I recently visited Solace, a local charity in Leeds that focuses specifically on asylum seekers, who have unique needs within the broader refugee community.
It's one of many refugee charities supported by the Lloyds Bank Foundation, many of them located in the "dispersal" cities and towns where, after being "processed", refugees are sent to "settle". Unable to work while their asylum pleas are being considered, they become dependent largely on local organisations just to survive. That’s the reason Refugee Action – a larger charity than we can fund – is fighting to Lift The Ban on employment, not just because refugees want to work, but because enforced worklessness demeans those who at home would often be regarded as industrious and highly skilled.
Ahead of my visit to Solace, I’d read how one of its psychotherapists, Divine Charura, describes what it means to work with asylum seekers. He talks of their complex psychological journeys, in which they address trauma, displacement and the loss of people, identity and homes. They’re forced to process complex mental health diagnoses while seeking out the basics, such as food and shelter.
He shares the challenges of conducting sensitive counselling sessions with interpreters in languages for which there might be no direct equivalent for some terms, or for people who might be used to different cultural norms – such as appointments not being scheduled by clocks and therapy sessions aren’t limited because "the hour is coming up now".
When I met Kathryn, the chief executive, and Sarah, a therapist, their stories completed the picture, revealing how small and holistic charities like theirs are best equipped to address issues like these. They told me that people arrive in waves from different destinations, the current wave being dominated by Iranians and Eritreans.
Solace offers a wide range of support, but its core offer is psychotherapy, including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) and body psychotherapy. Almost always this is provided alongside practical support around housing and access to legal aid.
Sarah’s descriptions (of a woman they helped, who had pain on the left-hand side of her body because she was hurt by a right-handed man, or of another who was recovering from the horror and humility of being raped on the streets) backed up what charities have long been telling us: that leaving family, friends and homes in favour of risk and almost certain danger is a sign of refugees’ true desperation.
When they arrive they are broken and they need rebuilding from the inside out. Sarah says women like these often see Solace as like family, seeking to make them proud, even when she has very little furniture and no money.
Solace is fortunate to be based in Leeds, one of the UK’s few Cities of Sanctuary, where enlightened commissioners such as the local clinical commissioning group recognise that dealing with this kind of trauma is beyond anything they can do and trust local charities like Solace, who step up to provide this kind of highly specialised, well-rounded support package.
Solace reaches 147 people each year for as long as they need it, a flexibility that commissioners recognise is a critical component of a service which, were it provided by them, would have to be limited to a standardised approach.
Without Solace and other charities like it, more refugees and asylum seekers would be homeless and destitute. But with the right support many will become valued members of society, contributing the entrepreneurialism and prosperity that has characterised successive waves of refugees right back to the Huguenots, who fled persecution in France in the 16th century and who first coined the word "refugee" from the French "refugie" and the Latin "refugium", a noun meaning "hideaway".
Paul Streets is chief executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales @lbfew @PaulStreets_