Finding volunteers at 39,000 feet above the Atlantic

Finding volunteers at 39,000 feet above the Atlantic

As Volunteers Week comes to an end, our Chief Executive Sabir Zazai discusses the importance of volunteers to our organisation, and how a chance meeting at 39,000 feet in the sky led to a new addition to the team at Coventry Refugee & Migrant Centre.

I just wanted to sleep on my recent flight to Washington DC, but the woman in the seat next to me wanted to talk.

I put down my book. After all, I was going to a conference on communications, so perhaps I should try communicating. Amazingly, my neighbour soon revealed that she was interested in the plight of refugees and wanted to volunteer to help them, but she didn’t know where to start.

Little did she know that she was sitting next to the Chief Executive of the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre (CRMC); someone who is always on the lookout for volunteers!

And in another coincidence, her home was in Nuneaton, all of eight miles from my office in the centre of Coventry.

I was on my way to take part in a conference on strategic communications on migration, hosted by America’s Voice and the Social Change Initiative. The aim of the exchange was to explore new approaches in engaging with the public and the media on the subject of migration.

And there, at 39,000 feet above the Atlantic, I did the best kind of preparation; talking to someone, telling her my own story as a refugee from Afghanistan and what the CRMC is and does.

She seemed very interested and intrigued that an organisation like the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre even existed. A psychotherapist by training, she had been looking for an opportunity to do some volunteering, and refugees and newly-arrived groups were one of the areas she had been thinking about.

I told her about our therapy services and how many counsellor volunteers and therapists come together to help refugees overcome their traumas, and…we now have a new volunteer!

Volunteers are integral to the work we do at Coventry Refugee & Migrant Centre. Without them, we simply wouldn’t be able to provide support to refugees and migrants within our city.

Last year, volunteers donated over 10,000 hours of their time to our charity, helping newly arrived people rebuild their lives so that they can integrate and contribute to Coventry. We currently have almost 110 volunteers working at CRMC.

Their dedication is priceless and so its important we take time – not just during Volunteers Week – to remember the invaluable contribution they provide. Thank you!

This small success is partly thanks to me being lucky to come across some very lovely people in my life, but it is also about being brave enough to engage with the ordinary people on issues facing newly-arrived communities.

In the two years I have been Chief Executive of the CRMC, I have learned that there is a strong desire out there to help refugees, but most people don’t know how to. I have also observed a shift in public attitude towards refugees, despite the fact that our immigration policies have become more restrictive.

It is never more important than now to speak to people around us about our work and the challenges facing newly-arrived groups.

Not everyone knows that the UK immigration policy separates families, not everyone knows that we detain people, and not everyone understands the complexity of the asylum system. Public opinion does much to shape immigration policies. If we really want to bring about a sustainable and positive change in policy, then we need to engage with the public.

You never know; the person setting next to you on a plane, or a train, on a bus or in a cafe could be that volunteer you have been looking for, or just the right person to help you with your new campaign. Go for it, and engage with people before they are misled by the media and the politics of fear.

I picked up four key lessons from the learning exchange and the conversation I had with my neighbour on the plane.

Firstly, for those of us right at the heart of the immigration debate, it is not always about political victories, but more about transforming communities, one person at a time. It is the communities and local neighbourhoods, where people are going to live in and integrate.

Secondly, the recipe for victory is to bring people together to create an environment where we can all live in harmony.

Thirdly, taking collective action leads to change not only within us, but also within our communities.

And finally, never shy away from sharing a good story. The power is in the stories; stories unite us, stories empower us, and it is the stories that inspire us to effect change.

Sabir Zazai

CEO, Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre

May 2017

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