Features Muse

Taking Action for Refugees

Sarah Jane Callender discusses Refugee Action York, a charity helping refugees assimilate into their community

Image: Flickr

Refugee Action York (RAY) was founded in 2002 with the aim of challenging prejudice and misconceptions about refugees and asylum seekers in York. RAY became a charity in 2009 and with aid from various grants and fundraising, makes a positive difference to the lives of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in York.

The last print issue of Nouse explored SASH

(Safe and Sound Homes), a charity helping young people aged 18-25 who are at risk
of becoming homeless. The article reminded me of RAY, a charity which has had little
attention in the press but works closely with SASH in providing English

classes and social activities to some of their clients.
In the culture of Brexit, I think it is important to be reminded of charities
like RAY, that aim to dislodge biases against migrants and create spaces for
refugees to interact and get involved in their new communities. The young
charity raises awareness of the contributions refugees and asylum seekers make to
our community and provides a platform where these voices can be heard in wider


In RAY’s 2018 Report, Chair Sally Bourton said: “Our
aims are twofold - to advance education and relieve financial hardship among
migrants, those seeking asylum and those granted refugee status; and to advance
the education of the public about the issues relating to refugees and those
seeking asylum. We have continued to work towards both these aims in the year
April 2017 to March 2018.”RAY’s work has expanded significantly into the
charity which we see today. Carrie Wheater, Manager at RAY told Nouse:
“I don’t think I could name one biggest achievement. Our work really is
ongoing, responding to demand and everchanging. At times it may feel an
achievement when we have supported someone through to a successful claim to asylum,
or in finding suitable housing, or in

finding a job, but it could equally be in finding
someone to donate a pair of second-hand school shoes in the right size for a
child who needs them.”


Working with and for asylum seekers, refugees and
migrants, RAY’s work includes the running of a weekly Sunday session called The
Hub at Clifton Children’s Centre. Here, the charity provides English language
classes for adults, an information and support service, regular talks and
advice from a wide range of York services and organisations as well as Turkish
and Arabic language classes

for young Turkish and Arabic speaking people. The
weekly session aims to build a support network for asylum seeking, refugee and migrant
families from those within their own community but also from the wider community
of York. On their website, RAY desires The Hub to be a place for all refugees,
asylum seekers and migrants, and to be welcoming to all those who come.


In 2016, Sally Bourton reported that about 40 people
per week attended The Hub and those that used the service came from eight
different countries of origin. In 2017, 80 people from 12 countries of origin
were reported and 2018 saw another expansion with around 120 people from 18
different countries of origin receiving the services that RAY provides. In
other words, the number of those who came to RAY since the end of 2016 to the end of
2018 has tripled. The sheer increase in numbers shows just how vital the
charity is to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in York; arguably some of
the most vulnerable groups in our society.


In order to meet this demand, by the end of March
2018, the charity had to increase staff hours, develop new services, including Women’s
Health sessions and a Mother and Baby group. RAY also increased the number of
English language classes and introduced a new database system to keep records
up to date and facilitate evaluation reports. For the rest of this year,
Wheater said: “We hope that 2019 brings more of what we have had in the last
few years – vital  funding, committed
volunteers, support from the public and other local organisations we work with –
all of this is needed to continue the work we are doing.”


Overall, RAY is unique in its approach by creating an
inclusive, safe space for dialogue between refugees and the wider city of York.
Not to mention that The Hub is a fantastic opportunity for volunteers and
refugees to get involved in a vast array of activities with the charity. RAY
hopes to provide a meeting point where people can learn, seek information and guidance,
learn new skills and languages and form lasting friendships. By providing this support,
the charity hopes to empower individuals and assist them in rebuilding their lives.


Other initiatives include running a weekly youth and
sports group, 4Corners, for young people from minority ethnic backgrounds. The group
meets weekly during term-time and offers different trips and events during
school holidays. 4Corners has secondary school-age people attending from numerous
communities across York and typical sessions involve sports, art and craft, baking
and many other activities. The aim of the programme is to provide a structured
youth activities that enable young people to develop a sense of their dual
national identities.


