by Teresa Howe
Following my retirement from the NHS in April 2016, I had one of those chance conversations with a friend who worked for Refugee Action in Kingston (RAK). ‘They’re looking for volunteers,’ my friend said. It transpired that RAK was a local charity, supporting refugees and asylum seekers in the Kingston area. It was just the kind of voluntary work that appealed to me.
So it was that I was interviewed and accepted as a volunteer at RAK in September 2016. Having spent some time teaching within the NHS, I joined some other volunteers already teaching in classes of between eight and twelve students. The nationality of students is varied; they include Syrians, Afghans, North Koreans, Sudanese, Albanians, Iranians and Iraqis. Students are in classes that reflect their ability and can move through the classes as their English improves. We aim to advance education and training opportunities so that students may more easily integrate and participate in their new community.
Of course, as we sadly all know too well, Covid-19 struck in March this year and all our lives were turned upside down.
As in many other communities throughout the UK, we set up a WhatsApp support group for our road. This gradually evolved into a fantastic opportunity for us all to request help and assistance for various groups, including homeless charities, foodbanks, educational support and so on. We linked in with other local WhatsApp groups and charities. One day, I put out a request for writing materials, books, pens and paints for refugee children, to help with their studies and recreation. The response was both swift and generous. Within two or three days we had a hallway full of bags of useful materials of all kinds, and the donations continued for about a week. One of my neighbours was working for Crossroads and helping out at the Anglers pub in Teddington (which was doing great work for foodbanks), and she asked if RAK could use some excess frozen meals. The answer was ‘yes’ and the meals were kindly delivered by Ben, at the Anglers, to Piper Hall, which had been set up as a collection point for anyone in the area needing food. In addition to all of this, neighbours got involved in many other projects, such as collecting fabric to make PPE bags for NHS staff and carers, and donating food parcels for AGE UK and toys for children who had very little during lockdown. During such a difficult time, this example of how communities work together was replicated in many areas and helped us all to feel we were able to make a difference, however small.
For the future, I think we are all hoping that life will return to some semblance of normality in the not too distant future, and I, for one, will be much happier teaching my lovely students in person rather than on Zoom!