Skip to main content

Refugees and social work

The recent crisis in Europe has raised humanitarian concerns for people across Europe and the world. It has become a political controversy with a myriad of questions being raised by governments and the wider population. The picture of the child on the beach left an untold story of refugees from Syria. Until then, seemingly, many people had not been moved to a great extent about the sufferings of refugees. For the refugee child on the beach, in relation to social work, it is probably something indirectly familiar. Loss happens in social work in different ways and it impacts people differently. There is loss caused by death, loss caused by disability, loss caused by social circumstances and loss of your entire past that includes home, work, family displacement, loss of identity and statesmanship. Refugees go through most of these losses. The theories of loss in social work seem to be abstract compared to how they are implemented in practice.

Anthropological research shows that the movement of people caused by displacement has always happened. It was happening on a small scale when wars were taking place within tribes. There has always been persecution towards people that are different from what others perceive as the norm. Migration has also brought about different cultures and religions living together. What has not changed, unfortunately, is the continuation of wars internationally. From the biblical wars of four thousand years ago, the nature of war remains the same. Empires and dictators have conquered other nations through war. Religion has also caused wars from the First Crusade in 1096 to the current religious, tribal and racial wars. Whole generations of people have never known stability, but rather instability and continuous war as the norm.

The story of the Syrian people is not new - global movement has never ceased to happen - however the scale of the calamity is one that has not been seen since the Second World War. According to the United Nations (UN), the number of refugees has surpassed 50 million, which is more than at any other time in history. No amount of diplomacy has been able to make this influx of refugees go away.

Reading about other countries, religions and races can support social workers in how to respond through work.

A story is the most powerful tool to understand a person, let alone assess their needs. The story conceptualises into a theory, which can then be related back to the person. It is a powerful tool to know how you can support the person without judging them. The story of the little Syrian boy on the beach enabled people to understand the story of what was happening, to some extent, to the boy’s family and thus brought the bigger picture of Syria into context.

I will now present my story as a refugee and my work with refugees in the UK as a volunteer in Reading. I am a social worker who has worked in social care services since 2002. I arrived in this country as a refugee having worked within the Foreign Ministry as a Diplomat in various countries. I told my story to the Home Office for my asylum application. I had to retell it several times and relive the journey again and again to convince the authorities of my identity.

I am also familiar with social care settings were people can be discussing refugees: “Why are these people coming to our country?” “They are coming to claim benefits!” “There are too many of them!” “They are poor and want to make a life for their children.” The arguments will go on, but they are myopic at best.

When I was doing my social work degree at Reading University, my lecturer requested that I tell my story to the class as part of working in an anti-discriminatory/non-judgemental practice. Some of the students said that they couldn’t believe that I had this story of being a ‘refugee’ as I looked different. My story might have changed their preconceived idea of what a refugee is. My identity is not a label, neither is it fixed.

A refugee activist who I have met in my work with refugees wrote in an article ‘Wisdom is like a Baobab Tree’ that being in the phase of liminality, one renegotiates their identity. Identity is never fixed. Identity involves elements of continuity and change. People carry multiple identities that are not always based entirely on free choices. The process of creation and recreation of identities takes place within various available contexts. Telling your story is a way to redefine yourself and your identity.

During this time, in between looking after my children, working and attending university, I volunteered with a charitable organisation, which supports the needs of refugees. I felt indebted to the organisation after they helped my children and I to settle in the UK. They took the time to listen to my story and understand my needs. I volunteered for them for over seven years, eventually becoming their chairperson - throughout this time I met many refugees and heard their stories.

I am also fortunate to have been a part of a European project entitled, Women Learning Together. (The project consisted of five European countries, including England.)

I listened alongside other refugees to the stories of women who had made the journey into the unknown as a refugee and settled in Europe. Their stories were intense and emotional, but all the women wanted others to hear about their journey. In an article written about the project, reviewing two years of working with over 80 women, researchers claimed female refugees have to go through three stages in order to regain control over their lives. The first stage is that of survival, the second is that of recognition and the third phase is that of feeling at home in the new host country. Parallel to these stages are three phases in the process of empowerment - reliving the pain through storytelling, developing a new perspective and contextualizing the experiences through the identification of patterns.

Whilst anti-discrimination practice does not expand on the ‘how to’ work with refugees, the core values and ethics of social work are based on respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people. This is expressed in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other related UN declarations on rights and the conventions derived from those declarations. The values are built upon the emphasis of respect, being non-judgemental and promoting social inclusion.

I remember how each one of us imparted a light into each other with our passionate stories. There were no judgements made and the women felt they could be themselves without fear of discrimination. In one of the trips to the project, while travelling on the Euro train from Brussels to London, two of us, both women, sat next to two gentlemen. These were high-powered academics – one coming from the EU headquarters and another was a well-known newspaper cartoonist. They were interested in our stories, our past jobs, our current careers and our future as abiding citizens contributing to the future of the country. They were visibly moved. They acknowledged that they had never really thought of refugees in that context. How refugees are viewed, fuels a paradox.

According to Ghorashi (2006) who was one of the researchers, in the present political climate in most European countries we see a dominant negative approach to migration and diversity. This negative attitude, according to her has two sides. Firstly, the culture of immigrants and refugees is seen as different and of a lesser value than the European culture. Secondly, there is a blind spot concerning the competencies and qualities of immigrants and refugees. Others focus on their shortcomings (they don’t speak the language well enough; their cultural and educational background does not fit within the context of where they live). Ghorashi argues that much academic research shows how this negative perception influences the way in which refugees position themselves in their new home country. They are seen for what they lack instead of the qualities they bring. An irony when many of them are well educated, with higher academic qualifications, which can be a great asset to a nation.

As we remember the Holocaust memorial, lets remember all the refugees who have died while trying to flee persecution, let’s try and return back to humanity and include in our social work the values and ethics that makes this job rewarding. A person’s story will determine how their needs are met. Let's create the space for refugees to thrive and be included in society.

Alice Chigumira

In 1996 Alice Chigumira was presented with an award by the then President Chissano of Mozambique for her writing on working with culturally diverse communities. This was achieved while working as a diplomat for the Zimbabwean government in Mozambique and preceded a posting to the former Yugoslavia. She co-foundered the first Secretaries training convention in Zimbabwe and was a speaker.

Alice arrived in the UK in 2002. For eight years she volunteered at the Reading Refugee Support Group both as chair and vice-chair. She helped advocate and portray a more positive image of refugees by participating in numerous projects, BBC television and radio interviews and talks; alongside founding the Zimbabwe Community Groups. She furthered her activism by writing on the plight of refugees, and continues to be actively involved with different organisations in promoting human rights.

She has a BA in Social Work and an MA in International Relations from Reading University. In 2014 she was given an Honorary Masters of the Universities by the Open University for her contribution to public services, education and culture. She currently works as a Social Worker with adults in Berkshire.