More Interesting Encounters.

I think I may have mentioned before how varied a life I get to lead and how many interesting people I meet. This is always true through the interaction with our clients, but is also in the conversations I have when I visit different groups and schools to talk about our work. Just this week I had a lovely time at Field Court Junior School where I spent time with all the Year 6 groups. What an inspiration they are and what wonderful questions and conversations we enjoyed.

One girl asked, “Can it really be right to put up barbed wire to stop people being safe?”. Absolutely – it’s responses like this that encourage me for the future.

Yesterday I spent time with a lovely group of women at the other end of their lives. Amongst them was one who had been interred in Sumatra during the Second World War. As she is now 86 she has strong memories of that time and the effect on her parents, (her mother was 3 1/2 stone when they were freed!). She was put to work as a ten year old.

A second woman was a refugee from Poland. Her father and uncle had escaped after the the war, but it was not until the mid 1950’s that she and her mother managed to escape from the grip of communism and be reunited with her father.

What amazing stories, what a great reminder that so many of us have such an interesting and revealing past.


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job opportunity – please feel free to share

Details of a vacancy you might be interested in. Job Ref – 2/CF/18/545 Job Title – Transitional Learning Mentors Location – Gloucester Salary – Employer – Gloucestershire County Council Description Fixed term for 12 months Term time only plus 2 weeks

This exciting opportunity has arisen following a successful bid to the DfE to implement a pilot focusing on supporting the educational improvement of unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) residing in Gloucestershire. Gloucestershire County Council, Youth Support Team, and Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (GARAS) are the core partner agencies working together to increase capacity for and access to education for UASC in Gloucestershire; funds have been secured through our joint bid to develop our offer to UASC, and part of this bid is funding the creation of two Transitional Learning Mentor (TLM) positions for a fixed period of 12 months with the possibility of a further 12 month extension following receipt of funding after April 19.

UASC can be some of the most vulnerable children in the country and accessing education can be challenging for them; both of the TLMs will, in summary, make sure pre and post 16 UASC residing in Gloucestershire (looked after by both Gloucestershire and other LAs) have a quick and smooth transition into school / training by facilitating support for each UASC and being their champion. They will also make sure that UASC are able to access and maintain post 16 education, training or employment.

Both TLMs will work closely with a range of agencies including schools, colleges, training providers, Gloucestershire Virtual School, other Virtual Schools around the UK, Youth Support Team, Prospects, GARAS, Designated Teachers, Social Care teams, Health professionals, and voluntary agencies.

As the funding for the pilot has been provided by the DfE, both TLMs will be involved in the pilot’s monitoring and evaluation of impact, and will be contributing to the DfE resource bank for UASC support. The TLM’s work and impact will also be shared with the DfE

For further details about the positions, please refer to the job profile.

For further reading, please use the links below:

For an informal discussion please contact Sue Faulkner via email susan.faulkner

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Everyone deserves a friend

A privilege of my role is going into schools to speak about refugees and the work we do. With children you never know what will come up.

Today I went to a lovely school in Cheltenham and received support from both Gardners Lane Primary and Oakwood Primary School. The children had had a non-uniform day and also baked cakes.

They had also designed poster during Refugee Week and I was asked to give out the prizes to the winners in each year group.

The posters are lovely and very heart warming. The youngest winner had written I welcome refugees…. because everyone deserves a friend!

The oldest: we should always welcome everyone. So they can be safe from the war. I think everyone can live where they want to. Somewhere safe.

What can I say? beautifully and simply summed up.

On my return to the office I sat with someone as we cried because his family is not living somewhere safe, because they cannot get out and because they very desperately need a friend to help make this possible.

(if I can work out the technology I shall share the posters!)

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A Personal Reflection

To end off the Guest Blogs we have a lovely reflection form a volunteer. Interestingly I spoke , last week, to a man in New York whose father came to Gloucester in 1939 on the Kinder transport.

My mother and her two sisters were sent to the UK in 1938 aged nine, eight and five. They were sent from Germany by their Catholic mother who had a Jewish father, as she knew they were in danger under Hitler’s rule. They came via Holland where they had been living with their mother. A Catholic/Jewish charity sponsored their visas to the UK. They were sent to various Catholic boarding schools in Scotland and England and were told that they must say they were Dutch and not German and they lost their mother tongue as a result. My mother has vivid memories of lying in bed at night crying for her mother. 

