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"I know the importance of having a community – not just one person – but a community who is prepared to make that transition easier for you.”

Sofia Gamio is a junior doctor working at the James Cook hospital in Middlesbrough. In the little spare time she has, Sofia is preparing to welcome refugee families to Newcastle with her Community Sponsorship group, Tyneside Welcomes. Ahead of International Migrants Day, we chatted to Sofia about where her motivation for supporting refugees comes from, and how she got involved in Community Sponsorship.

Hi Sofia, thanks for speaking to us! You first got involved in Community Sponsorship during the Covid-19 lockdown. What was this period like for you?

It was a really stressful time. There was just so much uncertainty. I was treating Covid patients at the hospital and my other half had to shield. It wasn’t safe for me to be around him so I ended up moving out for 5 weeks. It was definitely a scary time – the uncertainty of treating people with a new unknown virus was really tough, and then I couldn’t even go home to my partner for support.

It’s amazing that during this time you also got involved in Community Sponsorship to welcome a refugee family. What got you thinking about this?

Right before lockdown I did some voluntary work as a medical coordinator in a safe house for refugees in Bosnia. Before the pandemic I’d been planning to go back there to do some more volunteering, but obviously the pandemic meant that we couldn’t travel. I then came across a community sponsorship group in Edinburgh and it got me thinking that I didn’t need to go away to do my bit. Change starts at home.

So then I started looking at how I could get involved here in Newcastle. Community Sponsorship is a way to welcome a refugee family to your neighbourhood and then support them to build a new life here – it appealed to me straight away.

What is it about Community Sponsorship that really appealed to you?

My own experience of moving to Glasgow from Mexico when I was 12 really showed me how important it is to have a community around you. My family and I arrived in November, I remember it was so cold and rainy. I think we were quite privileged because we came through my dad’s work and we already spoke English, but even then it was challenging. People have tend to have a lot of preconceptions about you when English isn’t your first language. Teachers and peers at school could be quite patronising. At times I was treated as if I was less smart than them, when all I really needed was for them to just speak a bit slower and enunciate!

We also didn’t know anyone else in the city, so we didn’t have any support networks – no one who could help us get to know our new home and make links here. So I understand the importance of having a community – not just one person – but a community who is prepared to make that transition a little easier for you. It can be as simple as showing you around or explaining some of the cultural things that you might not understand straight away – it all makes a big difference!

Can you tell us about your experience of Community Sponsorship so far?

I joined the Tyneside Welcomes Community Sponsorship group once they were already very close to welcoming a refugee family and they had all the volunteers they needed to support that family, so they suggested that I focused on fundraising and awareness raising through social media  in preparation for welcoming another family to Newcastle!

Every Community Sponsorship group has to raise £9000, which is a lot, but I’ve actually really loved doing this. I’m quite a creative person, but I don’t get to use my creativity very much day to day as a doctor, so I’m really enjoying coming up with ideas for fundraising events and activities. We’ve hired market stalls, organised a film screening, and of course we’ve been very active on social media!

How did you go about raising awareness and encouraging people to volunteer?

I started by putting messages on Facebook groups that were set up as Covid-19 mutual aid groups.  I’d never done anything like this before so I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be. I was pretty nervous! But actually people were really positive and straight away I started getting messages from people asking how they could help. I think Newcastle is generally a very friendly place!

I’ve mostly found people through social media. I actually approached a local independent shop owner, who put out a call for volunteers on her shop’s Instagram page and that was really effective for reaching more people because her shop is quite a hub in our neighbourhood. The shop owner has stayed really supportive – she even donated a few items for us to sell at our market stall!

How soon do you expect to be welcoming new families?

Now that the first family has settled in really well, and the number of volunteers is growing, we can start focusing more on new  applications and hopefully submit our next one to the Home Office very soon!

This story was produced as part of a series centred on the theme 'It Takes A Community' to celebrate International Migrants Day on 18th December.

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