How my degree will take me from volunteer to qualified medic on refugee border crossings

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Lily Stephenson. Paramedic Science student, tells her volunteering journey

Student Lily, smiling with her travel backpack

I became a student paramedic after working with volunteer medics on the shores of Greece at emergency boat landings. I spent five years volunteering with refugees and asylum seekers trapped at the borders in Greece, Lebanon, Serbia, Italy and France before returning to Bristol to study. I decided to help out with a local project which supported refugees; I felt that I would have a good understanding of the dangerous journeys they may have experienced to get here and wanted to help with integration.

I started volunteering at ‘Welcome Wednesdays Extra’ once a week in the middle of the lockdown. It is a well established project, run by Creative Youth Network, that supports newly arrived young asylum seekers and refugees. Most of the participants are between 15-19 and live in emergency homeless shelters or foster care.

The sessions offer a chance to meet other young people, practice English, play games, do art and crafts, cook and eat nutritious food and access a lawyer. I learnt Arabic in Lebanon so I help with translation which enables the young people to access the service and feel welcome. Generally I support the participants emotionally, encourage them to make use of the space and make friends, organise activities and games and help with special events such as the Eid feast and the Christmas party.

Many young people arrive traumatized and unable to trust people, but gradually we build relationships and I help them feel safe and connected in the UK.
Sharing with staff my experience and understanding of refugee issues enabled staff to treat the young people in a trauma-informed way to understand their behaviour. I brought culturally appropriate ideas to the group with an understanding of their needs and the importance of keeping a connection with their home. Many arrived during lockdown so we tried to reduce social isolation and help them stay positive. The young people grew in confidence and this impacted their ability to become independent and manage their lives.

I have learnt many things from the amazing young people who attend the session. They inspire me everyday with their resilience and strength. Many of them are unaccompanied, living in terrible accommodation, homesick and traumatized, yet manage to stay positive. They are so dedicated to education that it reminds me how lucky I am to be at university in a safe country.

The young people have also taught me how to play pool and table tennis (although they still win every time!). I have learnt traditional Afghan dancing (although I am very bad at it!). I have learnt about the rich culture and diversity of Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq and other countries, and also the terrible atrocities people have lived through.

I learnt about the challenges and opportunities for newly arrived refugees in Bristol. I felt proud to be part of a community that supports refugees and advocates for vulnerable young people. I have learnt about referral routes and helped to signpost onward to other services.

I built my confidence in speaking Arabic and now see how useful it can be in Bristol. I helped send texts in Arabic to new participants and ensured documents were accessible in numerous languages. I even learnt some Pashtu from playing board games!

I organised new activities such as card making, herbal medicine making and badge making. This improved my group work and leadership skills. I discussed with my manager the need for staff training surrounding asylum law and services for refugees in Bristol, which was then organised. I hope this improved the service for young people.

I am hoping to start doing 1-1 work with one of the most vulnerable participants who I built rapport with. He speaks Arabic and needs extra help with his mental health and well being. I hope to carry on volunteering there for the duration of my course, and return to Lebanon when I qualify to work on the Syrian border as a medic supporting the refugee community.

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