How volunteering shaped the social worker I want to be

A social work masters student tells how volunteering with refugees and asylum seekers gave her a new perspective

Photo: Krug99/Fotolia

by Mollie Heywood

While completing my masters in social work at Lancaster University, I developed an interest in the plight of refugees and asylum seekers.

Wanting to learn more, I started volunteering in my local area, helping at English classes for refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world who have fled situations that we read scant facts about in the news.

I wanted to see the situation first hand and do something – anything – to combat the hate, intolerance and discrimination being reported on a daily basis.

It is not enough to simply read a case study, particularly when individuals have a different story and background to their current situations. Being able to actively get involved in a community, meet an individual and hear their story is when a case study becomes three-dimensional.

Bringing theories to life

Being able to relate theories to real people made my studies more real and not just in relation to refugees and asylum seekers. Volunteering has challenged how I view social work and I’m sure it will continue to do so through the duration of my MA. It has challenged my perceptions of the people around me and how they function in some of the worst circumstances a person can imagine.

It has also helped me take a second, a third and often a fourth look at everything I read in the media and see on the news. I now try and investigate the real story behind things and the real people involved, behind the bias and the scapegoating.

I have now worked with some of the nicest, kindest and most inspirational people I’ve ever met. They just happen to be refugees or asylum seekers.

There’s a weekly drop-in session where different people from different countries cook food from their home cultures; places I’ve never known anything about but am learning more and more every week. Last week, we had a fabulous dish from Afghanistan. The week before, Pakistan. The week before that, a family from Aleppo cooked for us.

They are all so brave, strong and generous and go out of their way to help one another.

Different viewpoint

I am looking forward to entering a profession where I can work within this community and help people adjust to being in the UK.

I had not previously wanted to work with refugees. I’d always wanted to go into child protection, but volunteering and being taught within such a positive environment has completely flipped my viewpoint.

Being a social work student in a post-Brexit, post-Donald Trump world is an interesting experience. We read case studies and theories about social work in practice mingled with headlines flinging around prejudices about specific groups in society.

This ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric has been apparent in the media for a long time – but it isn’t something I’ve encountered when I’ve been volunteering. It is simply a room filled with love, generosity, kindness and, most of all, equality.

Real people

The negative agenda behind this ‘issue’ of refugees and asylum seekers is heart breaking. The media slammed refugees who carried mobile phones as not being ‘deserving’ of help, as if anyone else in the world in 2016 wouldn’t immediately take their phone with them if they were forced to flee.

I’m so lucky I’ve been able to mix my studies with volunteering and to recognise the issues within the media surrounding refugees and asylum seekers. I urge everyone to take a step back when they read these negative articles and think about the real people involved – and what your reaction would be under the same circumstances.

No one should be treated with the discrimination refugees and asylum seekers are facing in this country.

All they want is safety and to go home. The least we can do is try and provide safety with a bit of kindness.

Mollie Heywood is a social work masters student at Lancaster University. She tweets @mollieaheywood.

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