Anyone who knows Refugee Support Europe knows that we’re all about Aid With Dignity.
It’s a key message that appears everywhere, but it’s much more than just a strap line or slogan. It defines everything we do and how we go about doing it.
Can Aid with Dignity help you?
Now that the Europe and the West is facing another humanitarian crisis resulting from events in Afghanistan, I thought it might be useful for communities and groups who are embracing working with refugees here in the UK, and perhaps for the first time, to know the story of how we adopted our Aid With Dignity approach, and how it may help you do a better job.
How did we stumble upon it?
Refugee Support Europe was launched in April 2016 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis which saw thousands stuck in camps in Greece. Before that we’d spent 6 months working in the squalor and chaos of the Calais jungle.
We started with nothing but a desire to help. For the first couple of years we worked in refugee camps in Northern Greece alongside other agencies including international NGOs. To be honest, we were new to it so initially thought it was about getting as much stuff as possible to people in as fair a way as possible.
But the more we engaged with the Syrian, Kurdish, Iraqi and other refugees living on the camps, the more we realised something that you may think was blindingly obvious. Which is that amongst the many hardships of being a refugee, the one that stood out to us most starkly was that being a refugee strips you of all human dignity.
Imagine, one day you’re a successful doctor, or university lecturer, or small business owner, working hard and supporting your family, and the next you’re all crammed into a leaky UNHCR tent and living on hand-outs. We could see it in the faces of the men and women, especially if they were parents, which most of them were.
We recognised we couldn’t change their basic circumstances on the camps but slowly began to realise that there was one thing we could change, and that was how they were treated, and, more specifically, that they could be treated in a far more dignified way. Our Aid With Dignity approach was born.
How did we deliver Aid with Dignity?
At first it was an outward facing expression of who we were and what we believed and appeared on all our fundraising and volunteer recruitment activity. But then something curious happened. Far from merely being a piece of branding it slowly began to exert its influence over how we did things.
In no time at all Aid With Dignity morphed from slogan to mantra. It became a benchmark we had to live up to, and led us to come up with more creative and inspired ways in how we went about our day-to-day business.
For example, before Aid With Dignity we offered people bags of food which we decided they should have. After Aid With Dignity we set up what we called ‘food shops’ on the camps where the refugees could come in and choose what they wanted from what was available. We designed a “money” system where all of the food and toiletry items were individually “priced” with points and each family was given an amount of points to spend.
Now they were no longer being given hand-outs but were visiting a shop where they were treated like valued customers and were able to exercise choice.
Visiting them even became something to look forward to and a welcome break form the grinding monotony of refugee camp life.
It brought a much-needed little piece of normality back into their daily lives.
Caring volunteers love delivering dignity
As a result we had to ‘train’ our volunteers to be service orientated. This wasn’t a problem as once they had learnt the practicalities of operating the points system they were more than happy to buy into the added Aid With Dignity approach. This in turn was reflected in how we recruited our volunteers. We have been fortunate to attracted over 1,000 people from over 40 nations and interviews were conduced via Skype calls. (This was pre-Covid and nobody had heard of Zoom.)
Now our interviewers were focussed on explaining that primarily we were interested in people who could deliver our Aid With Dignity approach.
Moving from Greece to Cyprus
A couple of years later, and for reasons outside of our control, we had to leave the camps in Greece and relocated our operation to Cyprus. We took what we had learnt working on the camps with us and set up a drop-in facility for the many refugees living on the island.
‘The Dignity Centre’ offers them a safe and supportive space in which to meet and come together. Our volunteers have run education programmes like Greek and English language training and computer skills. We’ve set up a bike repair business, a barbers and a sewing co-operative which earns them a little extra cash. We write CVs to help them get a job. There are some basic services like showers, laundry and hygiene items.
It’s very different to the work we doing on the camps, but one thing is exactly the same, everything is done in a way that builds a sense of respect for community.
Coming full circle and back to food shops
In the 6 years we have been doing this, we have seen a rise in the number of refugees needing help and a reduction in state support. Many feel abandoned and are hungry.
In Cyprus, we need to focus our efforts once more on food security. In the UK, the government has created an even more hostile environment so refugees are in greater need of care, compassion and dignity than ever.
It’s how you do it that counts
On top of that we’re faced with another humanitarian crisis, and the UK has pledged to welcome thousands of families from Afghanistan. Hundreds of communities and grass roots organisations in the UK have sprung up in response.
The internet and the TV news are full of images of donated clothes being stockpiled and other welcoming initiatives taking shape.
This is heartening to see but if I could share one thought with all those who are embarking on their first experience of refugee support work, it would be this: what you do and what you provide will be very important in helping refugees arriving in the UK, but just as important and valuable will be how you do it.
The more you can place dignity at the heart of what you do, the more appreciated your efforts will be.
Paul Hutchings, Co-founder
An edited version of this article was published by Charity Times on 15th February 2022 here.