Later, when my mother was about 15, she and her sisters were taken under the wing of a wonderful couple from Liverpool, who became their guardians and gave them a taste of a warm and comfortable home life. The couple, who were childless, were both professors at Liverpool University and encouraged my mother and sisters in their higher education achievements.

My mother has now lived in the UK for 80 years (30 years in Gloucestershire) and I am forever grateful for the generosity and welcome of the people and government of the UK. And this is why I am proud to support the work of GARAS.

All the best 

Clare John (the Curtain maker!)

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Lifeboats, Clowns and Stories

It is appropriate to post this on a Tuesday when we particularly provide our psychotherapeutic support. Kate reflects on a wider picture from her experience at Beyond the Border and an opportunity to think what happens beyond GARAS!

The Sea was the theme for this year’s 25th ‘Beyond the Border’ Storytelling Festival in Wales. Amid tales of mythical sea voyages such as the Odyssey, I attended a stimulating discussion: ‘Mediterranean Migrations Today’. The panel included David Hughes, Head of the European Commission Office in Wales, Lily Eckersley-Jones, a Director of the Atlantic Pacific Rescue Boat charity, Isobel Wolfe, representing The Flying Seagulls Project and Syed Najibi, who came to the UK in 2013 as an Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Child (UASC) from Afghanistan.

David provided context and statistics about the migration crisis; outlining EC initiatives which he claimed have helped to manage the situation and reduce the number of lives lost at sea. I imagine I was not alone in feeling uncomfortable with a seeming disconnect between bureaucratic policy-making and the desperate, continuing struggles experienced by so many migrants reaching European shores.

Atlantic Pacific NGO, (based at UWC Atlantic College, where the festival was held), provides international lifeboats and crew training. They have been actively helping rescue efforts in Greece and off the coast of Libya. Lily spoke movingly about the harrowing conditions so many people face in the hands of ruthless smugglers, who will often throw people overboard (to avoid their boats being captured) without caring that many cannot swim. She described how modern 360-degree camera technology used to record rescue efforts (and provide vital evidence of conditions on board the boats), is helping to train volunteer crew.

The Flying Seagull Project has brought fun and laughter to refugee children in camps across Europe, with their mix of clowning, singing, circus shows and games. Isobel spoke passionately about the vital importance of providing a space (and the permission) to play for kids who have been so affected by trauma and their parents’ worries about basic survival. Sometimes the troupe of volunteer clowns will get permission to build their big top; other times it’s an impromptu show on waste-ground in the open air, bringing smiles and laughter to where they’re needed most.

Before I trained as a psychotherapist, I had an eclectic career in the arts – theatre, carnival, storytelling and even training as a clown. The Seagulls really rocked my boat and I felt tempted to dust off my red nose to run away with the circus!

The project, which has been running for over 10 years, puts volunteers through a week’s training to develop the basic therapeutic skills and insight to work with refugee children appropriately. They proved a magnet for kids at the festival; I loved seeing the sheer delight on my 6-year-old son’s face as he mastered hula-hooping and spinning plates.

There could hardly be a greater contrast between such moments of joy and the harsh realities so many refugee children have to face on a daily basis. Syed Najibi spent five months in prison-like conditions in a camp in Greece, after fleeing Afghanistan as a boy. He remembered guards regularly beating him with sticks, living in overcrowded conditions, hearing the screams of his neighbours as they awoke from nightmares. The only food each day was a burger and literally two chips. He considered himself lucky, as some people had been there in the camp for years.

Since 2017 Syed has worked with Phosphoros Theatre Company bringing the unseen stories of UASCs to light. Their current production: ‘Dear Home Office: Still Pending’ is being performed in Sheffield for Refugee Week, by eight refugee and asylum-seeking young men from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Albania. The show was born in a NW London Supported Housing project and explores the challenges of coming of age in extreme circumstances, in a way that sounds uplifting, funny, educational and inspiring.

I believe we’re part of one body, we are all connected”, he told us with heartfelt clarity, “We can’t ignore the suffering some people are experiencing or become complacent”. He spoke about the media bias determined to present refugees and asylum seekers as victims or bad people. “We each have our own stories, dreams and reasons for being here”.

