Soon to be third year student Becky Nicholls shares her experience on the 2OT504 module and how this inspired her and fellow students to setup the successful ‘Spring Into Action’ campaign.
As part of one of our level 2 modules, 2OT504 Health Well-being and Participation: Communities, a volunteer from the Stockton-based Refugee and Asylum Seekers Project (RASP) came into talk to students about marginalised groups of people and the contribution that occupational therapy can make to their participation.
RASP is a charity that provides refugees and asylum seekers with the practical and emotional support they need to integrate into the local community. The speaker was assisted in their presentation by three service users who had bravely volunteered to recount their displacement and asylum-seeking experiences. I don’t believe any amount of preliminary reading or seminar work could truly have prepared us for hearing these narratives. The three individuals had different occupational and cultural backgrounds but had all witnessed and been in very real danger of persecution and violence in their home countries. Terrorism; religious war; repressive political regimes; forced marriage…the list goes on. Ultimately, the terrible details that force a person to flee across continents in a cramped fridge cannot really be conveyed in a blog post written from a position of relative safety and privilege. Such details were visibly challenging even for the service users to reflect back on.
An emergent theme from their narratives was the dissonance between what they had hoped life in the UK would be like, and the harsher realities of being an asylum seeker. Their British lives had few material comforts and many hardships: damp, sub-standard accommodation; no income bar restrictive payment cards for food; legal preclusion from employment; aggressive and confusing correspondence from the authorities; and long periods of living in uncertainty, waiting for court hearings or the outcomes of tribunals. Bound and gagged in this way, none of the individuals were able to participate in the meaningful activities that characterised their former occupational lives. One had been studying plasma physics at doctoral level. Another had been a qualified teacher. Another had parented a number of children. Their position as asylum seekers in the UK required them to spend long hours – days – months – quite literally doing nothing whilst waiting to hear whether they had been granted refugee status.
My friends and I left the presentation brooding on a cocktail of emotions that we had not quite anticipated. We felt angry with the social and political structures that simultaneously create and conceal such injustices. We felt frustrated with media rhetoric that frames asylum seekers and refugees as opportunistic. We felt sad that these skilled and willing individuals are prevented from living life to its fullest. We felt ashamed that a wealthy country like the UK does not provide more adequately – or, dare I say it, humanely – for its vulnerable members. Perhaps most soberingly, we reflected that we had no similar points of reference in our own lives. None of us could quite fathom the enormity of leaving behind everything that’s familiar and heading into the complete unknown.
The volunteers at RASP do tremendous work in supporting asylum seekers and refugees to navigate the bureaucratic minefield of asylum. There is not the scope within this blog post to detail the many ways in which RASP attempts to plug the chasms left by statutory social provision. Its charitable role ranges from the practical to the pastoral: assisting individuals with tribunal preparation and travel; providing the everyday sundries that a weekly food payment card cannot buy; and offering much-needed kindness and emotional support. The charity does what it can within a complex and obstructive policy landscape.
It was off the back of this talk that a group of YSJ occupational therapy students put their heads together and decided to launch a university-wide campaign to collect toiletries, stationery and other miscellanies for RASP’s service users. ‘Spring into Action’ was launched on the 8th May with the particular support of Dr Hannah Spring, Frances Dodd and other staff members who have been faithfully spreading the word via social media. It is to the library’s immense credit that they allowed a collection box and balloons to be placed at the service desk for the remainder of the academic year. In just over a fortnight we have seen generous donations filling up this box, to the extent that it has already had to be emptied twice. I cannot write this post without taking the opportunity to thank those of you who have taken the time and trouble to contribute to this excellent cause. If there’s one thing that occupational therapy has taught us, it’s that seemingly small things can make the biggest difference to a person’s sense of dignity and quality of life.
Most importantly, the end of term does not herald the end of Spring into Action, since the Occupational Therapy Society at York St John has voted to carry out further fundraising activity for RASP next academic year. We hope for and intend these endeavours to be occupation-focused and aimed at facilitating service users’ participation in activities. Current ideas in the pipeline include the provision of sports equipment to offer an outlet for pent-up energy; toys to add colour to the lives of the many children who access RASP; and educational resources to aid any eventual forays into further education or employment. These ideas are still relatively nebulous and will no doubt benefit from the time and thinking-space afforded by a long summer break! In the meantime, we welcome any related ideas and encourage initiatives that will make this charitable partnership a long-term one.
Thank you, once again, to everyone who has backed this campaign and made it the success that it has been. Thank you to the RASP volunteers for the amazing work they do in supporting vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees. And thank you to the three service users for so courageously sharing your stories; we take our hats off to you.