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

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.

Empowering change for women’s equality.

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by Bassmala Elbushary, BSc (Hons) Biomedical Science

There are numerous reasons why I wanted to volunteer. Firstly, I wanted to use my passion (helping others) to make a positive impact and explore where my passion can be useful. That’s why when I found out about the volunteering opportunity at FORWARD, I did not hesitate to get involved. FORWARD strives for African women’s rights and I was so keen to amplify the voices and challenges African women encounter. Furthermore, I wanted to get involved in change-making and have a positive influence on people’s lives. This could be from raising awareness to writing letters to MPs. Lastly, I wanted to meet people who have similar mindset and want to make a difference in this world.

How I got involved in volunteering

It was 2019 when I found out about FOWARD. My mother has a friend who knew the manager of the organisation and the organisation was promoting their volunteering opportunity. I was so keen to apply.

I got involved by completing an application form. It was open to all African women living in England and Wales. Then, I completed a three-days training in Cardiff. After completing the training, I became a youth fellow in the organisation.

My Project

During my training programme, I was asked to work as a group to find solutions to some of the issues African women face. At the end of the training, I was asked to create a social project.

For my social project, I decided to make a Facebook Live exploring the issues Sudanese women face and discussing solutions with them as a group. In the Facebook Live, I got my mother and my little sister to discuss their opinions regarding women’s rights. The Facebook Live was very successful as I had over 5000 views.

The second part of my social project was to hold a discussion group with the Sudanese women and men. I booked a venue, and I invited all the Sudanese women in my local area to discuss the issues Sudanese women face and I asked them to work in groups to come up with solutions. Then, I went to London and conducted a discussion group with the Sudanese men and how men can support the women and influence policy makers in Sudan.

I highly recommend volunteering to everyone because you gain plenty of experience and skills.

Community Impact

Primarily, my volunteering has helped the audiences that I gave my talk to about Sudanese women’s right and most of them agreed with the points I spoke about. The feedback from the discussion group were all positive. Some stated they ‘can make a difference’ in their lives. Others said they felt ‘empowered’. Secondly, some of the audience from the focus group asked me to conduct another focus group because they enjoyed it and found it very beneficial.

How volunteering has helped with my career goals

During my training, I developed my confidence to engage with wider audience and the support that I received from the organisers made me believe in myself. In my chosen career as an Biomedical Science Lecturer, I will need the confidence to perform presentations and focus groups.

I also learned teamwork and communication skills through the group work and the discussions I did. This links strongly with my chosen career because I will have to work in a team to conduct experiments/produce a research paper.

Most importantly, I learnt time management skills because I had a deadline to complete the social project by. Time management skills is highly favourable in my chosen career as all the work has a specific deadline.

Finally, I built a strong network which is very essential if I want to progress further. Having a strong network is vital for references and to gain advice from experts. As I became a youth member at the organisation, I am in the process of launching my own international project in Sudan developing the rural area. The organisation’s manager is supporting me to finalise my proposal for funding.

51 Months Later – back in the life with Zircon…

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By Juan Acosta Fisco, Graduate and Software Engineer at Zircon Software

My name is Juan and I am a software engineer at Zircon Software. The title of this post is related to my previous blog post for Zircon (Ten Months in the Life …, available on the company website). As one might expect, a lot has changed in that time, not least my academic progression from undergraduate to graduate and making my way back to Zircon. The focus of this post will be to compare my perspective from back then with the one I hold now. 

As a placement student at Zircon, you spend a lot of time learning. Concretely in my case I learned the languages Python, JavaScript, HTML, CSS and SQL; got to grips with object oriented programming and threading; and acquired skills in web development and database management.

As a graduate, the training-working balance is shifted somewhat towards the latter, but I am pleased to report that I am still learning, having now also added Java & C# to my repertoire as well as developing experience with messaging patterns and Xamarin Forms. Furthermore, Zircon takes a proactive approach in ensuring you are continually improving your skillset, building in time for training and suggesting development routes. 

The cohesive and supportive work environment at Zircon continues. Some faces have changed, due to the period of time I was away to finish up my degree. However many are still here and the office culture that has proved so conducive to Zircon’s success prevails, curated and maintained by all those privileged to form a part of it. 

In my previous post I touched on Zircon’s tangible ambition and hunger for success, well it seems like once you have a taste for it nothing else will do. Zircon has roughly doubled in terms of staff numbers and turnover since then, and continues to aim higher. Regular in-house communication and coordination ensures that we are all striving for, and ultimately achieving, this common goal. 

Coming back in a graduate capacity has offered up fresh new challenges which I didn’t experience as a placement student. I work much more closely with clients, auditors and project managers to deliver high quality software. I have had excellent guidance in navigating these new challenges and have not just acquired new professional skills, useful in any context, but have also become a more complete software engineer. 

As a placement student I discussed the excitement and motivation that comes with the opportunity to work on a product to be deployed and used regularly in the real world, by real users, for a real application. Upon graduating I wanted to return as Zircon is always keen on acquiring new customers and breaking into new markets. I have also had a chance to do something I didn’t predict; revisit a past project. 

The product I worked on as a placement student is live and stable, with continuing enhancements as new requirements come in. The opportunity to revisit this work was very gratifying, like catching up with an old friend. As I come to the end of this post, I feel like this is perhaps the best and closest metaphor to how I feel about my experience here as a graduate versus a placement student, a feature enhancement. 

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