It was this idea of the power in sharing stories which sparked a wider discussion about how we overcome the prejudice and pervasive denial about the migrant crisis that exists in many areas of the UK. I was inspired to hear from audience members about exciting projects aiming to support refugees in sharing personal and traditional stories, recipes, proverbs and songs, particularly with British people who may be ‘fearful of others’ outside their own culture. This sharing of our humanity, celebrating what connects us and makes us different, is a vital step in overcoming ignorance and fear.

Through my work with GARAS, I have learnt how sharing stories can challenge our preconceptions. I recall telling a folktale called ‘The Stone Soup’ to young Palestinian man. It’s a story of how hungry strangers use three stones in a cooking pot to convince the fearful people of a town to each share a small amount of their food in order to make a meal that everyone enjoys. “I never thought that stones could bring people together and build community” he said. “Where I grew up, stones were only weapons to throw at the soldiers”.

I returned home from Wales with renewed hope and inspiration, and the seeds of some creative ideas to cultivate, particularly during 2019, as we celebrate 20 years of GARAS.

To apply as a volunteer contact:

Kate Smith

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A GEM of a job

Here is another blog in our series, an mouth watering reflection on one of the many benefits there are of working in this field – Editor

My role is to support individuals gain employment, get into training or take up voluntary work and the lack of English does not stop many individuals trying to carve out a career and use their many and varied skills to contribute to society and the local and national economy. There is however one currency that seems to need no formal language skills and shows the human spirit in all its generous glory. It never ceases to amaze me and I am forever surprised by the generosity offered to me.

I have been invited to sit and eat breakfast at 10.30 with a family, while I worked through a CV pulling at warm flatbreads and popping delicious big olives into my mouth. In another home, surprised by being offered a full Syrian spread for lunch, with an insistence that I sit and take part, I put my laptop down and eat food I have never tasted before and disappear into culinary delights, dabbing weakly at oily smears on my keyboard. The lack of a common language makes no difference where food is concerned.

Ice-creams soaked in fruit juice and cream, chocolate, sweet lemon teas and Arabic coffees, are all regular offerings with minimum fuss but deep hospitality, sharing need and conversation, warm open gestures and expectation that I will partake and will enjoy.

I do.  

However the corrections I have received, gently and unconsciously delivered by my clients, requires me to review how we all take so much for granted. The assumptions I have made, and, when faced with individuals who are struggling to get their head round the processes and procedures of this land, while dealing with deep scars and separations, recovering from torture and injustice, is deeply humbling.

And yes, never more so when someone fasting offers you coffee and biscuits during Ramadan.

It is extraordinary what one day can bring.  

By GEM worker Sarah Fotheringham employed by GARAS on the GEM project.

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A Surprise Meeting

My daughter was married on May 19th. She and Adam had been working on the event for a couple of days at the Tythe Barn, Stanway. They both work in Events and the place looked fantastic.

Adam, my soon to be son-in-law,  asked me if I wanted a microphone practice, if so come to the barn early tomorrow, Saturday, morning.

I didn’t sleep well that night, speeches are not my thing, so I arrived about 8.00am. As I parked up and walked towards the barn perimeter, a yellow vis jacket met me, “Hallo sir can I help you?”

We exchanged pleasantries I explained who I was but the man was still not letting me past. Adam had told him he would be at the venue at 8.30. I was clearly to wait….outside.

I tried small talk, he lived in Gloucester and had done for six years, did I know Gloucester? 

I explained the only time I visited the city was when I did voluntary work.


“At GARAS.” 

His eyes lit up, “Did I know Hannah, Adele, Farouq?” And many other names I didn’t know.

The centre had been a great help to him when he arrived from his African country of origin.

Muhammad, we were now on first name terms, walked me to the barn and we discussed all manner of things about the situation in his home country but also how he had settled in Gloucester and was happy there. He had been working security for sometime and was used to the weird hours. His VW Polo was parked adjacent to the venue and he talked about his flat and friends.

He then asked me what I did at Garas? I told him my wife made up curtains and I hung them for people who had just moved into an empty flat.

“You know my cousin Ahmed.  You hung his curtains. He was out the first time and you came back to do them.”

I remembered, he had gone to the mosque and forgotten me. Muhammad laughed, that was his cousin. 

Adam arrived, Muhammad waved as he drove off and checked that 11pm would be good for that evening.

Makes life worthwhile.


( some names have been anonomised)

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