Meeting Point is a drop-in centre run by a group of over 40 volunteers, who provide emotional and practical support for Refugees and Asylum seekers. Speaking with volunteers Judith and Bernard, we discovered that the support they give to those in the local area has been a crucial part of integration for many who have travelled to this country with the hope of gaining citizenship.
Meeting Point grants such individuals a safe space where they are welcomed and free from the prejudice many refugees come across in their daily lives.
The key aim of the centre, which recently celebrated its 16th birthday, is to instigate the social integration of Refugees and Asylum Seekers into the local community. This is done through a range of different factors, such as providing people with advice on health, employment and child care as well as an array of different food sources. Such facets of the organisation help people to find their feet in the new and daunting environment of a foreign country, in which their first language is often not understood. The drop-in provides aid to a range of multicultural receivers, with the majority of refugees coming from Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Across a normal week, a multitude of different services are offered. There are two weekly food drop-in sessions which are visited by over 80 people per occasion. During this, a snack is provided on arrival as people socialise, waiting for the home cooked meal which always follows. People then receive a dry food package to support them through the next few days until they come to Meeting Point again. Additionally on these open days, the centre offers clothing to men, women and children. English speaking lessons are also offered; with language barriers being one of the greatest challenges faced in integration, such a resource is essential for the immigrant community, but not offered in many places. The opportunity to learn English is the catalyst in a chain of events, that can help individuals overcome employment challenges and establish themselves within this country.
Meeting Point also provides legal advice to refugees and asylum seekers wanting to apply for British citizenship. On top of all of this, the centre offers a vast amount of help regarding childcare. With an onsite crèche and a parenting programme, parents are helped to understand the cultural norms of raising a child in the UK. One example given to us, was that of a parent who would leave their 8 year old to look after their 3 young siblings in their home country, something completely culturally normal to them which would be frowned upon in Britain and could even leave them in trouble.
Trips are organised by Meeting Point, including a summer trip to a city within the UK. This trip is often the first time many refugees have left Leeds since they arrived in the country, which is often many years prior. They also have smaller-scale trips, recently bringing a group from the centre to experience lambing season on a Yorkshire farm. The mental health benefits of such an organisation are of crucial importance and must be acknowledged. Humans are social beings and often Refugees can be left feeling extremely isolated in their situation. Thousands of miles from home, often separated from their family and friends, in a country where they face anti-immigrant prejudice and may experience a lack of ability to express themselves due to English not being their first language. Meeting Point generates a sense of community in which they can escape such loneliness.
Sharing the memories of home in their native tongue is a sense of therapy in itself and the volunteers who provide the opportunity for people to have this are so important to our society. They enable people to stay connected with who they are. On top of this, many volunteers at the centre were once refugees who have now have the opportunity to help others like them, an opportunity which can be incredibly dignifying. These volunteers, whose first language is the same as new refugees, can be a comforting welcome in an intimidating and unfamiliar environment, as well as a shining example of what their own future could become.
During a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric is thriving across the continent, communities such as Meeting Point provide a safe space in which refugees and asylum seekers can take solace for a moment. With the native population of Armley being predominantly white, the acceptance of those who are visibly ethnically different is often limited, Bernard tells us. With the key aim of the centre being integration, it’s this a challenge they are wholly aware of.
The work that the volunteers at Meeting Point do transforms the lives of so many. It is impossible to do justice to all the work they do in one article, but it is worth trying in an attempt to bring attention to their cause. A cause that would not be sustained without the volunteers who work there. If you fancy getting involved with the Meeting Point team, then check out their website, they are always keen for volunteers and any donations are incredibly welcomed.
Words by Laura McDermott