Refugees played a key role in the pandemic response in many North Yorkshire communities by taking on volunteer roles in everything from delivering groceries, to translating vital public health messages.

The efforts of volunteers has been key in enabling people continue to live their day-to-day lives throughout the pandemic, as they help with delivering groceries and provide other support. Joining this volunteer response has been a number of refugees, many of whom were recently resettled in the county from Syria under a national Government scheme.

Many of the families resettled in North Yorkshire spent a number of years in refugee camps before being selected by United Nations representatives for resettlement due to their vulnerability. Some arrived with just a suitcase, while others didn’t have time to pack even that.

Now, some of those families are at the forefront of the pandemic response in North Yorkshire and have taken on responsibilities from making protective clothing for healthcare staff, to translating public health information and delivering food parcels.

Refugees in Northallerton

County Council Project Manager for Refugee Resettlement, Jonathan Spencer, said: “For people with lived refugee experiences, they not only have resilience, but have a lot to teach us about navigating such challenging times.

“Many experienced severe hardship and then went on to make a life in a new country with few local connections.

“For those volunteering through the pandemic, it has been a way of giving back to a community which has given them safety and security for them and their family.”

One of those volunteers is Ahmed Al-Quzweeni, who began volunteering in Selby a year ago with the independent health and social care organisation Healthwatch North Yorkshire, which provides information on health and social care services available locally and provides feedback from people locally.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, his main role had been visiting hospitals in North Yorkshire to ensure patient voices were heard. When the pandemic began, Ahmed offered to take on translations of government guidance and public health instructions.

Lada Rotshtein, a volunteer officer with Healthwatch North Yorkshire said:  “It can be very frustrating for people when they find themselves in new circumstances and don’t know how to work with the situation day-to-day. So it was really necessary from the point lockdown started that people were informed properly on what to do.

“Ahmed offered to translate Public Health material and social care information and delivered it locally to people with access or health issues.

“In this kind of situation, an approximate translation of government information won’t do. Ahmed completely understood the importance of the accuracy of the translations of government guidance.  He used all his human ability to communicate this information personally to people via video conferencing and other methods and to keep in contact with them, coming back with any questions they had and finding information for them.

“He’s been extremely thoughtful and helpful. He’s a very bright example of how a human approach in this kind of situation is vital.”

Ahmed Al-Quzweeni said; “I and my family feel we are part of this community, not just refugees. Working as a volunteer with different organisations when I first arrived to the UK has meant a lot to me and I feel glad and proud I was able to do this work.

“Although day-to-day life has changed for us all at present, due to Covid-19, I still enjoy my duties as a volunteer at Healthwatch, supporting the NHS and my community, which I care deeply about in this time of uncertainty.

“I feel it allows me to do something positive during this difficult time for us all, for the community which welcomed me and my family when we first arrived to the UK.”

Elsewhere in the county, five Syrian refugees who arrived in Northallerton in 2018 have been delivering medical supplies and food to vulnerable people in the area, working with Hambleton Community Action, while in Colburn, Mohammad Bakar has been delivering prescriptions to residents who are self-isolating.

In Harrogate, Abdullah Al Khatib has been shopping for refugee families in Harrogate who have no cars or are vulnerable and unable to leave their homes and has also been supporting St Mark’s Church by delivering food parcels in the wider community. He also registered with Knaresborough Connectors to support the wider community during lockdown. The community support organisation has helped reach people in isolation through a helpline, leafleting households and providing other advice and support.

Abdullah said: “I have a sense a duty to support this community, who supported and welcomed me from the first day I arrived in the UK. You will make a life by giving, and that is the reason why I am supporting my community.”

Councillor David Chance, Executive Member for Stronger Communities, said: “Many refugees who have volunteered to help throughout the pandemic have used their own understanding of hardship and resilience to help and support their local communities during these challenging times. We are very grateful for their contributions and that of all the volunteers who have given their time to their local communities.”