Choose Love – and Help Refugees
Today, I’m delighted to welcome Nivethika Thayalacumar to the blog. I met Nivethika at a speaking event recently and I was blown away by her story and the great work she’s doing to help refugees.
Nivethika is a law undergraduate, due to start her LPC in September. During her gap year she’s been volunteering with various charities, including CARAS (Community Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) where she is part of a team of caseworkers, and Help Refugees, where she undertook an internship. Her long-term career goal is to become a human rights lawyer.
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the negative stories in the news and to want to do something to help but not know where to begin. I hope Nivethika’s story inspires you to take action as much as it’s inspired me…
Hi Nivethika, firstly, can you tell us a bit about the refugee charities you work for and what they do.
Help Refugees work with extraordinarily effective small groups and organisations that have sprung up in response to the 2015 humanitarian crisis and has carried on since. Help Refugees respond where the need is great, whether that means providing food, clothing, shelter, funding or more.
CARAS works from the perspective that people from a refugee background are marginalised in the UK and face a complex range of barriers that prevent access to rights, entitlements, opportunities, and a good quality of life. These barriers must be addressed comprehensively through education, advocacy, and campaigns working for social change. At CARAS it is believed that empowerment happens when people have decision-making power of their own; access to information and resources; a range of options from which they can make choices; ability to exercise assertiveness in collective decision making; and the ability to increase their positive self-image and overcome stigma.
What made you want to help refugees?
During my time at university I was the president of a student-led charity called RAG (Raising and Giving Society). Every year we chose a couple of charities to raise funds and awareness for and in 2015 we were all shocked and devastated by the European Refugee Crisis and felt that our next event should be for just that. We researched into a number of charities and Help Refugees was one of the only ones that was exclusively raising money for the crisis. It was founded by a group of friends in that very year to be the frontier of humanitarian aid for refugees.
Many refugees were being portrayed as opportunist migrants by the media. The image of the small drowned Syrian toddler proved that this was not the case – no parent would risk their own child’s life by travelling across the sea unless the sea was actually safer than the land. Help Refugees was a charity I wanted to work very closely with, so I decided to apply for an internship to help out with their Choose Love campaign. This internship gave me a greater insight into the refugee crisis and I was able to understand how I could help, and what was actually going on. Although small, Help Refugees reached out to many. This was admirable to me and to work with such a charity really was an honour. Help Refugees uses 96% of all its donations directly on projects and campaigns, a figure almost impossible to obtain.
This also made me want to further help refugees here in the UK, so I started volunteering at the youth club at CARAS, where I assist with the homework club, English classes, games, and integration activities and I assist with casework. I wanted to directly work with refugees and give more of my time as well as funds. Ensuring refugees in the UK felt welcome despite what certain media articles the and minority of people were saying abut them. I wanted to show them that the majority were supporting them. The young people at CARAS are honestly the kindest, most ambitious and positive young people I have ever encountered.
Can you give us a bit more detail about how you help the refugees you work with?
So, at CARAS, I am one of the caseworkers and we help with anything from oyster card applications, to bike hire, to immigration forms to mediating with the young people and the social workers and communicating with foster carers/parents/guardians. Keeping up to date with how they are mentally, emotionally, physically, and academically.
The Saturday Youth Club gives young refugees a sense of belonging – something we all need, a place to be social and make friends, and it deters them from going down the wrong path. They are able to pick up hobbies and use resources such as laptops, which are not readily available to them. Most importantly, it helps them feel like young people again.
Has anything surprised you about your work with refugees?
The thing that has most surprised me is that, despite losing everything including family, friends and even a sense of identity, the refugees I have worked with are all so positive, so upbeat and so smiley, striving to make this world a better place. It is incredible that despite having so little, they are so grateful for it all. They are grateful for the country they are allowed to reside in, the education they are given and the kindness of others, such as the charities who relentlessly fight for them and their rights and for life. The level of gratitude even after what they have been through, is unbelievable. That’s one thing we all can learn. If those with so little who have experienced so much loss can be grateful, then so can we all.
How has your voluntary work inspired you?
It has inspired me to not just see refugees as victims of war and other atrocities but the same as me and you, just people, who need the same things we do and most importantly, we all need each other. To empathise with them and not feel sorry for them. It could well be us one day, trying to seek refuge and it is a mission, physically, emotionally and mentally. Another thing it’s personally encouraged me to do is never give up whatever happens and what’s more it’s a beautiful feeling knowing that if this was ever to happen to me, people will be helping, there will be charities assisting and individual volunteers doing what they can. It’s a good feeling knowing that I have the potential to make a difference. We are all very fortunate and privileged to be able to help these charities, refugees, and each other. Being more grateful is something I also try to do and working with refugees has definitely made me appreciate the little things and stop sweating the small stuff and be more like them.
