‘If everyone sits at home, who will help the vulnerable,’ says a refugee centre volunteer

As COVID-19 hits the UK with one of the highest fatality rates in the world, the country’s displaced people face an increasing amount of risk, according to one young asylum seeker living in the UK.

Twenty-five-year-old Ahmed Lein was born in the UAE to a Sudanese family and came to England to attend university seven years ago. In 2015, the Sudanense government announced that handwritten green Sudanese passports would no longer be accepted as a travel document, and Lein was ordered to return to his home country for its renewal. However, Lien, who was openly opposed to Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship over the northeastern African nation, was worried for his and his family’s safety due to his activism in the UK. A year later, he claimed asylum in the UK. 

Ahmed Lein, a young refugee in London, volunteers with Jesuit Refugee Service.

Today, Lein is one of the UK’s 45,000 pending asylum cases. Home Office, a ministerial department that’s responsible for immigration, rejects more than half of its annual applicants for a residence permit. 

Barred from work and benefits rights, Lein spends much of his time volunteering in London at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), a charity that advocates for refugees. Truly Belong caught up with Lein to learn more about how the global crisis is hurting some of the most vulnerable living in the UK and what Lein is doing about it. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Zahra Khozema: What is the status of the people you help?

Ahmed Lein: We specifically help refugees who have been refused by the Home Office [who] have no way of supporting themselves. They are living with family like me or in hostels. They don’t have a fixed address.

ZK: How are displaced folks more at risk to COVID-19? 

AL: A lot of the refugees we help are homeless or about to be destitute. Especially with COVID-19, many don’t have anywhere to go. A lot of charities are closed, and the refugees go without food, without any support. Other than being at risk of COVID-19, they’re also at risk of harming themselves because [many] are also suffering from mental health issues and COVID-19 makes matters worse.

Read also: Dangerous Travel and Family Separation: The Plight of Refugee Children in the UK

ZK: You’ve been volunteering for two years now, how have you had to adapt during this pandemic? 

AL: We used to do a lot of activities for the refugees at the centre, for example, creative arts, cooking classes and yoga, and the centre was a place for them to socialise, and connect to Wi-Fi, to talk to their families abroad. 

Now, everything has changed. We’re still doing everything, but online, no face to face. We found solutions to help in the best way by delivering food parcels and toiletries. We also send out pre-paid cards to the refugees and every week put money [in] them. However, we are focusing on people who are most vulnerable, like those who are homeless and dependant on charity.

ZK: Tell me about Refugees Call for Change.

AL: I co-facilitate a group called Refugees Call for Change. It’s an open space for refugees to come in, and if they’re willing, share their experiences about the asylum process all within a safe, confidential space. We are trying to write articles and blogs so we can influence MPs so [our] voices can be heard.

ZK: Did you ever think to stop volunteering because of the virus? What made you want to continue despite it?

AL: No. I keep my distance, wash my hands, wear gloves and a mask. We need volunteers at this time. If everyone sits at home, who will help people who are vulnerable?

ZK: When you do receive residence status in the UK permitting you to work and earn, do you still plan on volunteering?

AL: The first thing I have to do is support myself, but I would love to, even once a week, help whatever charity I can find that helps refugees. I would also love to help people who are less privileged than me in Sudan.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Zahra Khozema