Supporting Bristol’s asylum seekers and refugees

Today’s guest blog comes from Beth Wilson (Bristol Refugee Rights), Layla Ismail (Refugee Women of Bristol) and Robert von Hawrylak (Borderlands), who discuss the work they have done through the support of the Bristol Impact Fund.

Photo credit: Borderlands

Bristol Asylum Seeker and Refugee Hubs is a collaboration between Bristol Refugee Rights, Refugee Women of Bristol and Borderlands, which has been funded by the Bristol Impact Fund since 2017.  Originally funding was for three drop in centre hubs which together provided 5 days a week of support services for asylum seekers and refugees: a social space, enjoying a delicious cooked meal with friends, free shop, destitution support, English classes, advice and information and much more. 

The Covid-19 pandemic forced all three drop in centres to pause as much face-to-face work had to stop, whilst they re-defined their services.  What quickly emerged was a need for financial assistance as many who had been just about surviving pre-pandemic, no longer could; a need for housing as sofa surfing / sleeping rough ceased to be an option; a need for a smart phone, as the digital divide became a chasm.  A community already suffering with poor mental health risked spiralling into despair and re-traumatisation as panic buying and being forced to stay at home reminded people of what they had fled.  Many whose mental health was just about kept in check by their regular attendance at drop in centres were at risk from deep isolation allowing their demons to creep back in. 

Working together with other refugee voluntary sector organisations in Bristol, the Hubs quickly responded to these new and emerging needs. Using their model of sharing the load of meeting needs, but also being individual organisations putting their own special take on the services they offer, the hubs designed a new model.  Bristol Impact Fund provided the flexibility and trust that these organisations knew what their service users needed thus enabling this quick shift in focus.

Borderlands focused on food, continuing to provide a weekly takeaway meal, a food bag and money to those who are destitute, deliveries to those who could not travel or are self-isolating.  Bristol Refugee Rights focused on advice and digital inclusion, ensuring individuals had help with their financial situation, finding somewhere to stay and understanding what was happening with their asylum claim, providing devices, data and tech support.  Refugee Women of Bristol recruited bilingual member volunteers to mobilise community members to find families in need of support to help them access information, specialist services, identify people at risk and provide basic support at the community level.  All of our organisations reached out by phone to those who we knew were vulnerable to check they were ok and offer them support to meet the basic needs they so desperately needed, as well as someone to talk to.

Whilst for some, remote service delivery has been challenging, for many it has been a lifeline.  The Hubs have supported people who have been in Bristol many years but chose not access face to face services.  The expansion of our services digitally has ensured continuity of reach to the wider communities and supported more individuals and families, keeping them connected with much-needed support services especially for those at risk of or experiencing domestic abuse, hate crime or other safety concerns. For Refugee Women of Bristol it has widened the safe space for women in the community to come together online to share experiences and learning, access key information including where and how to access emergency help if and when needed.

Working in partnership has given additional support to staff and made our staff and organisations more resilient to the crisis. Over the last four years, the Bristol Impact Fund has supported over 70 organisations and community groups in Bristol, aiming to reduce disadvantage and inequality, improve health and wellbeing, and increase resilience in the city. The application window for the second round of Bristol Impact Fund: Growing the Power of Communities launches next week and you can find more information here.