says.
Through her work with Vision Bharat UK Bhatti has also made a difference to the lives of families in India. She says she feels “really lucky” Optalis has supported her to take an annual sabbatical for the past two years.
On this year’s trip she travelled to Gujarat, India’s westernmost state, to provide an eye camp for children.
“We’ve never really done one for children before and it was quite soul-destroying really,” she recalls. “The state where we were working has a high rate of childhood blindness.
“Blindness is four times higher in poorer families and what really gripped us was how many children have a condition called Retinopathy of Prematurity.”
The disease occurs in babies born prematurely and is caused by abnormal blood vessels in the retina – if children don’t get the right support when they’re born then it is often missed.
“A lot of the people we saw are people who were not even able to access medical care at that time, so you just realised there are going to be communities of children in this state who are going to be blind through no fault of their own or their parents,” Bhatti says.
“It was so sad, because if those children had been treated at an early age [then it would have been different] – but they came to the camp and we had to say we can’t do anything for you.”
What Bhatti can do though, is use her social work skills to help these children – she’s already planning how to improve their lives next time she visits.
“From a social care point of view, it’s about thinking ‘okay, we’ve got these blind children, we didn’t know this was a problem, so what else can we do?’
“Next time we’ll make sure we do things like vision aids – these children have got to live like this so we need to improvise and do what we can to maximise their sight.”
The second part of her sabbatical was spent with an organisation called Lakshya Charitable Trust, working on an HIV awareness project with the LGBT community – two new areas of social work for her.
“We did a lot of work with the hijras (transgender) community in India,” she says. “They are completely segregated as a community and because of this there tends to be a very high percentage of sex workers, so I was working with them on HIV awareness and prevention.
“That was a real eye opener for me and something that I really enjoyed.”
Bhatti’s hoping to return to work with this organisation in the future and is thinking about how she can get some voluntary experience here in the UK to widen her knowledge of the issues LGBT communities face, as well as raising some funds for the charity.
What she won’t do – but wishes she felt able to – is return to Uganda.
“Obviously it was a very traumatic experience,” she says. “If I’d got over it then I would have loved to go back and do some work there, these are the areas that really need volunteers.
“But I just haven’t got the courage. Hearing gunshots, the things that I’m left with…
“I do think it [Uganda] had an impact on my social work career though – I remember our father used to do a lot of work with local missionaries and that’s always stayed in my mind.
“He always placed this emphasis on how you should help people and my sister and I are very caring people – it’s just in our make-up I think.”