By: Helena Argyle
An interview with Pauline Nandoo (MBE), coordinator of the Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers (SDCAS) in London
Helena Argyle (HA): The SDCAS offers a wide range of training courses designed to help refugees and asylum seekers equip themselves with skills necessary to integrate into British society. Can you give a specific example of the positive effects of these facilities?
Pauline Nandoo (PN): One of the courses we provide is a parenting class funded by the Big Lottery, which helps families learn practical communications skills for everyday life so they can bring up confident, happy and cooperative children. As families often experience turbulent and chaotic situations during the asylum process, positive parenting is important. After taking the course, some parents trained to become course facilitators or took up further training in childcare.
HA: It can be argued that there is a sense of animosity in some camps of British society towards refugees and asylum seekers. How do you think that the SDCAS is able to give refugees and asylum seekers a voice for their own communities and as well as the skills to easily integrate into Britain without a sense of alienation?
PN: SDCAS empowers asylum seekers and refugees, encouraging them to become active participants of society. The support services provided are aimed at ensuring that the rights of asylum seekers and refugees are upheld. SDCAS acts as a mediator for refugees and asylum seekers in order to reduce barriers in accessing vital mainstream services, things that are not easy for those who experience high rates of isolation, unemployment, destitution and complex immigration problems. Together with over 50 local volunteers including students, pensioners, faith leaders and retired professionals, we try to foster good community relations and cohesion, reduce alienation, local tensions and public hysteria.
HA: The government has introduced large funding cuts to organisations and has also put a cap on the number of people entering the country. How has this affected the SDCAS’s three centres, and has this had a visible effect on the refugee communities you are involved with?
PN: Despite a fall in the official number of asylum seekers entering the UK, we are not surprised by the increase in our client base each year. Recent reports on destitution and mental health (by British Red Cross, Oxfam and MIND) show that there is a continuing need for services like ours. For the last three years our core costs have been met with the help of the Main Grants Programme of Southwark Council, and while we are hopeful that we will receive some core funding over the next year, because of drastic cuts in government funding we are still unsure of this. There is also increasing competition for funding from charities and trusts, so despite submitting a number of applications we have not yet received guaranteed funding for the coming years.
HA: The SDCAS focus on providing legal advice, medical advice and counselling. In your experience, how accessible is advice such as this outside of the centres and how much importance does it have?
Advice and information services are limited and this is a problem especially in terms of specialist immigration advice. SDCAS relies on a few agencies that provide free, accessible, good quality and appropriate legal advice in the areas of immigration, housing, welfare benefits, debt management and public health. These are essential services for asylum seekers and refugees who are often unaware of their rights and entitlements; this can often lead to a crisis occurring and poor mental health. SDCAS provides General Help Level 1 advice and works closely with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Southwark Law Centre, Migrant Resource Centre, South London & Maudsley NHS Trust and the PCT’s Health Inclusion Team.
HA: The SDCAS also provides language courses. How do you feel a grasp of the English language helps refugee and asylum seekers with their new life in Britain?
The English classes we provide are aimed at beginners. Without basic language skills, people struggle to read important documents and interpreters are not always made available for appointments. Also, people need some language skills to pass the pre-entry tests required to enrol in English classes provided by colleges. Many women attend our classes and benefit from using the playgroup for young children not in school. Knowledge of the language helps decrease isolation and leads to more opportunities in terms of employment and education.
HA: You deal with a vast range of cultures and traditions. In your opinion, how does the mingling of so many cultures affect London life for new migrants, and what kind of social activities does SDCAS organise with these different communities?
The centres are vibrant and stimulating places in which various communities come together from places like Algeria, Iran, Congo, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and Kosovo, which is what makes life in London for these people so interesting. The centres provide a forum in which to form friendships, where mutual support can flourish, where people can experience being useful together and roots into the wider community can grow. The centres partake in various activities around London including trips to museums – we work with the Hornimans Museum to celebrate refugee week, and services users have exhibited artwork at Docklands Museum. We also organise great day trips to the coast in the summer, lively parties, theatre trips and picnics where service users plant and grow fruit and vegetables. We hope this continues in years to come.
HA: What do you see in the future for SDCAS? What are your hopes for the coming year, and what new programmes do you plan to introduce?
SDCAS has set up a Friends Scheme, which is due to be launched this year. There is already a lot of enthusiasm about getting involved in our fundraising events, such as our concerts with great performances from local musicians. Identifying a source of funding for would help us enormously to meet our needs and we hope the scheme will showcase our services and raise our profile so that we attract more support and resources, enabling us to reach more asylum seekers and refugees.