Are there any specific incidences that you’d like to share with readers to help raise awareness or to demonstrate how much their help is needed?
Some of the young people are not believed to be so young, and are sent to adult independent living situations, when they’re actually as young as 14. They have no documents to prove that their age, so this judgement in done purely on appearance. This is why the work of campaigners, social workers and charities is so important, working with lawyers to ensure children are not turned away from help and safety because they look like adults. Some refugees are believed to be too young for independent living but since there aren’t enough foster carers to take care of them they are put there regardless. If this is the case charities such as CARAS help the young people throughout court proceedings, and in the meanwhile teach them skills such as cooking, budgeting and other things they may need when living so independently. Not everyone is able to obtain such resources due to geographical issues, and being homed in a town where there aren’t charities to assist you, or where you can meet new friends who are in the same situation as you. Often, we do not have enough volunteers to sort out individual needs and they can go unresolved.
Many of the young refugees may well be sent back or detained when they reach 18, having no connections and not knowing what they will be sent back to. Even if their home country’s situation has been resolved I don’t think it’s even remotely ethical to make then relive the trauma they faced. They will have to start again for the second or even fourth time. The work of charities ensures this is less frequent, supporting the young people through court proceedings and ensuring they get the best help they need. Sometimes it is difficult when many young people are going through the same thing, as charities just can’t deal with the influx with such a limited number of volunteers.
I was also able to volunteer in Greece, where what I found shocking was mistaking 20-year-old men for 40/50 year olds. The trauma, stress, and rejection they have been through has resulted in years being added to young people, who should be relatively fresh faced. They told us that most of them shouldn’t be in Greece, since countries such as Afghanistan are deemed “not unsafe enough”, even though there is a high risk of death, so ‘not unsafe enough’ doesn’t really make sense. The Greek economy is a struggling economy as it is and with the number of refugees seeking their help, Greece did not have enough resources to help all that were in dire need. Most men were told they were not vulnerable enough to have shelter due to prioritising women and children and as a result, were homeless and made to squat in abandoned buildings or live on the street. I was also surprised that Greece is not warm and sunny all year round. Temperatures were as low as -10 in Thessaloniki and in some parts of Northern Greece -40 during the winter months. Most refugees did not have access to much clothing and certainly not the right kind to keep them warm over the winter period.
Why do you think it’s so important to raise awareness for the refugee crisis?
It’s important to raise awareness for the refugee crisis because you don’t hear too much about it in the news any more but it’s still an ongoing crisis and if anything, it’s getting worse. With the closure of the Jungle and many other refugee camps the refugee crisis was said to be over and we had no more refugees trying to cross the Calais border but where did they all go? The news didn’t quite follow that. The story of the drowned Syrian boy, which sparked huge outrage and media attention, has sadly become yesterday’s news. But talking to those in Greece, and those who volunteer at Help Refugees and CARAS, I’ve found that it’s far from over. Awareness is needed, so we all know how and where to help in order to resolve this on-going situation.
If someone is reading this and feels called to help – as I definitely do – what would you advise they do?
We all have something to give.It’s just about helping when you can, even it’s once a month, or even a year. There are many thousands of charities doing their bit, covering all aspects, which could suit you. You just need to want to help. Lots of charities are looking for people with your skills, whether that’s helping with homework, playing sports, building benches, reading or English lessons, there’s bound to be something you can do. It’s often hard to know when, where and how to help but once you start looking you’ll find it. We can all do our bit, however big or small that may be.
Have you found the work rewarding?
I have found the work very rewarding. It’s just very humbling to think how little you can offer means so much to those in need. It’s your time refugees need more than anything else. I have been lucky to have had the time to do this amount of volunteering and hope to continue it alongside the work I am doing. Some of these experiences have been tough but this has just made me want to do more and fight together for the cause with a louder voice. The majority of the time it has been wonderful, full of moments I will never forget, however seemingly small they may have been. The smiles, it’s definitely the smiles that are the most rewarding.
My novel, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, tells the story of a young Syrian refugee coming to the UK and is out now.
‘It leaves you inspired to help make the world a better place. A must read for everyone.’
‘It will break your heart, then put it back together again, stronger and full of love.’