1st May 2020

On a Tuesday morning in Liverpool, new and familiar faces fill the hall of a local church. As a stream of conversation takes over the room, loneliness and isolation become a secondary notion. Encouraged by a newfound safety one woman discloses her unspoken anxieties; a solution soon follows as a wealth of different backgrounds pull together in response. Meanwhile, in a quiet room, a volunteer delivers one-to-one support to a survivor of modern slavery. Using visual resources, she explains the complex support systems available. 


As with any challenge at Refugee Women Connect, effective communication can usually be observed in the makings of progress. As a volunteer, I have often considered this to underpin the success of our daily efforts. I was left feeling apprehensive when separation became the new way to work with our women. As the unknown reality of COVID-19 developed, the final stretch of March became a perfect storm for speculation. What does self-isolation involve? Are key services going to stop? How will I pay my bills? Although official guidelines began to offer some form of clarity, communication was often non-existent or misunderstood. Inevitably, these barriers cast a shadow over those we offer support to and on the third sector as a whole. 


As we approach the 6th week of lockdown, I can offer some insight from a volunteers perspective into the various obstacles our women face. For those experiencing language barriers or limited access to the media, empty streets were met with uncertainty. As key organisations soldiered on and re-structured their processes, confusion hindered accessibility. Home Office updates and dispersal accommodation have often been unavailable leaving some to live in conditions unsuitable for their needs. Such unpredictable circumstances in the midst of an already traumatic process have been detrimental to mental health, as the days go on this concern becomes paramount.


Whilst those early questions began to play on people’s minds, the team at Refugee Women Connect were already adapting to their remote workspaces. I was quickly connected to the resources I needed to follow suit, and my 6 -bedroom house share soon became an office of its own as we made time for coffee breaks and met for lunch on the stairs. As fear behind new guidelines closed doors and emptied shelves, the outreach team rallied together to provide the essential items our women needed. During each of my many phone calls to NHS workers, staff have defied adversity and found solutions in every single instance. Phone interpreters have facilitated support; from risk assessments and safety information to a much-needed chat. Where further support has been required, dedicated mental health workers have devised innovative methods of contact-free intervention which is a service that has been extended to staff and volunteers. 


Prior to lockdown my role involved offering face to face support for survivors of modern slavery.  I would accompany service users to see solicitors and deliver essential information on the support available to them. Since the lockdown was put in place the project that we’re working on has been restructured to ensure that this essential support is still provided. As these changes take place my hours have increased to offer enhanced support during these difficult times. I’m now volunteering twice a week from my home. Instead of meeting staff members for catch up coffee in the office, I’m meeting my housemates downstairs before I start the day. As we are responding to uncertainties in an unprecedented time, there is no typical day. The pace is varied as we respond to each client’s needs.

My work set up where I spend my volunteering hours 

Of course, these current circumstances are less than welcome and together we all long for the normality of an office catch up or a lively Tuesday morning (and perhaps even the enthusiasm of a clothes sale!). As we continue to work towards easier times, this experience continues to show me that the key to our achievements goes beyond the makings of a shared room and lies more deeply in that of a shared goal.