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My experience with “super volunteers”

Marisol Reyes Soto is a researcher at University of Birmingham’s Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS). She led the research on an evaluation of the Community Sponsorship scheme in its pilot phase. Here she reflects on the impact meeting volunteers had on her.

As an academic doing research for Community Sponsorship, I can positively say that my experience in this project has been very exciting and inspiring. For me, the most valuable aspect throughout has been the opportunity to meet and interview people who have been volunteering in different communities across the United Kingdom. After long and engaging conversations, I have grown to learn and appreciate that those who made the decision to commit to the Community Sponsorship possess qualities and attributes that make them “super volunteers”.

"This is not just impressive; it is often essential."

Many Groups are proud to count among their core membership a set of skilful individuals who have been using their expertise and talents to tackle complex challenges. This is not just impressive; it is often essential to aid the refugee family on their journey toward resettlement. The volunteers’ existing knowledge has been instrumental in sorting out crucial aspects that might sometimes be taken for granted, such as finding affordable and appropriate housing, opening a bank account when the required documentation is lacking, or navigating the benefits system. Embarking upon a steep learning curve, the Group members have quickly acquired valuable new experiences and received specialist training that improves their human capital.

Another valuable quality that I observed with the volunteers of the Community Sponsorship is related to the use of their personal relationships and networks to connect their sponsored families with the services and social activities available for the community. I remember very vividly attending a meeting organised by the headmaster of a primary school who discussed the transition of a refugee student into secondary school. The role of the Community Sponsorship Group leader was very important, both in getting a place for the child in the school and in achieving acceptable SATs results in a record time. The Group leader used her network of friends to contact a retired teacher who gave up three days a week, for almost one year, helping with homework and English classes. According to the Headmaster, the prospects of his former student are very bright! 

“The social capital provided by the volunteers is essential for building bridges between the sponsored families and the wider community."

The social capital provided by the volunteers is essential for building bridges between the sponsored families and the wider community. Intermediation proves to be most effective when relatives and close friends of the volunteers help to incorporate the refugee families into the communities’ social life, gradually and naturally. It is noticeable that, once the sponsored families gain confidence and trust, they feel encouraged to participate in different social activities like local festivals, clubs and leisure activities. Similarly, some refugees have found employment through the volunteers’ extended networks.  

I learnt that each Community Sponsorship Group is unique. There is so much diversity and richness in each one that it is difficult to characterise all. Overall, the attribute that I found in common across all the volunteers is a passion and determination to put their values and beliefs into action. All of them have the strong desire to improve the quality of life of the refugee families, and to empower them to achieve a sense of safety, settlement and community. In different ways, all my interviewees have expressed a deep compassion. In the dictionary this word is defined as a “feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering”.  Indeed, I can see a clear manifestation of those sophisticated emotions in the volunteers. They are individuals who are not only skilful or well-connected but also tremendously altruistic.   

“Compassion is a key motivator of altruistic behaviour.”

Compassion is a key motivator of altruistic behaviour. It has been argued that some of the most fundamental questions concerning our evolutionary origins, our social relations, and the organisation of society are centred on issues of altruism and selflessness.  Human altruism is a powerful force and is unique in the animal world.  

Finally, I have learnt that in the Middle East cultures, people often rely on an extensive network of family and close friends to get things done. In a word, personal relationships for them are crucial. Community Sponsorship has been a privileged space in which very special individuals have stepped forward to transform the lives of other human beings providing their love and care.  It has been my privilege to meet and spend time with some of these amazing people.