These sessions concentrate on increasing self-confidence
and developing skills for future employment and study prospects. RAY also offers
one-to-one mentoring for teens, parenting courses (in partnership with Family Matters
York) and a weekly Coffee and Conversation morning.

Locally, the charity campaigns on behalf of
asylum-seeking families and their relatives who are under threat of detention
and deportation. Nationally, RAY gets involved with the annual Refugee Week in
York as part of a national and international awareness-raising campaign.


Refugee Week is one of the busiest times of year for
RAY. It is a national, annual UK-wide celebration of the contribution refugees make
to the country. The aim of the week is to promote a better understanding of why
people seek asylum. York’s celebration of Refugee Week is one of the most
vibrant in the country and the charity actively invites everyone to join in the
volunteer-curated programme of events. In 2018, York Refugee Week consisted of
an array of different cultural events spanning from film, art, pub quizzes and
talks. One of the highlights was contemporary art exhibition,

The Sea is the Limit, which responded to ongoing issues surrounding
immigration, migration, integration and national borders.


Contemporary artist, Varavara Shavrova, who curated
the exhibition said: “What makes The Sea is the Limit a unique
exhibition is the fact that each participating artist has been addressing the
theme of refugees and engaging with migration, immigration, dispossession and
rootlessness for some years, and in some cases, for example as in the case of the
renowned Irish artist Brian Maguire, for some decades. Another strength of the
show lies in the fact that most participating artists, including myself, are

“This sets this project apart from a more sensationalist
if not exploitative approach to the currently hot topics of the migrant crisis,
and instead brings the empathy to the fore of the reflections on this tragic
and ongoing situation that is showing no signs of being resolved nor going away
any time soon.’


The exhibition was organised by York Art Gallery and
Shavrova in collaboration with Patrick Heide, and featured 25 artworks in a
wide range of media such as audio visual objects, interactive installations,
drawings, paintings and sculpture. The exhibition featured 11 international
artists including Nidhal Chamekh (Tunisia/ France), Taus Makhacheva
(Dagestan/Russia), Shahram Entekhabi (Iran/Germany), Brian Maguire (Ireland), Mohammed
Sami (Iraq/UK), Vanessa Vozzo

(Italy), Vladimir Miladinović (Serbia), Halil
Altindere (Turkey), Varvara Shavrova (USSR/ Ireland/ UK), Nick Ellwood (UK) and
Susan Stockwell (UK).


The artists used their work to express a desire for
freedom and a better life that stands in contrast to the reality the migrants experience
on their journeys. With the success of last year’s Refugee Week, Refugee
Week 2019 is extremely promising and much anticipated. The charity has also
been awarded £65719 from BBC Children in Need, over three years, to implement
the Aiming Higher project for refugee and asylum-seeking children and young
people in the city.


This funding will support the project by providing
services to disadvantaged young people in North Yorkshire. The project will run
a weekly youth club, fortnightly sports sessions and one to one mentoring that
will help to improve young people’s confidence and develop their skills and
abilities encouraging young people to reach their full potential.

In The Press, Wheater said: “We’re delighted to have
been awarded funding which will enable us to support refugee and asylum seeking
children and young people in our area for the next three years.”

The charity is keen to hear from people interested in
volunteering with RAY. RAY offers a wide range of roles available including organising
the kitchen at The Hub, running arts sessions with children, teaching English to
adults and young people, working as part of the information and support team,
helping out with their youth group, 4Corners, chatting to people at coffee
mornings, mentoring young people and being an Ambassador for RAY.


RAY offers an induction and training for new
volunteers, so no previous experience is necessary. If any of these initiatives
interest you then RAY is always open to volunteers and encourages you to get in
touch: http://www.refugeeactionyork.org/contact. Alternatively, you can follow
Refugee Action York on Twitter @refactyork or find RAY on Facebook.


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