By Liz Hibberd and Rebecca Herbert
When we heard about the events happening in Afghanistan back in August 2021, the refugee sector in Manchester immediately stepped up to offer support, organise donations and deliver services around health and wellbeing.
The Step Change Consortium, working together since receiving funding from the National Lottery Community Fund in April 2021, originally was made up of nine charities (Asylum Matters, Boaz Trust, British Red Cross, GMIAU, Manchester City of Sanctuary, MRSN, Rainbow Haven, Revive and Refugee Action) that work with refugees and asylum seekers across Greater Manchester. With such a range of expertise and experience we came together to see how best we could support the City Council and the VSCE (Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise) sector to ensure Afghan refugees being accommodated in Manchester were able to have their basic needs met as well as receiving information about their choices and future where possible.
As people had arrived in the city with very little material items with them and faced a long stay in a hotel while they waited to be resettled more permanently, it was key that these needs were met, but it was also important to consider how this long term ‘limbo’ would impact their mental health.
As there had been little time to prepare for a joined-up response, it was initially difficult to navigate all the different elements and communicate effectively with the myriad of stakeholders, but crucially we were able to engage in two key ways; through providing women’s wellbeing activities
and ESOL and by coordinating with the Hotel Liaising Organisations to get donations of clothing, phones and children items to the people who needed them.
Creating a working group to deliver on this allowed for better communication, a smoother delivery of items and services and allowed us to share feedback and information that was vital to our work. This has also led to the group being able to capture key learning points that we can share more widely to support other organisations doing this work across the country.
Manchester Refugee Support Network responded swiftly and connected to the hotels providing donations that met immediate needs.
We began tackling the crisis by responding to donation requests for the hotel residents. Thanks to our amazing volunteers, we were able to provide clothes, shoes, winter wear, sportswear, clothes vouchers and Christmas gifts for those in hotels. We were particularly happy to be able to provide sportswear for the Afghan hotel residents enabling them to take part in activities aimed at improving their well-being. We believe that focusing on well-being is really crucial for those who have faced hardship.
In addition to providing physical donations, with local heroes offering their services, we were able to coordinate free appointments at a barbers and a dentist for the hotel residents who required this support. Manchester City of Sanctuary (MCoS) focused on creating an offer of wellbeing activities targeted for women and children, recognising the need to promote positive mental health and resilience to navigate the challenging circumstances.
Since November, MCoS has liaised with partners to deliver a wide range of activities including dance, drama, art and yoga to encourage connection, engagement and to allow the women to have fun. Through these sessions
the groups developed friendships and a support network of others going through similar experiences. The facilitators and volunteers have really enjoyed the sessions and seen how impactful they’ve been.
Working with Manchester Libraries enabled us to offer a weekly arts and craft activity for children while they were waiting for their school places to be finalised. These sessions were really popular and it was wonderful to see the children engaged, creative and having fun. It also provided a valuable respite for parents.
Feedback about the way we have been involved has been incredibly positive and has involved many different organisations and charities across the city – all keen to support and be involved. We continued to offer this specific provision until the end of March, having set up key contacts and processes for these activities and services to be managed by those working in the hotels.
Looking at the number of wellbeing sessions offered, the items donated and the support that has been provided, it’s clear to see that we were able to achieve so much more together than we could alone. We’ve been able to work in a much more joined up way; sharing information and offering support. It means we’ve had a greater reach and a bigger impact – ensuring that a bigger group of people have benefitted.