Is there such a thing as a free lunch? Integration in Bristol

15 July 2019

They say that there is no such thing as a free lunch, so when asylum seekers eat lunch for free at Bristol’s Refugee Rights Welcome Centre, who is really footing the bill? The answer is a complex one, as representatives from Nuremberg, Toulouse and Turin discovered on a recent trip there as part of VALUES.

Lunch, as with many of the support services offered by the centre, is served up by volunteers, so in a sense those working in the centre pay with their time. But these volunteers view their time in the Welcome Centre as an exchange, rather than a sacrifice. For one thing, half of the volunteers are members of the centre, migrants who use the service themselves. Both migrant volunteers and those volunteers with British backgrounds find working in the centre an enriching social and cultural experience.

“Volunteering was discovering myself. If young refugees and migrants understood what volunteering gives you, they would all do it.” Said Mo, a young man from Eritrea a volunteer support worker for resettled refugees whom the VALUES team met in Bristol.

It’s got to be codesign
Members of the Welcome Centre are represented on the board of trustees, meaning that migrant volunteers also help to shape the services that they provide and receive. This principle of codesign is a thread that runs through many of the organisations working in the city.

The Creative Youth Network, a charity that works with the city council to support migrant teenagers in reaching their full potential, could not operate without this codesign principle, which gives young people the responsibility of guiding the services to meet their needs. Young migrants often find themselves to be socially marginalised and encounter difficulties at home and at school. The number one issue among young migrants is isolation, which can lead to serious issues with mental and physical health, as well as negative educational and employment outcomes.

Becoming a part of something greater
This is why the Creative Youth Network runs ‘Welcome Wednesdays’ a session in which young migrants and refugees socialise and make friends. On passing the upward age limit for the event, 19, many young migrants keep participating as volunteers. Among these is Herez, a barber, who comes and gives free hair cuts to the young people. All the network’s services are focused on building secure, positive and fulfilling lives for migrants.

For migrants, volunteering is a pathway to integration, to developing a meaningful life in their new communities. At the charity Step Together, local and migrant youths with complex needs are matched with volunteering positions that suit their individual interests. The charity begins by offering plenty of support, then gradually phases itself out as the volunteers become more independent, strengthened by their newfound role.

Parents are champions
It’s not just young migrants themselves, but also their parents that are volunteering for the youth in Bristol. At St Paul’s Nursery School and Children’s Centre, migrants and refugees who are parents receive training that they use to volunteer and help the community.

They do this as classroom assistants, helping teachers and getting to know the children or as ‘parent champions’ who build on a common language to support other parents who are isolated from the community. They can even become ‘cultural competency champions’ who develop learning resources or trainers who train schools on working with pupils from different backgrounds. One such group have already used their training to band together and set up their own social enterprise.

Sadly, there are also a number of unaccompanied children who arrive in Bristol as asylum seekers or refugees. These children go into local care and, where a foster family cannot be found, the city itself will find alternative accomodation. Now Bristol is seeking ways to strengthen its ties with migrants of all ages as their support in time of need, as their partners in business and as their beneficiaries in volunteering.

Onward with VALUES
Over the next two years, as part of the project VALUES, Bristol will continue to work together with Nuremberg, Toulouse and Turin to leverage volunteering activities for migrant integration. The city has already started to develop an action plan through the project which will include reaching out to young people whose fears, gender or sexuality stop them from leaving the house. The plan also includes seeking funding for more tests and pilots for innovative integration, and strengthening the city’s volunteer strategy.

Two out of every three people in Bristol are involved in volunteering. Now the city will use its role in groups like the Young People Migration Forum to improve its way of working with, engaging and supporting local and migrant volunteers to further integration. It will work to link up different initiatives, facilitate partnerships and identify the gaps.

It may well be that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But when you see the value and richness that migrants bring when they participate, or volunteer, in cities, it’s clear that our communities get much more than is paid for.


Rossella Nicoletti Senior Project Coordinator - UNITES