Refugee buddies help asylum seekers taking a chance on the UK

Local volunteers and those they mentor often form close bonds

Mussadiq Mahmoodi and David Shewry, partners and friends in the refugee buddy scheme. Photo: David Shewry
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Mussadiq Mahmoodi’s introduction to UK culture included a wake, that unique British tradition in which mourners gather after a funeral to celebrate the life of a deceased loved one.

The Afghan refugee and his friend David Shewry arrived at a venue where Shewry was due to play music in the afternoon to find it packed with mourners dancing to Abba long after the funeral was over. To Mahmoodi, the Swedish pop quartet known for upbeat hits such as Take a Chance on Me and Thank You for the Music seemed a strange choice.

“It was very strange for me,” the 27-year-old told The National. “In our culture when someone dies, we grieve and we pray. So yeah, it was a bit of a shock – people were very happy.”

Mahmoodi met Shewry, 38, through the Refugee Buddy Project in the seaside town of Hastings, about 80km south of London, after he had fled Afghanistan and arrived in the UK by small boat.

He is part of the Hazara minority in Afghanistan who have faced persecution by the Taliban and decided to embark on a gruelling journey across Iran, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Italy and France, before the hazardous voyage across the English Channel.

He was introduced to the buddy project by the receptionist at the hotel in Hastings where he has been staying.

“The journey was very hard but I’m happy I’ve found people like David who are very helpful. But he is my friend as well.”

Despite the UK government’s often less-than-welcoming rhetoric about those who have arrived by small boats, he described local people as welcoming and said “I love them, they are very friendly”.

Judging by the double-act routine that Mahmoodi and Shewry break into during the interview, close bonds are often formed between refugees and their buddies.

Asked what he likes about Shewry, Mahmoodi replies, “he’s very funny, kind” but before he could finish the sentence his friend chirps up with “and intelligent” prompting them both to chuckle and break out into broad grins.

The Refuge Buddy Project was founded in 2017 by Rossana Leal, who fled Chile with her family in 1976 after her family were detained by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

She described how, when she was nine, she and her family were warmly welcomed by local people in a coal-mining community in Scotland.

The kindness displayed to the family and the friendships they made is "perhaps the event in my life" that inspired her to set up the Refugee Buddy Project.

"Because, as I reflect on my own journey, it is clear that at many points in my life there have been kind words, a hand of friendship, even just a friendly knowing smile from a stranger – that have given me and my parents the strength to cope and carry on," she says.

The programme helps recently arrived asylum seekers navigate the challenges of their new lives in Britain with the help of volunteers who give up their time to help and mentor them.

Helping them with conversational English is a big part of their work, because asylum seekers are not allowed to attend classes at colleges for six months after their arrival.

The adult refugees normally attend English classes in the Refugee Buddy Project’s office, while the children are sent to school.

Volunteer buddies are asked to commit up to seven hours a week to give practical help to refugees, such as taking them to see a doctor or dentist, helping with forms, and pointing them to local services, among many others.

But they are also there to be a friendly face and someone to talk to for the asylum seekers, many of whom are stuck in hotel rooms.

There are also day trips, cookery classes and social events where refugees and volunteers can just hang out, which led to the encounter with the wake.

The project runs a not-for-profit cafe where asylum seekers can just drop in to meet other people. “When I feel down or sad, I come in for a chat,” Mahmoodi says.

In the run-up to Christmas, the project held an event at Hastings Museum for refugees to sell items they had made and raise money either for the project or for themselves.

It included Ukrainian artists selling their own Christmas cards and Sudanese cooks making sweets from their homeland.

Shewry explained that the project approached the hotel, where Mahmoodi and other refugees were placed in November last year, to say “we exist, send them our way”.

“They would then come our way daily. Initially they had no winter clothes so were doing a drive to collect shoes hats and coats and also helping them with Sim cards,” he said.

“Some of the guys really want to do their own thing, while others really have felt part of the community.”

Shewry volunteered for the project when he returned to his native Hastings about three years ago after he was told about the work being done to help refugees.

He has already begun working with refugees, unaccompanied children, while teaching English in London to “middle class wealthy Japanese, Brazilians and so on”.

Now in Hastings, he’s thrown himself into working with the Refugee Buddy Project and runs a weekly group for the men to provide support and friendship, which he fits around his job as an English teacher to people from overseas.

There have been trips to museums, walks in the countryside, sessions playing board games and watching football on the TV with what he says are a “core of regulars” and there is always “lots of laughs”.

“It's nice to have people to hang out with when I'm wandering around Hastings. Going to work or going to the shops or something I will bump into these guys,” he said.

During his time with the asylum seekers, he has listened to the stories of their journeys, which he says are often so traumatic he “still can't quite make myself believe these are true”.

Sadly, because the Home Office is closing hotel accommodation for asylum seekers in Hastings, many will now be dispersed around the country.

“So a lot of these guys are ending up going to Birmingham and other places, where I hope they will be happy, but it's a real loss for me,” said.

“I truly hope that Mussadiq and some of the others will find work and homes here and not have to leave. Because then all my buddies will go.”

Updated: December 22, 2023, 6:00 PM