The refugees making a difference as social workers

Asylum seekers coming to the UK need social workers who understand their difficulties to help them integrate. And some have gone on to use their experience to become social workers themselves.  Anabel Unity Sale talks to three

Working on social care’s front line takes a certain kind of person. The job is demanding, with practitioners having to juggle competing tasks and pressures while ensuring their clients’ needs are at the forefront of their practice. It is a role for those who can empathise with people’s difficulties. So refugees, many of whom have shared harrowing experiences with others fleeing violence and persecution, are often well placed to take on the role.

The contribution refugees make to the UK is often overshadowed by the very fact they have refugee status. Although the Department of Health has no official figures for the numbers currently employed in the sector, anecdotal evidence clearly suggests their contribution is great. For example, many of the community and voluntary organisations now working with asylum seekers and refugees were started by those refugees determined to make a difference and assist those who came after them.

Anna Reisenberger, acting chief executive of the Refugee Council, believes working in social care is an ideal way for refugees – and, indirectly, their communities – to integrate into UK society as they gain insight into how social care supports the most vulnerable.

In particular, she adds that social care professionals who are also refugees can often use their own experiences in their practice to positive effect: “Refugees are uniquely placed to understand the issues facing asylum seekers and refugees themselves as users of the system. They are likely to be more empathetic to their clients and efficient in finding solutions.”

Alma Repesa
Alma Repesa is deputy manager of the Nottingham branch of Refugee Action. She is from the Bosnia and Herzegovina village of Tesanj and moved to Derby with her mother in 1994 after spending two years in Croatian refugee camps following the start of the Yugoslavian civil war in 1991.

She believes the social care profession “chose” her because when she was living in the refugee camps she acted as an interpreter for the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, because she spoke some English.

The experience stayed with her and after coming to England on an official refugee programme and attending college to improve her English, she worked as a bilingual support teacher for Bosnian children in Derby’s schools.

Three years later she was made redundant and a University of Derby careers adviser recommended she train as a social worker because of her strong interpersonal skills and ability to liaise with vulnerable people.

She completed a Diploma in Social Work in 1999 and undertook another year’s study to gain a BSc in social work in 2000.  Since then she has worked in social care, choosing to specialise in dealing with asylum seekers and refugees. For Repesa, the motivation is simple: “Social work is about working with people to help them empower themselves and make a better life.”

The 31-year-old is keen to stress, that just because she is a refugee herself, it does not automatically make her more competent at her job than non-refugee social workers. But she has found that being a refugee often makes her clients more comfortable  when they speak to her about their experiences: “Some people feel they can trust me more because I have been through the same sort of thing as them.”

Hakija Stitkovac
Experiencing a British social worker’s help inspired Hakija Stitkovac to enter the profession. Originally from the city of Zepa in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Stitkovac came to the UK in 1996 for medical treatment when he was 22. A forestry student before the war broke out in the region, he was working as an ambulance driver when a grenade exploded and paralysed him from the middle of the chest down.

The Bosnian government arranged for him to travel to Newcastle for medical treatment and during his four months in hospital he was allocated a social worker. “She was very supportive and I liked her. She did a very good job for me and my family.” His wife and baby daughter joined him in Newcastle after he was told not to return home because of his medical problems.

After being discharged from hospital Stitkovac spent two years learning English at college and then considered his career options. As a wheelchair user, he knew his ambition to be a forestry technician was unachievable and recalled his social worker’s help. “I liked what she did for me so I applied to do a Diploma in Social Work to see if I could be of assistance to anyone, just as she was to me.”

When he began the course he did not know what social workers did, nor that people in a developed country like the UK could have such high levels of need. “I thought social workers’ lives were much easier than they really are. I didn’t realise all the paperwork and everything else they have to do before they see clients.”

Graduating in 2003 from Northumbria University he worked for Newcastle Council’s children’s and families team in child protection for two years before taking up his current role. Stitkovac now works with asylum seekers whose claims and appeals have failed and who have no recourse to public funds but have physical health problems.

“I enjoy my work. In cases when people are in real need, I’m able to help them and it’s positive for me and for them.”

Tesfai Sebhat Berhane
When Tesfai Sebhat Berhane arrived alone in the UK on a cold November morning in 1980 he had no idea he would work in social care for nearly two decades.

Originally from the village of Abaselem in Eritrea, he was farmer and then a freedom fighter after the Eritrean liberation war broke out in 1969. An injury during the fighting caused retinal detachment and eventually he lost all his sight.

Having never been to Europe before and not speaking English, Berhane initially felt very isolated. At first he lived in a hostel run by the London Association for the Blind, where he was the only black person and no one knew what he meant when he said he was a refugee. Eventually he learned English at college and then completed employment training at the Refugee Council. This led to him taking up his first social care role as a welfare rights adviser at the agency for a year before going to university.

He completed a certificate in community and youth work training and then a postgraduate diploma in management training at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and embarked on a career as a youth worker. Now aged 51 and married with two children, he is a town centre youth and play services team leader for the London Borough of Lambeth.

After all his experiences, what motivated him to go into this area of work? He says that all the help he received inspired him to serve his community. “Youth work is a chain linking children, young people and adults and I do it because it is my life. I have to give back; giving back to the community is very rewarding.”

Contact the author
  Anabel Unity Sale

This article appeared in the 22 February issue under the headline “I want to give something back”

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