The joys of cultural diversity – and the chance to meet Chris Woakes!

Sian Finn

We are in the final phase of our Time Together project, which recruits and trains volunteers as mentors to support refugees and asylum seekers across the West Midlands. The project has run since September 2016 and for almost two years of that I have been the project co-ordinator – one of the most rewarding posts I have ever held.

I have met such a culturally diverse group of people from all over the world.  All have different motivations for being involved in the project.  Our target for the project was to make 45 matches.  We have made 62 matches in total and still counting.

Our volunteers are some of the most dedicated, compassionate and supportive people I’ve met, we are very lucky to have them. What is really special and rewarding about mentoring on the Time Together project is that our volunteers are in a very privileged position, meeting someone they wouldn’t otherwise have met, from a completely different culture and set of circumstances to their own.

It offers our volunteers the opportunity to really be there for someone who might be in a very difficult situation.  They are there to give a different perspective, help them get the right information to solve a problem or issue and to listen without judgement.

At the first meeting with our participants I explain how the project works, stipulating the boundaries that keep both parties safe.  These processes have been developed over time. There are limitations to what our volunteers can do with and for their partner. We offer training and support throughout the process.

Some of our participants come to that first meeting disclosing some of the most distressing accounts of escaping war, persecution and abusive experiences in their home countries and here in the UK.  It can be difficult to have a reference point for the levels of trauma our participants have faced.  Some are still living with the remnants of those traumas, whilst trying to make a life for themselves in the UK.  In this situation I make referrals to specific counselling services and explain that our volunteers are not counsellors or caseworkers, but they will be there to listen, to help  them focus on their present situation and if appropriate set aims and goals motivating them to achieve those goals within a specific timeframe.

The goal could be just for them to meet with their volunteer to talk over coffee.  Another could be to improve English skills or to work on self-belief and resilience.  Our participants have an abundance of resilience, though sometimes they might not feel that strong, especially if they are spending long periods of time alone.  Another aim of the project is to empower our participants and help them engage and be visible in their communities, widening their social and supportive networks.

At our most recent summer tea party we had 22 volunteers and participants socialising together, some meeting a second time after our group visit to Edgbaston Cricket ground (pictured above, where they met Chris Woakes of the England squad now celebrating their 2019 Cricket World Cup) and some meeting for the first time.  We had volunteers and participants past and present in attendance sharing stories and experiences over tea and cake.  The project has people from over 30 different countries involved, making our tea party a wonderfully culturally diverse celebration of the Time Together Project.

With the current anti-immigration rhetoric in some tabloids, social media and press, you might think that multiculturalism has failed in the UK.  In my role I see the opposite.  In our participants I see people eager to integrate, learn and be a part of British society.  In our volunteers I see British and European nationals wanting to support and help in whatever way they can to welcome and help asylum seekers and refugees assimilate to life in the UK.

This cultural interaction offers the opportunity for people of all walks of life to come together offering sociable, supportive exchanges of time spent together enhancing the tapestry of diversity that capitalises on human kindness across and within the West Midlands.

If you’d like to know more about our Time Together project, take a look here.

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