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Volunteering with the Open Cultural Center to support refugees and migrants

Staff from King’s Careers & Employability have been volunteering with the Open Cultural Center (OCC), an organisation that delivers educational and cultural programmes for refugees and migrants currently living in camps in Spain and Greece. Nicole Mennell (Engagement Lead, Vision 2029) interviewed Jalal Afhim (Careers Consultant) and Ben Brown (Careers Education E-Learning Officer) about their voluntary roles with the OCC.

How did you get involved with the Open Cultural Centre and how long have you worked with the organisation?

Jalal: I’ve been working with Open Cultural Centre for nearly 4 years now. I first got involved with a short-term volunteering stint – just 3 weeks – in the summer of 2016. It was when the so-called migration crisis was getting a lot of media attention, and there were a lot of people stuck in transit in North Greece in really bad conditions.

Ben: I was recently introduced to the OCC by Jalal and jumped at the opportunity to support their work.

Why did you want to work with the Open Cultural Centre?

Ben: We’re living in a scary world where things constantly feel like they’re getting worse and those who are most marginalised and demonised are feeling the brunt of extremism, racism and environmental catastrophes. That was the first reason the OCC appealed to me, since they work so hard on the ground to make things better from those who have endured the most. I was also drawn to helping with OCC’s e-learning materials since I’m always up for sharing my skills of e-learning and getting creative. I jumped at the chance to help design e-learning training courses!

Jalal: Media images of families in transit, carrying all their belongings, and walking towards uncertainty and insecurity really made me think that we have a duty of care towards those people displaced by conflict and poverty. We are beneficiaries of the structures that have failed them. News of people drowning in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe underlined the sense of tragedy and desperation in this situation. I desperately wanted to see my government stand up and show leadership on this issue, and was really upset by the apathy that was on show and that our government see that apathy as a point of pride. So, I decided that, in the absence of action from my government, I should take action myself.

What do your roles entail?

Jalal: I’ve taken a range of different roles as a member of the OCC family, depending on the needs at the time, and the skills and experience I have to offer. I’ve been an English language teacher, semi-skilled carpenter and van driver. I was full-time coordinator of the OCC project in North Greece for 12 months last year, and now I’m consulting on diversity and inclusion for our Migracode project and developing some virtual volunteer training with Ben. The time commitment varies a lot depending on my availability and OCC’s needs.

I spent most of the last 2 weekends working on the volunteer training, but during other months I might do almost nothing. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have a little less to do at the moment as OCC have had to pause their rolling out of Migracode 3, which expands our activities teaching coding skills to refugees and migrants to include Croatia.

Ben: I set up a e-learning course for OCC volunteers, which covered what to expect when they arrive and safeguarding training. I worked closely with Jalal who curated a lot of the content and who helped me immeasurably in converting static text into an interactive e-learning environment. I have also learnt about tailoring written content to specific audiences and ways to convey sensitive and highly important information in an e-learning environment. I used my Service Time – the allocated hours that King’s gives to all members of staff for voluntary activities – to get this project started, which was really helpful. For the remainder of the project, I worked after work and in my lunch break.

What have you gained from your time volunteering with the Open Cultural Centre?

Jalal: From my first experience with OCC back in 2016 I really started learning a lot about myself, my strengths, and how I behave in a complex and unpredictable environment. I’ve also learned a lot about safeguarding and vulnerability, dealing with conflict, and people management. It’s been such an education for me and has really brought me out of my bubble of relative privilege. I’ve been brought into contact with stories of suffering and injustice that were previously in the abstract for me, learned about compassion solidarity and the human spirit. I’ve also been fortunate to join a community, the OCC family, who believe in solidarity and love. Many of them are forced migrants and knowing them has enriched me. At times my wellbeing has been impacted, as the work is emotionally draining. So, I’ve also learned a lot about self-care and the importance of being kind to yourself. I often draw on this experience when giving careers advice and guidance to students here at King’s!

I am also using this experience to inform my roles as the Careers & Employability Lead and Deputy Safeguarding Lead on the King’s Resettlement Scheme (KRES) project, where we are the first UK university licensed by the Home Office to sponsor the resettlement of a Syrian student and their family.

How do you think we can best support refugees, asylum seekers and migrants going forward?

Ben: I think one key area is challenging negative attitudes in the public and conveyed in the press of migrants and refugees which only push the government toward further anti-migrant and anti-refugee politics. One way we can do that is working with organisations like Stop Funding Hate who put pressure on advertisers not to work with racist and reactionary news outlets. By changing public attitude, it will put pressure on the government to extend protections for refugees and migrants and create a safer space for everyone.

Jalal: What we really need to do is address the causes of hardship and suffering that afflict displaced people. First, please put pressure on your local MP, letting them know that you care about the issues. We need our MP’s to hold the government to account over inhumane legislation like the Immigration Bill. Europes political class is pandering to what it thinks is anti-immigration sentiment among the voting public. This is where the Dublin Accords come from, and it’s this legislative framework that is making the lives of refugees and migrants unbelievably difficult. People are dying, being traumatised, and we are investing in intergenerational trauma for years to come. We need to Choose Love.

Second, support an organisation like the Open Cultural Center or Help Refugees with a small affordable monthly donation. Funding is required to keep the services in place, and individual donors free us up from the constraints of having to shape our work according to the requirements of institutional donors who are not necessarily in touch with the needs.

Third, seek to bring diverse experience into our cultural and educational spaces. King’s are doing well with this, but you can also do this as an individual. Host an asylum seeker or organise an event with refugee voices – you could event organise a football match!

King’s has been a great place for me to connect with researchers, students and professional services staff who want to make a social impact. As a higher education institution, I think it is taking meaningful steps in the right direction, articulating its role as one of social impact and Service. I’d encourage everyone to get behind this goal, as allyship comes in many forms. Do what you can do.– Jalal Afhim, Careers Consultant, King’s Careers & Employability

Find out more about how the Open Cultural Centre supports the inclusion of refugees and migrants through educational and cultural activities in Spain and Greece on the OCC webpages.

Discover how King’s is contributing to understanding and responding to the global issue of forced displacement and helping to realise the educational potential of refugees on the King’s Sanctuary Programme webpage.

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